Most NFL fans know that the New Orleans Saints turned around their entire franchise in 2006, the season that coincided with the hiring of head coach Sean Payton and the signing of free agent quarterback Drew Brees. But perhaps an underrated aspect of that season and that turnaround was the drafting of safety Roman Harper out of Alabama with the 43rd overall pick. Harper has played with the Saints for eight seasons and twice been named to the Pro Bowl, including in 2009 when New Orleans won its only championship in franchise history.
On Wednesday, the franchise released Harper.
It comes as no surprise that the team would cut the veteran safety with two years remaining on his contract. The Saints were projected to be well over the 2014 cap before a series of moves that also included the releases of Will Smith and Jabari Greer, plus they likely won't re-sign Jonathan Vilma. The Saints save almost $17 million with those moves and are now projected to be under the estimated $126 million cap for next year, but they may not be done making changes.
They'll need more room to sign pending free agent tight end Jimmy Graham, even if it's just to place the franchise tag on him. That doesn't make it any easier to let Harper go.
Harper signed a three-year deal in 2013 with a base salary of just $850,000, and New Orleans saves over $3 million in each of the next two years by giving him his walking papers. He missed seven games last season with a knee injury, but has recently said he still sees himself as a full-time starter. Harper has been a reliable player to avoid injury for most of his career other than this past season, having played in at least 15 games in each of the previous six seasons.
Harper has been a tackling machine from the strong safety position throughout his career, but also added 7.5 sacks in the 2011 season alone. He's also accumulated seven interceptions throughout his career, sometimes finding himself in the right place at the right time.
In Week 1 of this past season, Harper also put himself in position to intercept Matt Ryan's final pass attempt in the end zone and seal a 23-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
But if they want any hope of keeping around Graham, a star tight end who wants to be paid like a star receiver, the team had no choice but to release Harper and some of his longtime teammates. New Orleans, along with the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, were the three teams most obviously facing financial hell for 2014. Though Brees carries a cap hit of $18.4 million next season, the team would face an even bigger cap hit down the road if they tried to restructure his deal this year. It's speculated that they could work with Ben Grubbs, Marques Colston, and Jahri Evans to re-structure their deals and get further under the cap.
They'll need to do so if they want to retain Graham, and to even talk to other free agents.
Releasing a player of Harper's caliber after eight seasons and a Super Bowl championship is never easy, but the business of sports rarely is.