Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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Little by little, as the years go on, teams inevitably change.

There will come a time when no players or personnel remain with the Saints who won the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl.

Wednesday, that day grew closer, with the franchise releasing veterans Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer while deciding not to re-sign Jonathan Vilma, four integral pieces to that championship run whose roles became more and more diminished over time.

It's the other side of the business, the ugly one that everyone knows about but few like to really acknowledge.

Smith, a veteran defensive end who spent all 10 seasons with the Saints, was sidelined all season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and watched as Junior Galette surfaced as a standout starter in Rob Ryan's reconfigured alignment.

Harper, whose eight years in the NFL were all spent donning the black and gold, had the unfortunate timing of suffering a serious enough knee injury that kept him out of seven straight games while rookie Kenny Vaccaro emerged as a key defender.

Greer, who came to New Orleans in 2009 and became the shut-down corner the team so sorely needed during that Super Bowl run, suffered a serious knee injury against San Francisco in November and likely would have missed most, if not all, of the 2014 season.

And Vilma, an asset the team traded for in 2008 and became the key piece to the Saints' takeaway-happy defense a season later, missed most of the past two years with a knee injury.

Step back and it's easy to see why, even as much as those four meant to the club, they're now considered former Saints.

The Saints were in salary cap hell, cash-strapped and space-empty. That's not a good place to be when you're trying to re-sign one of the game's most talented tight ends yes, tight end and are anywhere in the ballpark of $15-$18 million over the expected cap for 2014.

By making these moves, the Saints suddenly find themselves below the cap. While there's still work to be done, this is a big first step for Mickey Loomis and Co.

Not that making these moves were done without emotion or weren't hard to make.

Far from it.

'Each of them were integral parts in turning this program around and winning a Super Bowl,' Loomis said in a statement. 'They were a great example to our players as team leaders in the locker room, as well.

'Will and Roman were two of the better draft picks we have made. Jonathan Vilma has been one of our best trades ever and Jabari Greer has been one of our best free agent signings.'

'These are the kinds of players and people you hope to acquire.'

All three who were still under contract carried high figures in the salary cap game. Releasing them, even as integral and emotionally tied they were into New Orleans as a city and a club, will help in the long run.

For now, the Saints have nine listed on the roster from the Super Bowl run.

It's actually fewer than that, with Malcolm Jenkins, Robert Meachem and Zach Strief all heading into the new league year as unrestricted free agents.

And it's just another sign that when teams are good, when they're doing something special, you have to live in the moment, enjoy the now.

Because before you know it, your heroes from now will become players of the past.

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