Sproles' release the hardest to swallow

Of all the cuts the New Orleans Saints have been making this offseason, the news of Darren Sproles' pending release comes as the biggest surprise -- and could leave the biggest void.

I suppose I can get on board with the idea -- just as I saw the logic behind parting ways with Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper. Sproles is 30 years old, an age when a lot of running backs tend to begin a steep decline, and his game has always been built on dynamic speed and quickness.

The difference with Sproles, however, is that he'll be a lot harder to replace.

Sproles was a truly unique weapon that helped make the Saints offense so special from 2011 to 2013, one of those matchup nightmares that coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees loved to exploit so much. Even when Sproles wasn't posting big numbers, he was causing fits for defenses by lining up in a variety of positions and forcing top defenders to spy on him or double-team him.

I think Sproles still would have been worth his $3.5 million price tag in a part-time role, even if the Saints had to limit him to keep him fresh.

But I also can't ignore the fact that Sproles was far more dynamic in 2011 (when he set the NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards) than he was in 2012 or 2013. Last season, he had just 1,273 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns.

It remains to be seen if the Saints will still consider releasing or trading veteran running back Pierre Thomas as well. Thomas has also been a valuable triple threat throughout his career as a runner/receiver/pass-protector.

I do like the potential of the Saints' younger, cheaper running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Both of them are capable of stepping into bigger and more versatile roles as pass-catchers and pass-protectors -- as they showed during the playoffs last season while Thomas was injured.

But if the Saints decide to release both Sproles and Thomas, they should definitely try to add another all-purpose threat, either through free agency or the draft -- to follow in the line of Sproles and Reggie Bush before him (free agent Dexter McCluster comes to mind).

So far, the Saints have been able to successfully adapt after parting ways with several longtime veterans and core players from their Super Bowl team in recent seasons. The only one who's really come back to bite them at all so far is former left tackle Jermon Bushrod, since they didn't find a consistent replacement until late last season.

But releasing Sproles might put that success rate to the test more than any previous move.