NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints made their first major moves of what is expected to be a challenging offseason on Wednesday, releasing strong safety Roman Harper, outside linebacker and defensive end Will Smith, and cornerback Jabari Greer.
General manager Mickey Loomis also says the club does not intend to re-sign free-agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who has been hampered by recurring knee injuries the past few seasons.
“These were not easy decisions to make,” Loomis said in written comments released by the club. “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, a new NFL year is about to begin and, with the start of free agency in March, these difficult moves allow us to position our team under the salary cap to move forward for 2014,” Loomis added.
The Saints have said they intend to retain free-agent Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, either through a franchise tag or long-term extension, and both options will require financial flexibility.
Wednesday’s moves will save nearly $17 million in 2014.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Smith, Harper, Vilma and Greer were “right there at the top” of all the great players he has coached or been around in his coaching career.
“These are disciplined, smart, tough and team-oriented individuals,” Payton said. “They all played an important role in helping this team and this city win its first Super Bowl and they have all enjoyed multiple playoff appearances and wins.”
Smith is a former first-round pick of the Saints in 2004 and had a team-leading 13 sacks during New Orleans’ Super Bowl season.
However, he was widely expected to be released after this season, which he missed after tearing knee ligaments late in the preseason. He was scheduled to be paid $10.4 million in base salary alone this season.
He has played in 139 games for the Saints, accumulating 67 1/2 career sacks.
Harper was New Orleans’s second round draft choice in 2006 and has since started 104 games. He went to Pro Bowls after the 2009 and 2010 season and his 17 career sacks are the most ever by a Saints defensive back. His base salary for 2014 was set at $2.35 million.
As the moves became public, Harper posted a note on the social media website Twitter, thanking New Orleans fans for “the 8 years of #GreatMemories #WHODAT #SBXLIVCHAMPS.”
Greer, scheduled to earn $4 million in base salary next season, joined New Orleans as a free agent in 2009, immediately sliding into a starting role he held until a serious knee injury against San Francisco in mid-November, which ended his season.
He intercepted nine passes in his five seasons in New Orleans, returning two for TDs.
Vilma was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets in 2008. He led New Orleans in tackles during his first three season with the club and selected to Pro Bowls in 2009 and 2010. In 70 games with New Orleans, he was credited with 530 tackles, eight sacks, six interceptions, five forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
Last season, however, Vilma began the season on the physically unable to perform list because of his recurring knee problems. He returned for only one game before sitting out the rest of the season, and on Wednesday he seemed to be comfortable with the Saints decision not to engage him in further contract talks.
On Twitter, he wrote: “Couple pro bowls and a superbowl ring later, I couldn’t have written that chapter any better. #WhoDat”
Like Smith, he was a defensive captain, but also like Smith, was implicated by the NFL as a ring-leader in a cash-for-hits bounty program that the league said the Saints ran from 2009-2011. Both players have always denied they ran a bounty pool as described by the NFL and successfully overturned suspensions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, meanwhile, has maintained the league’s findings were accurate.