COMMENTARY | In one day, the New Orleans Saints went from being flagrantly over the salary cap to being under it. All it took was cutting four prominent players from its Super Bowl run.
On Wednesday, the Saints cut safety Roman Harper, defensive end Will Smith, and cornerback Jabari Greer. They also elected not to pursue re-signing linebacker Jonathan Vilma. All four players were important to Gregg Williams' defense during the 2009-10 season, and all four were injured for some or all of this past season.
The immediate reaction for most Saints fans is to be sad that we are losing these players, including two that had spent their entire career in black and gold. However, there are many reasons to celebrate these moves. It benefits the franchise almost immediately by saving money, it helps clear the way for younger defensive standouts who may shine in Rob Ryan's defense, and it sends a message that the Saints are prepared to build towards one more Super Bowl run.
Yesterday, the Saints were more than 18 million dollars over the salary cap. With these four roster moves, they now sit about three million below it. Obviously there is more work to be done if general manager Mickey Loomis wants to make a much-needed splash in free agency, or if he wants to offer all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham a contract he deserves. But this move was essential to give him the flexibility to make such moves. He can now focus on restructuring Brees' contract or cutting other players without worrying about how far above the cap they are.
This move was more than just a savvy business decision. The unfortunate truth is that these players were either hurt too much to play this year, or they would not have been effective in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense. From Ryan's first day as defensive coordinator, there were rumblings that Will Smith would not thrive in a three man defensive line. We never got to see if those rumblings were right, though, as Smith went down with an ACL tear in the preseason and missed the entire year. Even with Smith presumably healthy, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette's brilliant play all season long made Smith expendable.
Roman Harper has struggled to be a good defensive presence since Gregg Williams left the team; his biggest strength is his pass rushing, and Rob Ryan prefers his safeties to stay in coverage, something that Harper has never excelled at. In fact, during the 2012 season, there was a tumblr created called "Roman Harper Falling Down," filled with many pictures of Harper falling in coverage. It wasn't updated during the 2013 season, but I assure you he fell down enough to fill several pages of that site. And Harper, like Smith, was injured for much of the year, allowing Saints fans to fall in love with rookie safety Kenny Vacarro, who did everything Rob Ryan needed him to do.
Jabari Greer was good in Ryan's defense, playing very well opposite Keenan Lewis in the secondary. Unfortunately, he was injured towards the end of the season, and it was unclear whether he would be healthy for the next season. Unlike Harper or Smith, there was no clear successor to Greer's roster spot, and cornerback remains a need for the Saints. But it is obvious that the front office wants to draft a young corner or find one in free agency without the health questions of Greer.
Finally, Jonathan Vilma had not played a significant part in the Saints' defense for two seasons. Over the past three, he had missed 25 games. His injuries made him expendable, as well as the signing of Curtis Lofton in 2012. The Saints may need a linebacker if Victor Butler isn't ready for the season, but it was clear that Vilma could not be counted on to fill that need.
Cutting ties with these four players is a hard decision, as they all played a vital role in bringing New Orleans its first Lombardi Trophy. But this move sends a message to the fan base: it does not want that trophy to be the only one. By clearing cap space and allowing younger players to get more time, they are announcing that they do not want Drew Brees' final years in the NFL to go to waste. It is more important to the franchise to get the right pieces and chase another ring than to hold onto players for sentimental reasons. The championship window is closing with every year; as Brees' arm strength and accuracy diminish bit by bit, it becomes increasingly important to try to give him the chance to raise another one of his kids in the air with confetti raining down. And as painful as it is for these players, this was the best way towards that goal.
Harper, Smith, Vilma, and Greer should be celebrated by the black and gold nation. They played their hearts out for this team, and from their statements they appreciated their time with the team. As fans, we also appreciated them, and we should say so. But for the Saints organization, releasing these players made too much sense not to do. We should simply wish the players and the franchise itself the best of luck as they move on from each other.
Nathan Raby is from New Orleans and has been a Saints supporter since his dad first brought him to a game with a paper bag on his head. He also writes for the Pelicans on Yahoo!, and he owns a blog called The Footbawl Blog. He can be heard on the Laces Out podcast, and followed on twitter here.
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- Jabari Greer
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- Roman Harper
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