It's hard to say goodbye.
The Saints learned that lesson the hard way Wednesday when the team released four key contributors to the organization's most successful stretch ever that was punctuated with an impressive Super Bowl Championship in 2009. Veterans Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Will Smith were all released yesterday in an effort to free up some much-needed cap space within the team.
New Orleans was more than $12 million over the estimated salary cap limit before the cuts and, according to The Times Picayune, will save around $17 million after the moves.
Each of the guys released played an integral role in the Saints' ascendance to the upper echelon of the NFL and all will be dearly missed by both players and fans. The blow was somewhat softened, however, due to the health, inactivity and age of the four veterans. Jabari Greer's season ended in Week 11 after tearing his ACL and may never be the same. Neither Will Smith nor Jonathan Vilma played a down in 2013 due to prolonged injuries. Roman Harper saw action in just nine games after a knee injury sidelined him for nearly half the season. All four are over the age of 30 and the team simply couldn't afford to keep them around.
None of these moves were surprising or unexpected, but they were a bittersweet finale to the careers of four of the most recognizable Saints in recent memory. And while these four names will go down in New Orleans history for what they accomplished in their time in the Big Easy, it's time for the team to remember the past while preparing for the future.
Did somebody say future? Because it's impossible to discuss the potential of this new Saints roster without mentioning young star Kenny Vaccaro. The second-year safety out of Texas has emerged as the main man in the middle of Rob Ryan's complex defensive scheme and will now take the reins at strong safety for New Orleans moving forward. Vaccaro replaces the hard-hitting Harper, who acted almost like a fourth linebacker for Gregg Williams during his peak seasons just a few short years ago. Harper made a name for himself rushing off the edge and wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks in a way most safeties dream about. His presence in blitz packages was always felt and he cleaned up the field better than any other defensive player on the roster.
But the former Alabama star had his problems too, the most glaring of which came in his struggles in coverage and propensity to lose receivers during passing plays. Harper received a lot of flack for these woes but made up for it by creating turnovers and dealing out vicious hits. Replacing a player of his caliber, one who helped bring a coveted Lombardi Trophy to the Crescent City, is going to take more than just a healthy body. It's going to take a versatile guy who can deliver blows and keep wide outs in check.
That man is Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro has his own injury to overcome and it will take time before he is back to playing at 100 percent. The rookie suffered a fractured ankle against Carolina the last week of the season and has been extensively rehabbing to be ready to go in 2014. That will be a hurdle in itself, but it isn't nearly enough to overcome the raw talent and athleticism Vaccaro already brings to the table in just his second year.
For starters, he's already better in coverage than Roman Harper and plays more of a true strong safety than Harper. The twenty- two year old was mainly used as a third safety with Harper in the lineup and was usually tasked with shutting down the opponents' tight end, which he did with much success week-in and week-out. Vaccaro recorded 77 tackles to go along with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception in 2013 and sparked perhaps the most memorable goal-line stand of the year in his first ever game. With the Falcons driving for the game-winning touchdown late in the opening matchup of the season, Vaccaro got his fingertips on a Matt Ryan pass to Tony Gonzalez, tipping it to Roman Harper for the interception and subsequent win.
From there on the rookie proved his worth as an emerging superstar in the league and will vie for many trips to Hawaii over the course of his career. He replaces a rock in the lineup who played a critical role in New Orleans' Super Bowl and made himself a household name with huge hits and highlight reel athleticism.
But what the Saints could afford to lose in on-field production from the four players they released, the team will surely miss in leadership ability. Harper and company were enormously influential within the locker room and all took on critical leadership roles behind closed doors. That loss may be worse than any, and Vaccaro will now be forced to step up and ignite the team as the new commander of the Saints' aggressive defense. For all his talent and all his playmaking abilities, the one thing Vaccaro must establish first is his stance as a leader in this organization. What began as an already quick maturation process will now be sped up even more, and how he handles this new role will be key in how New Orleans continues without four of its most compelling players.
But if anybody is groomed to replace Roman Harper in all facets of the game, it's Kenny Vaccaro. The spotlight has been placed firmly on him and it's now his time to steal the show.
I don't see him stepping off the stage any time soon.