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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Tough moves, but Saints still in great shape

By Mike Triplett

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be just fine. In fact, their defense is arguably in a better place now than it has ever been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, with new young leaders emerging during an excellent 2013 season.

However, it seems impossible -- almost disrespectful, in fact -- to suggest such a thing after the Saints released four of the greatest defensive players in franchise history Wednesday.

Cameron Jordan
The Saints have already relied on young players like Cameron Jordan to step in to play.
The greatest chapters in Saints history couldn't be written without Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer. And to some degree, I feel like all four of them were underrated -- especially in recent years -- as supporting actors alongside New Orleans' high-powered offense.

All four of them will almost certainly wind up in the Saints Hall of Fame -- and at least some of them in the newly-formed Ring of Honor. And I could make a strong case that the Saints don't win a Super Bowl without each of them, who were in their absolute primes during that unforgettable 2009 season.

Plus, on a personal note, they've been great guys to work with. I've covered the Saints since 2005 (Smith was the only player left who outdated me). And these were all "go-to" guys in the locker room who gave honest insight into the team -- not to mention passionate rants about their alma maters (or jazz music, in Greer's case). As I'm sure everyone inside the organization would attest, the locker room will feel emptier without them inside.

So I don't want to dismiss any of these moves quickly or quietly. But I guess that's the cold, harsh reality of the NFL's short life span. The Saints now have just nine players left from that Super Bowl roster, and they may wind up parting ways with even more of them in the coming weeks.

These moves are always tough -- but they're usually the right moves. Look at the Saints' recent history. It was also tough for them to let go of former Pro Bowlers and leaders like Deuce McAllister, Jon Stinchcomb, Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Fujita, Tracy Porter and Darren Sharper. But few of those moves ever came back to bite them.

And that will probably be the case again this time.

All four veterans played limited roles last year (Smith missed the entire year with a knee injury, Vilma played in only one game, Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, and Harper played a backup role while missing half the season with a knee injury).

Of the four, I think Greer will be the hardest to replace. He was the only one of the group that was an every-down starter last year, and he was playing very well for the first 10 weeks last season before he suffered the major knee injury. Then after he left, young backup Corey White suffered through some growing pains as his replacement.

But it's not like the Saints had much of a choice. Even if they kept Greer, his injury might have limited him into the summer and beyond.

The bright side for the Saints is that they were actually able to rebuild their defense while the old leaders were still in the building -- something that's hard for most teams to pull off.

The Saints are now led by younger versions of all these guys -- defensive end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebackers Junior Galette and Curtis Lofton.

Jordan was a Pro Bowler last year. Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler. ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson recently suggested that Vaccaro could wind up being an eight- to 10-time Pro Bowler. Galette had 12 sacks. And Lofton, a captain and signal-caller, has racked up 248 tackles over the past two years.

Young linemen Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins could soon emerge as standout players, as well. And they all appear to be in great hands under the direction of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Last year, the Saints made an astounding turnaround from 32nd to fourth in the NFL in yards allowed. They were also fourth in points allowed and second in pass defense.

So while Wednesday's moves were a bit ground-shaking, they weren't earth-shattering -- at least in a pure football sense.

As for what the future holds for Smith, Vilma, Harper and Greer, it's tough to say.

I think Smith, 32, and Harper, 31, have the best chance of catching on with another team right away. Smith missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but it came in the summer, so he's had ample time to recover. And while his pass rushing production had started to dip in recent years, I always thought he was underrated as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. I could still see him in a rotational role with a defense that could use that physical presence and veteran leadership.

Harper, too, will have to find the right fit. He's always been better as a blitzer and run defender than in deep pass coverage. But he played well in spurts when healthy last year -- especially in the season-ending playoff loss at Seattle.

Vilma and Greer will probably need to prove they can get back closer to 100 percent health for a team to bring them in. Vilma has said he still wants to play, but he's been battling a nagging knee injury for the last three years now.

All of them could bring that combination of championship experience and veteran leadership that many young locker rooms crave, however -- a combination that will be missed in New Orleans.