What now for Drew Brees and the Saints? NFL experts debate their title window, future at QB

What now for Drew Brees and the Saints? NFL experts debate their title window, future at QB

The New Orleans Saints are out of the 2020 NFL playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers eliminated them in the divisional round, avoiding a third defeat of the season to New Orleans.

It’s going to be a fascinating offseason for the Saints, who face a major salary-cap crunch and have several free agents to try to re-sign. And then there’s the quarterback question: Will 42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees return for another year? Brees threw three interceptions in the loss to Tampa Bay.

We asked our panel of VioletSport NFL experts to weigh in on the Saints’ quarterback future, where they stand in the NFC in 2021 (and beyond) and how they could approach free agency in March:

If this is it for Drew Brees’ NFL career, what will you remember most about him?

Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: He was the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. I started covering the Saints before Brees arrived — when the team was 3-13 and the city had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He immediately helped revive both, and 15 years later, he and Sean Payton have forever changed the image of Saints football.

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: He was the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever seen. Ball placement, timing, rhythm. Brees was a master of processing opposing defenses — and delivering the ball with precise location.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Brees showed that smaller quarterbacks can win from the pocket, setting a blueprint for today’s NFL. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa and others can pay homage to Brees, who broke stereotypes by dominating at 6-foot flat.

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Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: That the

Drew Brees turned 42 last week and might have played his final NFL game. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Seifert: Generally speaking, Payton has earned the benefit of the doubt on quarterback decisions. He certainly viewed Hill as his best short-term option this season; and given the landscape of available options on the free-agent market, Hill might well be the best one-year option for 2021, as well. The question would be whether the Saints can or want to go through an entire season with the type of run-based offense for which Hill is best suited.

Tannenbaum: Stick with Hill, who went 3-1 as a starter this season. Ball security was an issue — he fumbled in every game and lost three — but he’d have time to fix those issues. If the Saints decide to roll with Hill for a year, his contract could give the team salary-cap relief, as his $16.2 million cap hit is the 17th-highest cap hit for a quarterback next season. They’d surely have to spend more for another starter.

Walder: I would look elsewhere … on their own roster. At least to start, Winston is about as good of a stopgap as a team is going to find. I was surprised the Saints went to Hill when Brees was injured earlier this season; but even still, I’m not sure Hill’s performance — he recorded a 41

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Seifert: No. I don’t think it is completely shut after seeing them go 8-1 with Brees out of the lineup in the past two seasons. The Saints will need to make some roster changes this offseason to manage their cap, but the real question on the current window is whether Brees is back. If you subscribe to the notion that elite-level quarterback play is a mandatory ingredient for winning the Super Bowl, I don’t see the Saints winning one with Hill or Winston behind center.

Tannenbaum: No, but they’re going to have win differently. New Orleans has a good defense (top five in the league in yards and scoring), and if it can stick to a game plan leveraging running back Alvin Kamara and not get into shootouts, it can still compete next season and beyond.

Walder: If Brees is back, no. If Brees retires, yes. This is a talented roster outside of the quarterback position, but the Saints would have been a long shot, at best, had Brees been out for the season. Given how far they currently sit in the red in 2021 — OverTheCap.com estimates they are $95 million over the cap, though there is $13.5 million in cap savings available if Brees is not back — I have to imagine the non-QB part of the roster will not be this strong going forward.

Yates: I want to address the cap situation first: The Saints unquestionably have a knot to untangle this offseason, made larger than they forecast because of the impact COVID-19 will have on the 2021 cap. But this is a team that has long been creative, resourceful and willing to push cap charges forward to make the present year work. So, while I’ll concede this is the largest challenge yet for Mickey Loomis and his front office, they’ll work through it. As far as the title window — no, even if Brees retires. He is an all-time great. But the Saints enjoyed an offense catalyzed by a dynamic running game this season. And I just saw Payton coach up an offense without Brees for four games (and not his old self upon return) and without Michael Thomas for much of the season that still put up 30.1 points per game. I’m betting on the infrastructure here.

Who is the free agent the Saints absolutely have to bring back?

Triplett: Winston. The good news for the Saints is that they already locked up the two most important names on this list before the season (Kamara and linebacker Demario Davis), because their finances are too tight to consider anyone else “must-keep.” Safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Trey Hendrickson should cost the most, but Winston might be the top priority if they consider him a potential starter.

Bowen: Williams. I would let Hendrickson test free agency, with Williams as my top priority. Williams has the range, ball skills and traits to play an impact role in Dennis Allen’s defense.

Fowler: Williams. Hendrickson likely has priced himself out of New Orleans. Williams is dynamic in space with 13 interceptions and 30 pass deflections in his four-year career, and he isn’t a marquee name yet, so maybe a competitive offer from New Orleans in early March will secure his services.

Graziano: Winston, assuming Brees is gone and that the Saints are telling the truth about how much they liked having Winston there this season. We all know the downside, but Winston just turned 27 and is one year removed from a 5,000-yard passing season. If nothing else, they have to keep him in the mix.

Seifert: Hendrickson. He is going to be expensive after recording 13.5 sacks in a contract year. But one of the secrets of the Saints’ long-term success has been to pay the important people and then figure out the rest. They know Hendrickson better than anyone, but it would seem pretty important to retain a 26-year-old who is capable of that kind of pass-rush production — even if it’s via the franchise tag.

Tannenbaum: Williams would be the highest priority for me. After that there is a drop-off. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins would be next, though he didn’t have a standout season. Tight end Jared Cook will be 34 at the start of next season, and his best years are behind him.

Walder: Winston, if Brees retires. If he doesn’t, I don’t think the Saints can afford to be thinking that they must bring back any of their free agents given their cap situation. Hendrickson is a nice player, but his sack total far outpaced his pass rush win rate, so I’d be wary about paying for his career year.

Yates: Hendrickson. There’s a good case for Williams too, especially as their price tags will be quite different, but the answer is the player who has become one of the league’s best pass-rushers and done so through incredible development. Hendrickson and Cam Jordan (who is already incredible) help each other in a way that makes the combo borderline unstoppable. Hendrickson is not just explosive off the edge; he is a tone-setter with his old-school style of play.

Outside of solving the quarterback conundrum, what should be the Saints’ biggest offseason priority?

Triplett: The 2022 free-agent list is even more daunting than that of 2021, as cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk should each cost a small fortune. But the Saints need to decide now which ones they plan to keep long term, because they could actually lower their 2021 cap hits by extending them.

Bowen: With the assumption that Winston is back to compete with Hill next season, I would add a viable No. 2 wide receiver opposite of Thomas. I’d look for a wideout with the traits to attack — and stretch — the middle of the field.

Fowler: Deciding which key players they can live without. The Saints face a salary-cap reckoning with a $98 million deficit that they can’t escape with a few simple contract restructures. They’ve got nearly 10 veterans (non-rookie deals) with cap hits above $10 million. Parting with established players such as Armstead or cornerback Janoris Jenkins must at least be considerations.

Graziano: Extensions for Lattimore and Ramczyk. The bill on that awesome 2017 draft is coming due, as this year’s Kamara extension showed, and they have Williams and Hendrickson to worry about in free agency right away. The Saints will retool rather than rebuild, but it’s important for them to identify their long-term building blocks and get some cost certainty on them as they make their plans.

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Seifert: Figuring out their long-term plan in the secondary. Malcolm Jenkins is 33. Janoris Jenkins is 32. Williams is a pending free agent, and Lattimore is entering the final year of his contract. How many more years can they get from Jenkins and Jenkins? Who will they re-sign? Who will they move on from, and who will replace them?

Tannenbaum: Fixing the Saints’ cap situation is going to be a priority, but it isn’t that difficult when you see that they can move a few contracts around and extend players. They’ll have to move on from Brees, take their salary-cap medicine in 2021 and have a fresh start in 2022.

Walder: If Brees retires, they have to at least consider a rebuild year because the cap situation is dire. They would clear as much money off their cap as possible by not only letting all their free agents walk (earning 2022 compensatory picks along the way) but also by trading veterans like Jordan, Armstead and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to earn draft capital as well. Even someone like Ramczyk could be made available if the compensation were high enough.

Yates: Reinforcing the pass-catcher group. With Cook headed to free agency, the team should see a notable boost from 2020 rookie Adam Trautman, who is already established as a really useful blocker with pass-catching promise. The Saints plucked Sanders in free agency last year, but the team could stand to bulk up the insurance behind Thomas even more this year. We saw the Saints find a way this year with a group of assorted pass-catchers, but it’s an area where a bit more investment could go a long way.

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