Saints avoid $400,000 roster bonus

One defensive starter is gone from New Orleans and another is still likely to leave.

Deemed expendable by theSaints following the recent signing of Dwight Smith, safety Tebucky Jones was released on Tuesday after a two-year stint with the team, one day before the team would have been forced to pay him a $400,000 roster bonus.

Within minutes of his release, Jones reached a contract agreement in principle with the Miami Dolphins.

The Saints' roster move came as the team continued to discuss trading defensive end Darren Howard. The Dallas Cowboys are believed to be the front-runner for Howard, and team officials and agent Gary Wichard have exchanged contract proposals contingent on a trade being completed.

New Orleans came close to trading Jones to the Dolphins over the weekend, but the two sides could not agree on compensation. Once he was officially free, Miami wasted no time in striking a two-year accord.

The deal, when officially completed, will pay Jones $1.5 million in 2005, including signing and roster bonuses totaling $835,000 and a base salary of $650,000. He can earn about $500,000 more in incentives. The contract requires the Dolphins to make a roster bonus payment of $3.3 million next spring to keep Jones for a second year, at a base salary of $3 million.

Jones, who owns a home in Miami, will get the chance to play strong safety, where he will align close to the line of scrimmage, and where he is more effective. In New Orleans, he often played free safety, a position for which Jones lacks range and basic ball skills. He led the Saints with 102 tackles in 2004, the first season in which he started all 16 games, and demonstrated again he is a heavy hitter.

But in his two-year New Orleans tenure, Jones, who was expected to fly to Miami on Tuesday evening, had just two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Seeking a free safety who was more a ballhawk and who could help create more takeaways, the Saints last week signed Smith, formerly of Tampa Bay, to a five-year, $15 million contract.

For his career, Jones has appeared in 104 games and started 66 of them. He has posted 358 tackles, six interceptions and 31 passes defensed. Jones began his NFL career with the New England Patriots, where he was a first-round choice in the 1998 draft.

While there is still much work to be done, the trade of Howard appears inevitable, and there is no lack of interest in the former second-round draft choice.

At least a half-dozen teams, most notably the Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, have discussed a possible swap to land Howard, a five-year veteran and a proven pass rusher. The Saints, who designated Howard as a "franchise" player, have shopped him for a couple of weeks.

It is believed that the Saints are seeking a high-round draft choice and a defensive player in return for Howard. Wichard has proposed to the Cowboys a six-year deal that would be worth about $34 million and include total bonuses of $16 million. That would include a $7 million signing bonus and $9 million second-tier bonus due next spring.

Should the Cowboys acquire Howard, who has 41 career sacks, it might signal that Dallas coach Bill Parcells has decided not to switch to a 3-4 front in 2005.

Howard, 28, has signed the one-year "franchise" qualifying offer of $7.8 million, and that is a prohibitive amount for the Saints to carry on their salary cap. New Orleans, which has a pair of first-round defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith, would prefer to rid itself of that cap hit. By dealing Howard, the Saints would recoup the entire $7.8 million and perhaps use the savings to work on long-term extensions for veterans such as tailback Deuce McAllister and center LeCharles Bentley.

While he has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, Howard remains a top-shelf player at a premium position. As usual, there is a dearth of quality defensive linemen in the unrestricted free agent pool and that has enhanced his value even further. Dallas has plenty of bargaining ammunition, since it owns two first-round choices in the '05 draft.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.