METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have released Thomas Morstead, who has been one of the NFL's best punters over the past 12 years and was responsible for one of the most iconic moments in franchise history.
Morstead was the one who executed the Saints' surprise onside kick as a rookie during Super Bowl XLIV. He went on to make the Pro Bowl in 2012. And he ranks among the top punters in NFL history in yards per punt (46.5) and net average (41.7).
Morstead, who turns 35 next week, said he intends to keep playing -- though he and his family will always make New Orleans their home. The Saints released him in part because of their severe salary-cap constraints and in part because he had a rare down season in 2020.
He was the highest-paid punter in the NFL at an average salary of $3.9 million per year but admittedly failed to live up to his standard of "elite consistency" in 2020 while dealing with an offseason back injury and an eye issue that bothered him for about a year and a half. But Morstead said that both issues have been corrected and that he's confident he will play at a higher level going forward.
Morstead was set to earn $3.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, with a cap charge of $4.5 million. He will still count $2 million in dead money against the salary cap.
The Saints, meanwhile, could potentially turn to second-year punter Blake Gillikin, who spent last year on injured reserve after an impressive offseason. Morstead gave Gillikin a strong endorsement while saying that he tried to impart as much wisdom and advice as he could to him last season.
"I'm overwhelmed with gratitude," Morstead said during an emotional videoconference Thursday. "The experience I've had with the Saints -- there's not one part of it that I would complain about. The whole thing has just been outstanding. I'm obviously sad to be moving on from the team, but it's not as if I haven't prepared for this moment in a lot of different ways. But it is shocking."
Morstead said he was surprised the Saints didn't talk to him about staying at a reduced rate -- but he said he has nothing but "love and respect" for how the team has treated him. And he said that last season "obviously didn't meet any of the standards that I've set for myself in previous years."
"Let's just call it what it was," Morstead said. "When you're the highest-paid player at your position, the expectation is that you're playing at an elite level. And I didn't do that last year, and I think it was pretty clear to see.
"You know, I've never been the biggest boomer in the league. I've just always been a guy that relies on elite consistency. And I think it was pretty clear that was lacking this year."
Nevertheless, Morstead adapted, using a more conservative approach, and helped the Saints set a record for the fewest punt return yards allowed in NFL history (a total of 46 all season).
To play with one of the best punters in the game was a privilege, but to break record(s) with one of the best is legendary. Appreciate you for always believing in me @thomasmorstead ! It was never taken for granted! Always love brother 🤞🏾🖤 pic.twitter.com/WZgud2OKlm— Justin Hardee Sr. (@jhardee_19) March 4, 2021
One of Morstead's memorable career highlights came in unconventional fashion during the Saints' 2018 "Minneapolis Miracle" playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Vikings fans took notice of the way Morstead fought through the pain of torn cartilage in his ribs in that game -- even coming out to line up as a defensive tackle on the Vikings' final two-point conversion kneel-down when most players had already left the field. So they started a grassroots campaign to make donations to his What You Give Will Grow foundation, which wound up receiving more than $200,000.
Morstead has also been the team's nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award in the past, and he has been a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee.
"Thomas has been a very important part of the New Orleans Saints organization and our community since 2009," coach Sean Payton said in a statement. "It has been an honor to have coached him and to have witnessed his growth as a player and a person. He has been a great leader and mentor to many younger players throughout his career, and his Pro Bowl level of play year-in and year-out has been remarkable. I know that Thomas will be highly successful in the future and am grateful to have had the opportunity to coach him."
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis added: "Thomas Morstead has been the epitome of the consummate pro since the day we selected him in the 2009 NFL Draft. He has been a remarkable punter and an outstanding leader in the locker room and eight-time team captain. His work in the community has been nothing short of remarkable. We know that as we approach the beginning of the NFL calendar year that very difficult decisions have to be made, and this certainly falls into this category. We appreciate the dedication and professionalism that Thomas has brought to our organization from the moment he joined our team and sincerely wish both he and his family the best."