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METAIRIE, La. -- Wednesday marked the end of an era for the New Orleans Saints defense as they announced they are parting ways with four team veterans and members of their 2009 Super Bowl championship team: defensive end Will Smith, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer.
None of the moves was unexpected, based on a combination of the Saints' salary-cap situation and the players' declining skills or injury issues. But it was obviously a huge and emotional move for the franchise.
"These were not easy decisions to make," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement. "Since we acquired them, Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan have all been excellent players on the field for us. Each of them were integral parts in turning this program around and winning a Super Bowl. They were a great example to our players as team leaders in the locker room as well. ...
"However ... these difficult moves allow us to position our team under the salary cap to move forward for 2014."
These moves should put the Saints under the salary cap for now. They were projected to be around $13-15 million over the cap, but they'll need even more space to re-sign or use the franchise tag on free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham and clear space for other free-agent signings.
Vilma, 31, was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but the others could save the Saints up to $19.2 million in salary-cap space, depending on whether they postpone some of Harper and Greer's remaining cap costs into next year and whether they're required to pay out any injury settlements to Greer and Smith.
Smith was due $11.55 million in salary and bonuses in the final year of his contract. Greer and Harper, both signed through 2015, were due $4.5 million and $3.15 million, respectively. The Saints will still be charged at least $6.5 million against their cap from prorated portions of their signing bonuses.
Harper took to Twitter after he was informed of his release:
To the city of New Orleans and it's fans .... THANK YOU for the 8 years of #GreatMemories #WHODAT #SBXLIVCHAMPS pic.twitter.com/PgBAnXJkhU- Roman Harper (@Harp41) February 12, 2014
The Saints' defense began to reshape its identity with a youth movement under new coordinator Rob Ryan last year, led by pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebackers Junior Galette and Curtis Lofton, among others.
Smith missed the entire season and Vilma appeared in only one game because of knee injuries. Greer, 32, suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. And Harper, 31, missed part of the season with a knee injury while playing a backup role.
However, there is no denying that all four of them were instrumental parts of the greatest era in franchise history.
Together, this foursome earned a combined five trips to the Pro Bowl (two each for Vilma and Harper, one for Smith). They were all starters in the Saints' 31-17 Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts in February 2010.
Saints coach Sean Payton and owner Tom Benson all praised the longtime leaders in the team's statement.
"I have coached and been around a lot of great players and I put these four guys right there at the top," Payton said in the statement. "Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan all represent and epitomize what we look for in our players."
"I would like to thank Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan for their contributions on and off the field for the New Orleans Saints over the past several years," Benson said.
Smith, 32, was the longest-tenured member of the Saints since being drafted in the first round out of Ohio State in 2004. He ranks fourth in Saints history with 67.5 career sacks. He had a career-high 13 during the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season.
Vilma, who arrived via trade with the New York Jets in 2008, immediately took over as the "quarterback" of the defense as a captain and signal-caller. He had eight sacks, six interceptions and five forced fumbles during six years in New Orleans. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010.
Couple pro bowls and a superbowl ring later, I couldn't have written that chapter any better. #WhoDat- Jonathan Vilma (@JonVilma51) February 12, 2014
Harper, a second-round draft pick in 2006, started 104 games, contributing 17 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and seven interceptions. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010.
Greer, who arrived as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills, had nine interceptions and 68 pass defenses in five years as a starter.
Greer said he didn't expect to be released, but "being an older guy in the league, you can never be surprised."
And he said he was at peace with the decision, especially after he spent the day having a "daddy and son" day with his son, which helped put things in perspective.
Greer said his rehab is going well, but he doesn't know if or when an opportunity with another team might come. And in the meantime he said he'll have the luxury to spend more time than usual with his family while continuing that rehab.
Greer said he stared at a blank computer screen for a long time Wednesday afternoon trying to think of a way to properly thank the fans.
"I was trying to write something truly from my heart that's not cliché and doesn't seem rehearsed," Greer said. "And my thank you note was playing with passion on Sundays. And I truly believe that the best thank you note I can give to those who supported me is a life well lived."
Vilma and Smith were central figures in the infamous bounty scandal that led to Payton and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams being suspended for the entire 2012 season, among other punishments. Vilma and Smith were originally suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell, as well, though the suspensions were later vacated by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue on appeal.
"While it was always my dream to retire as a member of the New Orleans Saints, I recognize that the NFL remains a business first," Smith said in a statement. "I will always be grateful to Mr. Benson, Mr. Loomis, and Coach Payton for the opportunity they gave me to play the sport I love in front of football's greatest fans, amongst some of my best friends. We accomplished great things during my time with the Saints, including winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and I am proud of my contributions during the decade I wore black and gold.
"My wife Racquel and I will continue our commitment to improving lives for New Orleans' youth no matter where my next stop in professional football takes me. I'm in good spirits, thankful and focused on training. My family and I welcome the next chapter in our NFL life. Who Dat!"