Cap-strapped Saints cut ties with veterans Smith, Harper, Vilma and Greer

The Saints had warned their supporters that difficult offseason moves loomed, and they began Wednesday with the announcement that they’re parting ways with Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Jonathan Vilma, all defensive veterans who helped the team capture its lone Super Bowl title.

Smith, Harper and Greer will be released, and Vilma will not be re-signed when he becomes a free agent in March. None of the moves were made official on the NFL transaction wire, but the team confirmed on its website that they’d be done soon.

Smith, who’s recovering from a major knee injury, was owed more than $11.5 million in salary and bonuses next season, the last of his six-year deal. He turns 33 in July and was going to count $13.9 million against a $126 million salary cap New Orleans was estimated to be $14 million over, more or less.

Harper, 31, was due more than $3.1 million in salary and bonuses, and he was going to count almost $5.9 million against the cap.

Greer, a 10-year veteran who turned 32 on Tuesday and is recovering from a major knee injury, was owed $4.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2014, and he would’ve counted $6.8 million toward the cap.

Vilma, 31, missed all but one game in 2013 with the latest in a series of recurring knee ailments.

The Saints have long known they’d have to unload some of the players who led them to the greatest accomplishment in franchise history to both duck under the salary cap and free up enough money to retain All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s at the end of the contract he accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010. Releasing Smith, Harper and Greer could create more than $19 million in salary-cap space, which is a start in the quest to lock up Graham either long-term or at least through 2014 via the franchise tag.

“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,” Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement. “All four of them played important roles in the success of our club and were great players and teammates.”

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis described the moves as “not easy decisions to make.”

“These are the kinds of players and people you hope to acquire,” Loomis said. “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.”

The longest-tenured player remaining on the Saints, Smith was a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2004. No. 91 topped the Saints in sacks four seasons: 2005, when they were displaced because of Hurricane Katrina; 2006, the first under coach Sean Payton; 2007; and 2009, after which New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV.

His 67.5 career sacks are the fourth most in club record books, behind only Rickey Jackson’s 115, Wayne Martin’s 82.5 and Pat Swilling’s 76.5. His 20 forced fumbles are No. 3 in team history, behind Jackson’s 38 and Swilling’s 24. He’s immortalized in highlights of Super Bowl XLIV for shoving then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to the ground during Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception return for a touchdown, which ensured New Orleans’ 31-17 victory.

After coordinator Rob Ryan took over the Saints’ defense in 2013, Smith moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. The one-time Pro Bowler’s season ended, however, after he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in an exhibition against the Houston Texans in August and landed on injured reserve.

Before sitting out all of 2013, he’d missed only five games for New Orleans, two of which involved his testing positive in 2011 for a banned weight-loss supplement.

At a charity event he hosted in New Orleans in October, he said he hoped to return and contribute to the Saints’ defense in 2014. “I want to be out there flying around and making plays,” Smith said. “I want to play until I don’t want to play anymore, until it becomes a burden or not very desirable for me.

“I’ll be back as long as the Saints want me back.”

When it became clear he wouldn’t be back with New Orleans, Smith issued a statement that assured he was “in good spirits, thankful and focused on training.”

“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. “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.”

Harper was a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2006, perhaps the greatest draft class in Saints history. The safety’s 528 solo tackles are fifth all-time and the most among players during the Payton era, and he had 54 pass break-ups.

The two-time Pro Bowler recorded 17 sacks and had a team-high seven of those in 2011. He recovered three fumbles and picked off seven passes for the Black and Gold. He returned one interception for a touchdown in a game against Atlanta in 2007.

In 2013, when the Saints won 12 of the 18 games they played and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs, Harper sat out seven games with a knee injury in the middle of the campaign.

He was less productive than fellow safeties Malcolm Jenkins and rookie Kenny Vaccaro and about equal numbers-wise with the younger, promising Rafael Bush, who’s approaching restricted free agency. Harper was expensive for the role he played, though — like others who were with the Saints in 2006 — he will not be forgotten for the hand he had in winning the Super Bowl.

Harper said he was proud that he was part of a unit that improved from 32nd place in 2012 to fourth this past year, a turnaround that was unprecedented since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He wanted to return to the group in 2014.

“It feels good to watch the game film and actually see guys were really ready to fight and die for each other,” he said in January. “It was great to see guys out there playing for the guy beside them. We were all in, flying around,” routinely making opponents punt the ball.

On Wednesday, Harper logged onto his verified Twitter account and thanked New Orleans for eight years of “great memories.”

Greer joined the Saints in 2009 after spending the first five seasons of his career in Buffalo. The cornerback went on to make 219 solo tackles, disrupt 69 passes and snag nine interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

Greer led the team in pass break-ups when he suffered an ACL tear in November. The Saints felt his absence in moments when backup Corey White struggled to hold his own opposite star cornerback Keenan Lewis; however, given his age, injury and cost, Greer’s release wasn’t entirely a surprise.

Speaking in January about his future in New Orleans, Greer said, “Who knows what God has for me?”

“I’m going to bust my tail in the rehab room” to fight for a spot on the 2014 roster, he said. “I still have joy in my heart, and I’m still finding ways to challenge myself.”

As for Vilma, the 2004 defensive rookie of the year, the New York Jets traded him to the Saints for a fourth-round draft pick in 2008. The linebacker had suffered a knee injury seven games into the 2007 season and had undergone surgery.

Vilma’s first three seasons in New Orleans were productive and saw him miss just one game. According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, he led the team in each season with 57, 44 and 46 stops, or solo tackles that resulted in a failed play on offense for the opposition.

He accounted for nine takeaways and helped the Saints win the Super Bowl as one of two defensive team captains. He scored touchdowns off two turnovers for the Saints.

But Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, sat out five games with knee problems in 2011. He also spent the first six weeks of 2012 on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from an offseason, blood-spinning procedure he had carried out on his knee in Germany.

Vilma was much less prolific the past three years. He was credited with just 18 stops in 2011 as well as in 2012, when he successfully appealed a season-long suspension the NFL tried to give him in the wake of the bounty scandal. He made one tackle in 2013 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August.

“Couple (Pro Bowls) and a (Super Bowl) ring later, I couldn’t have written that chapter any better,” Vilma said on his verified Twitter account.

Payton on Wednesday said Smith, Harper, Greer and Vilma were at the top of the list of “great players” he’s coached.

“Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan all represent and epitomize what we look for in our players,” Payton said. “These are disciplined, smart, tough and team-oriented individuals. 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.”

Wednesday’s news left the Saints with nine members of the Super Bowl XLIV squad: quarterback Drew Brees, wideout Marques Colston, right guard Jahri Evans, safety Malcolm Jenkins, wideout Robert Meachem, wideout Lance Moore, punter Thomas Morstead, right tackle Zach Strief and running back Pierre Thomas. Jenkins, Meachem and Strief are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March.