With free agency approaching and his team still over the salary cap last week, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he envisioned having defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma back for this season.
He probably wishes he could have said that about Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod and backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who departed the team soon after veteran free agency began Tuesday afternoon.
The Saints managed to get under the 2013 salary cap of $123 million when Smith and Vilma restructured their contracts, but it didn’t save them enough money to prevent the loss of Bushrod and Daniel.
Shortly after General Manager Mickey Loomis confirmed that Smith and Vilma had reworked their deals, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Daniel, Drew Brees’ backup for the past three seasons, had agreed in principle to a three-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.
A little later, Bushrod received a five-year deal from the Chicago Bears that is worth a reported $35.965 million — or nearly $7.2 million per year. The deal includes a little more than $17.7 million in guaranteed money.
A four-year starter at left tackle who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and ’12, Bushrod was the Saints’ top priority among their own 11 unrestricted free agents, a list that included Daniel.
The departure of Bushrod, who joined the Saints as a fourth-round draft pick in 2007, marks the second year in a row that they lost a key piece of their offensive line.
Last March, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, also a two-time Pro Bowler, reached the open market and was quickly snapped up by the Tampa Bay Bucs, one of the Saints’ rivals in the NFC South.
The Saints will probably have to rework the deals of more players or make some moves to find a replacement in free agency for Bushrod, who was backed up last season by third-year pro Charles Brown.
But Brown, a second-round draft pick in 2010, has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve with hip and knee problems. Second-year pro Marcel Jones has never played in an NFL game after missing his rookie season with a knee injury he suffered just before the season opener.
In demand because of a shortage of quality quarterbacks available, Daniel’s contract will reportedly pay him $3 million a year over the next three years to be the backup for the newly acquired Alex Smith.
The Saints had only two quarterbacks on the roster the past three seasons, which means they’ll have to find someone to back up Brees.
Details of the restructured deals for Smith and Vilma weren’t available, but the Saints were likely around $6 million over the cap as free agency approached.
Smith, a 10-year veteran, was scheduled to count $14.5 million on this year’s cap, while Vilma had a cap figure of $8.6 million. They would have combined to eat up about $23.1 million of the money available to the team.
Loomis also confirmed that reserve linebacker Will Herring was released.
Herring, who played with the Saints the past two seasons, was scheduled to earn $1.6 million in base pay and carry a cap figure of $1.9 million this year.
The Saints, one of two teams that were over the 2013 cap late last week, agreed Saturday on a three-year contract with restricted free agent linebacker Junior Galette.
They also gave second-round tender offers of $2.023 million to two of their other three restricted free agents: center Brian de la Puente and running back Chris Ivory.
De la Puente and Ivory can sign offer sheets with another team, but the Saints would have a chance to match the deal or receive a second-round draft pick as compensation.
The Saints, who were reported to be more than $20 million over the cap last month, wound up restructuring the deals of eight players, including Smith and Vilma, and terminated the contracts of two veterans to get under the cap.
Also restructuring earlier were wide receiver Marques Colston, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.
Like Herring, tight end David Thomas’s contract was terminated, and third-year cornerback Johnny Patrick was waived.
Also Tuesday, the Saints were reported to be among four teams that have shown an interest in former LSU defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois.
The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Tennessee are also interested in Jean-Francois, who has played four seasons with the 49ers.
Jean-Francois played on LSU’s BCS National Championship team in 2007 and was on the 49ers’ team that lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 in New Orleans. He’s played in 51 career games with the Niners, with whom he had a career-high 22 tackles last season.