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 ESPN 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.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: That the Dolphins didn’t sign him and the Saints did in 2006. Talk about seminal moments or decisions in sports history. Imagine what would have happened if Miami cleared him on his physical and he signed there instead of in New Orleans. Would he and Payton ever have found each other? Would some other quarterback have delivered the Saints’ their Super Bowl title and become the all-time sports icon of the New Orleans community? Would Nick Saban have succeeded as the Dolphins coach and never gone to Alabama???

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: I’ll remember now that many people — including some with medical degrees — thought the productive portion of his career was over after the 2005 season. He had injured his rotator cuff and dislocated his right (throwing) shoulder and didn’t find much interest on the free-agent market. Becoming a Hall of Fame player, one who didn’t miss a start because of injury until 14 seasons later, was an incredible physical accomplishment after that injury.

Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front office insider: How he resurrected his career after leaving the Chargers. He went from a disappointment in San Diego to a Hall of Famer, which is extremely rare for a quarterback on his second team.

Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: I don’t know if it’s what I’ll most remember, but I certainly won’t forget the ripple effect of the failed physical in Miami. It’s hard not to think about how much of the NFL and college football landscape hinged on that call. How many Super Bowl championships would he and Saban have brought to South Florida? How many national championships would another coach have won in Tuscaloosa?

Field Yates, NFL analyst: How he was one of the influential figures to help rebuild New Orleans after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Brees will be inextricably linked with the city he has made home in perpetuity. New Orleans loves its Saints, and football means more than can be quantified in that city and region. During its toughest time, football provided a glimmer of hope to look forward to. Brees, Payton, many Saints and the organization at large helped New Orleans in an everlasting way.

If Brees retires, should the Saints start Taysom Hill or look elsewhere in 2021?

Triplett: They should keep exploring better long-term options, via the draft or further developing Jameis Winston, who is a free agent. They could make the playoffs with Hill if he improves his decision-making, however. He was a decent thrower in his four-game audition this season; if anything, Hill and Payton should have relied even more on his scrambling ability.

Bowen: Re-sign Winston — with the anticipation he will open the season as the starting quarterback. While Hill brings unique traits to Payton’s system and can still be used in a specific role, I see Winston as the best option here to produce in the Saints’ passing game.

Fowler: Roll with Hill, whose $16.2 million cap hit creates a moment of truth for New Orleans. Give him the keys or cut him loose. Hill went 3-1 as a starter this season, and the Saints can bank on Payton improving Hill’s decision-making and pocket presence. In a difficult year for the salary cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, splurging on a free-agent quarterback doesn’t seem sensible. Hill is imperfect, but the Saints can win with him for one year. I believe this was the plan all along. And Winston might fare better in free agency after the Saints refused to play him.

Graziano: Look elsewhere, but I’m a Hill doubter — at least in terms of whether a team can build long-term success around a quarterback of his skill set. Plus, he is going to be 31 when next season starts. If I’m the Saints, I look at every option.

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 offense 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 Total QBR — gives me reason to think he is a better option than Winston going forward. Even in his 30-pick season in 2019, Winston recorded a 56 QBR.

Yates: They should consider a comparable situation to the Winston contract this season. There are going to be quarterbacks available at a discounted price again this offseason, as for the second straight year I expect more supply than demand. For example, veteran quarterbacks who are on the fringe of being locked-in starters this year could include: Winston, Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton and Mitchell Trubisky, plus a host of others who might be available via trade. Not all of them are going to get the contract they want, and some will look for the right fit. New Orleans is a desirable place to play.

The Saints have major cap issues heading into the offseason. Has their title window closed?

Triplett: No. They definitely missed their best shots. They can’t expect to find another quarterback like Brees in his prime or another draft haul like the one they landed in 2017. But part of the reason for their cap crisis is because they’re so loaded with high-priced talent — still enough to remain a legit playoff contender.

Bowen: No, but they will have to retool the roster given their cap issues. New Orleans will have to be aggressive — and smart — in free agency, while continuing to draft impact players with scheme-specific traits.

Fowler: No, because they’ve drafted so well in recent years. They have arguably the league’s most talented roster overall. They can’t replicate Brees’ mastery of the offense, but his age was starting to show, and this is a chance for Payton to tweak his offense in a fun and refreshing way.

Graziano: No, there are too many great players still on the team for their window to close. Whether they remain a title contender in 2021 will depend on what they do at quarterback. But whoever the quarterback is, he will have a team around him that is talented enough to contend.

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 stand out 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 of 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.

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 their cap situation is going to be a priority, but it isn’t that crazy when you see that they can move a few contracts around and extend players. They’ll have to move on from Brees and 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 them find a way this year with a group of assorted pass-catchers, but it’s an area when a bit more investment could go a long way.

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