By Katherine Terrell, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
The New Orleans Saints officially closed another chapter in their history Friday.
The team released veteran receiver Lance Moore in the latest move to get under the salary cap. He’s the fifth long-time Saint the team has parted with in 2014.
Earlier in the offseason, the team issued walking papers to Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jonathan Vilma. The five veterans had a combined 44 seasons of experience.
Running back Darren Sproles is apparently gone too. Shortly after reports surfaced that the team would cut him, he wrote a goodbye to fans via Twitter on Friday night.
“Thank you New Orleans for your support over the past 3 years! I will always be forever grateful. #WhoDat,” Sproles wrote.
Sproles’ release hasn’t been confirmed by the team and wasn’t on the NFL’s official transaction wire Friday.
Moore, along with Sproles and Pierre Thomas, was rumored to be on the trading block Thursday. He broke the news of his release via Twitter at around 7 a.m. Friday.
“Thank you New Orleans for an amazing nine years,” Moore wrote. “Who Dat Nation, the best on earth!!!”
Although Moore was rumored to be a possible cap casualty, the move was still surprising to both fans and players.
“This a joke?,” Vilma tweeted shortly after Moore’s statement.
The moves were necessary for the Saints to clear space to get under the 2014 salary cap of $133 million. The Saints recently placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on tight end Jimmy Graham, which carries at least a $7.053 million price tag. If he files a grievance to be tagged as a wide receiver, and wins, that number will jump to $12.132 million.
Not to mention the Saints are trying to work out a long-term deal with Graham that would likely make him the highest paid tight end in league history.
Graham expressed his displeasure about the situation shortly after Sproles’ tweet on Friday.
“Wow unbelievable,” Graham tweeted. “Shocked and disappointed on everything that’s gone on this offseason.”
The Saints issued a $1.4 million restricted free agent tender to safety Rafael Bush this week, and additionally they will need to clear room if they want to re-sign in-house free agents such as Zach Strief, Malcolm Jenkins and Brian de la Puente.
So with the Saints strapped for cap space, they had no choice but to release some veterans to clear room.
“Just like some of the decisions we made on the defensive side of the ball a few weeks ago, this move today is just as difficult,” general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement. “Lance was very important to our productivity on offense and our success as a team overall. He joined us in the middle of the 2005 season and progressed from the practice squad to becoming one of the most productive receivers in the history of our franchise and helping us win a Super Bowl and reach the postseason five times. …
“You couldn’t ask for more from Lance both on and off the field and we wish him the best of luck.”
Only six Saints remain under contract from their Super Bowl XLIV win during the 2009 season: Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Robert Meachem, Jahri Evans, Thomas Morstead. Strief and Jenkins are set to become free agents March 11.
Moore’s tenure with the Saints goes back further than that. His release severs the final tie to the Jim Haslett era.
Smith and Moore were the last players left from the old regime. They were the only players remaining who played for the Saints through Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 season spent in San Antonio.
Moore was on the practice squad that season, having joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of Toledo following his release from the Cleveland Browns. He spent the next season on the practice squad and briefly as part of the Berlin Thunder of the now defunct NFL Europe.
Moore was a starter by 2007, and spent the next six seasons in that capacity. He caught a pass for a two-point conversation in Super Bowl XLIV, which put the Saints up by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of their 31-17 win against the Indianapolis Colts.
“Look at Lance’s career,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in August. “(Director of pro personnel) Ryan Pace has told me some of the stories. … He saw him in a scrimmage one time, snatched him in ’05, I believe, during the Hurricane Katrina year, when the team was displaced, and he was on our practice squad in ’06 and then kind of worked his way in, a little bit, in ’07, and now he has been a mainstay since ’08, and has really done a phenomenal job …
“There is not a guy I trust more out there than Lance. The road that he has traveled to get where he is, he has earned it all.”
However, Moore, who will turn 31 in August, missed three games this season after injuring his hand late against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3. Although he had productive games after his return against the Buffalo Bills in Week 8, his overall snap counts never returned to pre-injury levels that season.
Moore caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns in 2013, his lowest numbers since 2009, when he was injured for a large portion of the season. As his numbers went down, the numbers of rookie Kenny Stills went up.
“There’s no replacing Lboogs dance moves! Sad to see you go bro,” Stills tweeted. “Great person, player and teammate thank you for showing me the ropes.”
Moore finishes his Saints career sixth in franchise history in receiving yards (4,281) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (38). He earned the team’s Man of the Year award in 2012 for his off-field contributions in the community.
“Lance Moore made a significant contribution to our team’s success,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in a statement. “While his production on paper is obvious, it only tells half the story. Lance came to us an undrafted rookie who went to NFL Europe and spent time on our practice squad. He went on to produce outstanding results on the field for us as a result of his work ethic, reliability and commitment to get better every day. He’s been one of the pillars of what we have built here as an organization.”
Moore was owed a base salary of $3.8 million in 2014, along with an $500,000 roster bonus due on March 25. His 2014 cap number was a sizable $5.1 million. Sproles, who was entering the final year of his contract, had a base salary of $3.5 million in 2014 and a cap figure of $4.25 million.
Sproles, who turns 31 this summer, joined the team in 2011 after five seasons with the San Diego Chargers. He was officially listed as a running back, but caught more passes than he carried the ball.
Sproles was used in a variety of ways, racking up a record 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011. He was the only player that season to score a rushing touchdown, a touchdown reception and a punt return for a touchdown.
Since entering the league in 2005, his 27 touchdown catches were the most among all running backs in that timespan, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Sproles, who missed one game due to a knee/ankle injury in 2013, posted some of his lowest career statistics this season. He returned only 12 kicks this season for career lows of 255 yards and 21.3 yards per return. His 6.7 yards per punt return was his lowest since his rookie season.
Sproles carried the ball 53 times this season for 220 yards and two touchdowns, while catching 71 passes for 604 yards and two touchdowns. Sproles was also used less than he was in the past, as he never took more than half the offensive snaps in a game all season.
The Saints continue to get younger with the release of so many veteran players, all of whom were at least 30 years old and missed at least one game due to injury in 2013. But the harsh realities of the business still reverberated on social media Friday.
“If somebody picks up all these saints players getting released they could have a great team!” tweeted former Saint Scott Shanle.
Katherine Terrell can be reached at KTerrell@nola.com or 504.826.3405.