AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — Defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma have agreed to restructure their contracts in order to remain with the New Orleans Saints, people familiar with the situation said.
Meanwhile, one person said reserve linebacker Will Herring was being released after two seasons with the club.
The people spoke to The Associated Press Tuesday on condition of anonymity because contract details have not been announced by the team or the players’ representatives, though Herring said on Twitter that he appreciated his time in New Orleans.
The 31-year-old Smith and 30-year-old Vilma, both veteran defensive captains who were implicated in the NFL’s bounty probe, would have consumed about $23 million combined in salary cap space had they not agreed to new deals before the new league year — and free agency — began Tuesday afternoon.
Smith was a first-round pick by New Orleans in 2004. In 2008, he signed a six-year deal worth about $70 million. It was renegotiated before 2012 to convert salary to bonus and lower the cost of the contract against the salary cap for last season.
If the Saints kept him in 2013 under the terms of that contract, Smith would have cost the Saints about $14.5 million against the $123 million salary cap.
Smith’s agent, Joel Segal, confirmed that his client would remain with New Orleans but declined to discuss contract details.
Smith wrote, “Loyalty is everything,” on his Twitter page.
Vilma was acquired in a trade with the Jets in 2008. Under his previous deal, he would have counted for about $8.6 million against the 2013 salary cap.
Both players have been captains of the Saints defense for several seasons and were also statistical leaders on the 2009 Super Bowl team. They spent nearly all of last season successfully working to overturn suspensions NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had given them — a full season for Vilma and four games for Smith — in connection with the league’s investigation of the Saints’ cash-for-hits bounty program administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011.
The NFL never absolved them of helping to organize a pool that paid improper cash bonuses for hard and potentially injurious hits. But after lengthy appeals, the league agreed to drop player suspensions in the interest of ending protracted legal challenges and bitter disputes with the NFL Players Association.
Smith has been among the Saints’ leaders in sacks during most of his nine seasons. He had as many as 13 sacks in 2009, but only six in 2012, the third-lowest total of his career.
Vilma joined the Saints as a middle linebacker in what was then a 4-3 defense and was credited with more than 100 tackles in each of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons. His production fell off sharply in 2011, when he was bothered by a knee injury that required surgery and also forced him to miss the first five games of 2012.
When Vilma returned, he played more at outside linebacker, with 2012 free-agent acquisition Curtis Lofton taking over in the middle. He was credited with 37 tackles, a sack and intercepted a pass for a touchdown.
Now the Saints, who have hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, are switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme in which Vilma struggled with the Jets. Coach Sean Payton, however, has said recently that he believes Vilma and Smith could adapt to the Saints’ 3-4 scheme, because the club often used variations of a 3-4 defense in certain situations during recent seasons.
Herring, acquired as a free agent in 2011, played in all 16 games last season, starting one, and was credited with 13 tackles and one forced fumble.
“Thankful for my time with the Saints, my teammates, and their incredible fans!!” he wrote on his Twitter page.