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Whether you blame salary cap or age, Saints will miss Jahri Evans

Three immediate reactions come to mind in the wake of the New Orleans Saints releasing guard Jahri Evans on Monday:

  • Evans might have been the second-best player in the Saints’ Super Bowl era, behind only Drew Brees.

  • This wasn’t strictly a salary-cap move since the Saints could have found other ways to carve out space.

  • The Saints now have a gaping hole at right guard.

Let’s take them one at a time:

An all-time great: It might be ridiculous to call Evans underrated since he was selected to six straight Pro Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro four times and once signed the richest contract for a guard in NFL history ($8.1 million per year). But I do feel like he was underrated due to the nature of his position.

Oddly enough, I think people have started to appreciate Evans’ value even more in recent years, when he started to decline a bit and battle more injuries. Brees’ sack totals over the past three years were the three highest of his career.

People are realizing just how good the Saints had it when Evans and fellow guard Carl Nicks were in their prime from 2009-2011 and gave Brees such a clean pocket. The Saints were innovators in the way they valued the guard position, especially since it helped the shorter Brees step up in the pocket and pick defenses apart through passing lanes.

Evans was a powerful run blocker and an agile pass protector. I can’t tell you how many times I saw him making highlights in the second and third level of the defense -- even in recent years when he started to show a little more inconsistency.

Not bad for a former left tackle at Bloomsburg who was drafted in the fourth round in 2006. Evans emerged as a starter that first summer and became as vital as Brees and Sean Payton, who also arrived in 2006, in the Saints' foundation.

There’s a chance Evans will wind up in the discussion for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’ll be in the Saints Hall of Fame the first day he’s eligible.

Not just a ‘cap casualty’: I know the immediate reaction from some corners will be that the Saints were “forced” to do this because they’re in “salary cap hell," but that’s not exactly accurate.

Yes, the Saints deserve as much criticism as you want to heap on them for signing some really bad contracts in recent years. Their mistakes have added up to more than $25 million in “dead money” both in 2015 and 2016 -- an unforgivable amount of wasted spending.

But the Saints could have gotten under the cap pretty easily this year even without cutting Evans. I listed some of the easiest ways here -- including the release of linebacker David Hawthorne, which also happened Monday.

If the Saints believed that Evans was still worth the $4.9 million he was due this year in salary and bonuses, they could have kept him. They decided he was not.

Whether or not you agree with that decision is another story. I think it’s a tough call. Evans was not playing at his peak level anymore at age 32. He had started to battle various injuries, which limited him to 11 games last season, and had started to show some inconsistency over the past two or three years.

He was still better than any other alternative on the Saints’ current roster, though. Another team will probably pounce on him as a veteran leader.

Huge void at guard: The Saints badly need a new guard now.

They have two young guys on the roster with some experience and potential in Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete. But those guys were already battling for the starting left guard spot -- and both are restricted free agents.

I don’t believe the Saints will move last year’s first-round draft pick, Andrus Peat, to a full-time guard role since Payton said multiple times last season that Peat was a better fit at tackle. But that remains a possibility.

Regardless, the Saints need to add at least one more guard with the potential to start in 2016, either in free agency or early in the draft. Maybe both.

Who’s next? The Saints have wasted little time making waves this offseason with the releases of Evans, Hawthorne, special teams standout Ramon Humber and the reported release of cornerback Brandon Browner. There could still be more big names to come, including another one of their all-time greats -- receiver Marques Colston.

Brees, Colston, offensive tackle Zach Strief and punter Thomas Morstead are now the only four players remaining from New Orleans’ 2009 Super Bowl team. It’s possible that Colston, Strief and Morstead could all be released, as well, though Morstead seems the most secure of that group.

Other possible candidates for releases are pay cuts are linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Jairus Byrd and running back C.J. Spiller.