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

The Saints had warned their supporters that challenging offseason decisions loomed, and they began Wednesday with the announcement that they’re parting ways with four defensive veterans who helped the team capture its lone Super Bowl title.

Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer will be released, and Jonathan 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 Saints confirmed on their website that they’d be done soon.

Coach Sean Payton said in statement said Smith, Harper, Greer and Vilma were at the top of the list of “great players” he’s coached, alluding to the 28 combined postseason games they played, of which they won 18.

“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.”

But releasing Smith, Harper and Greer could create more than $19 million in much-needed salary-cap space. The Saints were estimated to be $14 million or so over a $126 million salary cap for 2014 — their priorities at this point in the offseason are to duck under the salary cap and free up enough money to retain All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.

Graham is at the end of the contract he accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010. Wednesday’s departures are a start in the quest to lock him up either with a long-term deal or at least through 2014 via the franchise tag.

Smith, who turns 33 in July and is recovering from a major knee injury, was owed more than $11.5 million in salary and bonuses next season. Harper, 31, was due more than $3.1 million in salary and bonuses. Greer, a 10-year veteran who turned 32 Tuesday and is recovering from a major knee injury, was owed $4.5 million in salary and bonuses. Vilma, 31, missed all but one game in 2013 with the latest in a series of recurring knee ailments.

In a statement, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said, “These difficult moves allow us to position our team under the salary cap to move forward for 2014.”

Smith was a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2004. He topped the Saints in sacks in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009, after which New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV.

His 67.5 career sacks are the fourth most in club record books. His 20 forced fumbles are No. 3 in team history.

Smith moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in 2013. 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.

“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 ... for the opportunity ... to play the sport I love in front of football’s greatest fans, amongst some of my best friends.”

Harper was a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2006, the first year under Payton. The safety’s 528 solo tackles are fifth all-time and the most among players during the Payton era. The two-time Pro Bowler recorded 17 sacks, recovered three fumbles and picked off seven passes.

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 was leading the team in pass break-ups when he suffered an ACL tear in November.

As for Vilma, from 2008 to 2010, he led the team in stops, defined by the website Pro Football Focus as solo tackles resulting in failed plays for opponents. He accounted for nine takeaways during that time span.

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 knee procedure. He missed 17 of the Saints’ 18 games in 2013 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August.

Vilma had no regrets, though. He logged on his verified Twitter account on Wednesday and said, “Couple (Pro Bowls) and a (Super Bowl) ring later, I couldn’t have written that chapter any better.”

Separately, outside linebacker-defensive end Keyunta Dawson — who joined the Saints six weeks into the 2013 season — has accepted a new one-year deal from the team, said his agent, Jarrett Smith. Dawson had five total tackles and forced a fumble in 2013.