Who catches screen passes now?

That was the initial thought when news of Pierre Thomas’ release hit on Wednesday afternoon. The next thoughts were why Thomas and why now?

Let’s start with the second half of that equation first. Thomas was scheduled to count $2.565 million against the salary cap next season. It was a good bit of money, but it did not appear to be a wildly exorbitant figure on the surface.

Maybe it was a little inflated. Maybe it was too much. But there’s a part of it that is hard to understand. Thomas was still effective. He can play. He’ll hook on somewhere and continue to catch screen passes and fill a role and force you to appreciate all he brings to the field and locker room.

But these are the shrewd kind of moves that successful franchises make. Was money part of the equation? Probably. But a team that is $20-plus million over the cap doesn’t start making moves to get in compliance with league rules by cutting a player to create $1.7 million in cap space. They start by focusing in on bigger salaries and tighten the belt there.

And the fact is Thomas was overpaid. His cap charge might not look like much without context. It looks like too much when consider that he had the 21st-highest cap charge among running backs under contract entering Wednesday. Thomas is a good, important role player, but the value isn’t there when you look at it through this prism.

Thomas was still an effective runner, but he only logged 45 carries for 222 yards last season. He was marginalized in this regard. His primary value was as a receiver, where he caught 45 passes for 378 yards, placing him 10th among running backs.

The economics don’t add up. Injuries played a factor. Thomas was limited at times this season. But the harsh reality is that can’t you pay $2.565 million for 600 total yards over 11 games. There’s no way to justify it.

That brings the first question into play. The person who catches screen passes probably isn’t on the roster. Maybe it ends up being Travaris Cadet, who is an unrestricted free agent, but the guess here is that someone will be brought in to fill that role. Maybe it’s a rookie. Maybe it’s not.

But by releasing Thomas, the Saints at least gave themselves the flexibility to explore both options. That $1.7 million likely doesn’t sign a stud, but maybe the team frees up a little more space and can throw a little bit more money on top and sign someone like Shane Vereen, the New England running back who logged 447 receiving yards and rushed for 391 more.

He’s younger and is the kind of player who can dictate individual matchups the way Darren Sproles once did. As talented as Thomas is, he did not have that kind of impact on defenses in New Orleans. Whoever it is, this player will fill an important void. Quarterback Drew Brees loves the screen pass and Thomas played a major part in him completing 29 of his 32 screen passes thrown to running backs last season.

One of the questions that many fans asked after Thomas’ release became public was whether this meant Mark Ingram would definitely be back. The easy answer is that any additional money saved at the running back position has to be good for his prospects of returning.

But the other part of that equation is that Ingram did not play the same position as Thomas. Sure, they’re both running backs. But Ingram is paid to move the chains on the ground and grind out difficult yards. Thomas was asked to catches passes and run sweeps.

Sometimes their responsibilities overlapped and resided in a grey area. They are both running backs, but their job descriptions are vastly different. Maybe the next guys does it all. Who knows, but if Ingram comes back then someone who can catch passes will be needed.

The other thing people pointed to was that the Saints were parting ways with another leader. I did it in my news story on the transaction. It seems hypocritical for the team to cut ties with another respected player after saying a lack of leadership is what sunk the team last year.

But it’s foolish to say a team should keep a player around because he’s a good leader unless he literally can inspire his teammates to reach levels no one else can get them to reach. Those guys are few and far between. To keep a guy on the roster he has to be able to produce and do so at a level that matches up with his salary.

If he can meet that criteria, then he can lead whoever he wants. If he can’t, then it’s time to go.

That’s the way it is. It might seem harsh, but championships are won by teams that make harsh decisions. Those who get caught up in sentimentality and feelings suffer disappointment.

Even after working through all of this, there are aspects of the move that are difficult to process. But you have to believe there is a bigger plan that will soon unfold. All you can do is trust the process.