New Orleans Saints' Purge of Aging Veterans Won't Hurt Team's Super Bowl Chances

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystFebruary 12, 2014

New Orleans Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt, center, talks with outside linebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) and strong safety Roman Harper (41) in the first half an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Bill Haber/Associated Press

It's a harsh fact of life in the National Football League, especially in today's era of the salary cap and back-loaded contracts that teams were once able to get around.

This time, it was the New Orleans Saints saying goodbye to a number of veterans, all four of whom played for the team's Super Bowl squad in 2009.

The memories of that game may make it hard to bid adieu to these vets, but they're moves that needed to be made.

The Saints themselves made the announcement that linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer were all being shown the door:

As he has just about everything in his career, Harper handled the news with class:

Some of the quartet's former teammates also chimed in:

On some level, it's not hard to see why Moore (and many fans) were left waxing nostalgic after the news broke.

Graphic Designed by Author

When the Saints took down the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Smith, Vilma and Harper were the leaders of their respective levels of the defense. Smith led the team with 13 sacks that season. Vilma paced the Saints with 110 tackles. Harper finished second with 102.

The problem is, 2009 was a very long time ago where these players are concerned.

Saints Defensive Stats 2013

Since posting 13 sacks in 2009, Smith has 18 in the past four seasons combined. The 32-year-old lost the entire 2013 season to a torn ACL.

Harper went on to post a career-high 115 stops in 2012, but that same year he was also named the worst starting strong safety in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The following spring, the Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

Vilma topped 100 tackles again the following year but has managed only 92 stops over the past three years. The 31-year-old has missed 25 of a possible 48 games over that span.

Bill Haber/Associated Press

Greer is now 32, hasn't been a top-50 cornerback at Pro Football Focus since 2011 and tore his ACL last November.

In other words, all four wheels on this Big Easy party bus had sort of fallen off.

Never mind the not-inconsequential salary implications, as the Saints entered Wednesday in one of the worst cap situations in the league.

Chart Designed by Author

Only quarterback Drew Brees has a higher salary-cap number for the Saints in 2014 than Smith's $13.9 million. As Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports tweeted, the savings from that deal alone was nearly enough to get the Saints under the projected 2014 salary cap, after New Orleans entered the day nearly $12.6 million over.

And the Saints need every penny they can get. Among the team's free agents this year is a certain all-world tight end, and the franchise tag alone for Jimmy Graham could be anywhere from $7-$12 million, depending on whether Graham gets his wish and is tagged as a wideout.

The Saints desperately needed the cap relief, and this provided them an easy way to get some.

It's not as if there's going to be some huge difference in what the Saints are able to do defensively in 2014. If anything, they'll be able to do more.

The defensive turnaround in New Orleans last year had very little to do with the players released on Wednesday. The quartet combined to miss a staggering 44 of 64 possible games in 2013. Not one of the players cut on Wednesday averaged 25 snaps a game for the season last year.

By comparison, the Saints defense averaged just over 57 snaps per game for the season.

Mind you, this isn't to say that the door is forever closed between the Saints and these players. It's possible one (or more) could be back at a reduced salary.

It's also just as possible that given their age and falling production their time in the black and gold is done.

In that respect, today's cuts were bad news, in that it stinks as a fan to have to say farewell to the favorites of yesterday. Many young Saints fans grew up watching Smith harass quarterbacks and Harper punish receivers over the middle.

However, that was then and this is now. If the Saints are going to win the NFC South in 2014 and get back to the Super Bowl, they need to get better in the present, not live in the past.

In that regard, these moves had to be made.

Even if letting go is hard sometime.