Only a few minutes after the 2015 season ended, Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Marques Colston and Zach Strief paused on their way off of the Georgia Dome turf to take a picture.
With the offseason beginning and the uncertainty of New Orleans’ salary cap situation looming, Brees, Evans, Colston and Strief wanted to commemorate an accomplishment. Four teammates, all on the same side of the ball, had completed a decade together.
Nobody knew if they would get another chance to play together.
But the first member of the four to say goodbye to New Orleans came as a surprise Monday. New Orleans released Evans, parting ways with the six-time Pro Bowler in exchange for $3.1 million in salary-cap savings, albeit at the price of carrying roughly $5.1 million in dead money next year.
By parting ways with Evans — along with middle linebacker David Hawthorne, backup linebacker Ramon Humber, young wide receiver Seantavius Jones and the apparent release of cornerback Brandon Browner — the Saints signaled the start of another offseason overhaul to create enough cap room to sign drafted players and potentially make an addition or two in free agency.
New Orleans entered the offseason with $155.86 million in committed contracts, a number that put them at odds with a salary cap that’s expected to fall between $150 and $153 million, although General Manager Mickey Loomis said last month that the increase in the salary cap could be more than many expected. Releasing the four veterans saves the Saints roughly $7.2 million in salary-cap space, a healthy start for a team that needs to buy itself some breathing room.
But the fact that Evans was a part of the initial roster purge still came as a surprise.
Evans himself expected to be back. Forced to restructure his deal last offseason to make the salary-cap implications more palatable, Evans revealed at the end of the 2015 season that he believed he would be staying in New Orleans.
“Me and coach Payton talked this offseason,” Evans said in late December. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere.”
Evans was coming off of a much better season on the field, but he also faced the kind of injury issues he’s almost never had in a decade in New Orleans.
Brees’ most durable protector had started 142 of a possible 144 games in his first nine seasons in New Orleans, including 114 straight to begin his career, the longest streak to open a career in Saints history.
Injuries finally cost him in 2015. Evans missed five games, three due to arthroscopic surgery on his knee early in the season and two more to an ankle injury late. Because of the injuries, Evans was limited to 802 snaps, the fifth-most among a Saints offensive line that also dealt with injuries to Strief, Terron Armstead, Tim Lelito and Andrus Peat.
When he was in the lineup, Evans played well, bouncing back from a 2014 season in which his play suffered because of a torn tendon in his hand, an injury Evans played through to start every game.
New Orleans decided it was time to part ways with one of the best offensive lineman in team history anyway.
For a decade, Evans has been the driving force on the offensive line, the rock Brees could count on to protect his immediate field of vision on almost every snap.
Evans, a fourth-round pick out of Bloomsburg in 2006, finishes his decade in New Orleans as one of the best offensive linemen in Saints history. The big, powerful guard was named to six straight Pro Bowls from 2009-2014, earned four All-Pro nods and ranks third in Pro Bowl appearances by a Saint, trailing only Brees and Hall of Fame left tackle Willie Roaf.
Whenever he decides to retire, Evans will likely have a good shot at joining Roaf in the Hall of Fame himself, given his longevity and a five-year stretch of dominance that included a Super Bowl ring.
But the time for Evans to hang up his cleats likely hasn’t arrived. Evans hinted at the end of the season that he’d have no shortage of suitors if the Saints decided to part ways.
“I won’t be out of a job for long,” Evans said.