The New Orleans Saints were eliminated from the NFL playoffs in 2020. They eliminated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round and avoided their third loss of the season in New Orleans.
It will be an exciting off-season for the Saints, who are facing a severe salary shortfall and have several agents free to try and rehire. And then there’s the quarterback question: Will 42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees return for another year? Brees threw three interceptions in the defeat at Tampa Bay.
We asked our ESPN NFL panel of experts to comment on the future of the Saints’ quarterback, their place in the NFC in 2021 (and beyond), and how they might approach Free Agency in March:
In regards to Drew Brees’ NFL career, what do you remember most about him?
Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: He was the greatest free agent in NFL history. I started covering the Saints before Brees arrived – when the team was 3-13 and the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He immediately helped revive the two, and 15 years later, he and Sean Payton changed the image of Sacred Soccer forever.
Matt Bowen, NFL Analyst: He was the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever seen. Ball placement, timing, rhythm. Brees was a master of the art of managing opposing defenses – and placing the ball with precise positioning.
Jeremy Fowler, NFL National Writer: Brees has shown that even small quarterbacks can win by setting the tone for today’s NFL. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa and others can pay tribute to Brees, who broke stereotypes by dominating the 6-foot dish.
Dan Graziano, NFL National Writer: That the Dolphins didn’t sign it, but the Saints did in 2006. Talk about key moments or decisions in the history of the sport. Imagine what would have happened if Miami had cleared him at the medical exam and he signed there instead of New Orleans. Would she and Payton ever get back together? Would another quarterback have brought the Saints a Super Bowl title and become a New Orleans sports icon? If Nick Saban had managed to coach the Dolphins, he never would have gone to Alabama.
Kevin Seifert, NFL National Writer: I remember a lot of people – including people with medical training – thinking that the productive part of his career was over after the 2005 season. He injured his rotator cuff, dislocated his right (protruding) shoulder and found little interest in the free agent market. Becoming a Hall of Fame player who missed a start only 14 seasons later due to injury was an incredible physical feat after that injury.
Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front office insider: How he revived 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 second team quarterback.
Seth Walder, Sports Analyst, Author: I’m not sure I’ll remember it most, but I certainly won’t forget the impact of a failed investigation in Miami. It’s hard to think of how much the landscape of college football and the NFL depends on this challenge. How many Super Bowl Saban championships will he and she bring 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 who helped rebuild New Orleans after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Bree will forever be inextricably linked to the city he calls home. New Orleans loves its Saints and football has more meaning in this city and region than can be expressed in numbers. In the most difficult moments, football was a glimmer of hope worth having. Brees, Peyton, many Saints and the organization as a whole have helped New Orleans forever.
If Brees retires, should the Saints start in Taysom Hill in 2021 or look elsewhere?
Triplets: They should continue to look for better long-term options through the project or through the continued development of Jameis Winston, who is a free agent. However, they could make the playoffs with Hill if he improves his decision-making. He was a good host for four games this season; Hill and Payton should have relied on his jams even more.
Bowen: Redraw Winston. Expect him to open the season as the starting quarterback. While Hill brings some unique features to Payton’s system and can still be used in a given role, I consider Winston the best option for producing the Saints’ passing game here.
Fowler: Roll with Hill, whose $16.2 million cap is a moment of truth for New Orleans. Give him the keys or let him go. Hill started the season 3-1, and the Saints can count on Payton to improve decision-making and put Hill in the pocket. In a tough year for salary cap issues due to the COWID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t seem reasonable to go crazy on a free quarterback. Hill is imperfect, but the Saints can win a year with him. I think that was the plan all along. And Winston might have done better in free agency after the Saints refused to play him.
Graziano: Look elsewhere, but I doubt it – at least in terms of the team’s ability to build long-term success around a quarterback with his skills. In addition, he will be 31 years old at the start of next season. When I’m a saint, I look at all the possibilities.
Error! The file name is not specified. Drew Brees turned 42 last week and may have played his last game in the NFL. Photo by Chris Greiten/Getty Images.
Seifert: Peyton usually gets the benefit of the doubt in quarterback decisions. He certainly considered Hill the best option for the short term this season; and given the landscape of options available on the free agent market, Hill might be the best option for a year through 2021. The question will be whether the Saints can or will spend the entire season with the type of offense for which the mound is best suited.
Fire: Stick with Hill, who starts the season with a 3-1 mark. Ball security was an issue – he lost every game and dropped three – but he had time to fix those problems. If the Saints decide to go with Hill for a year, his contract could earn the team a pay cut, as his $16.2 million throw is the 17th highest throw for a quarterback next season. You’ll probably have to spend more on another starter.
Walder: I’d look elsewhere… on their own list. For starters, Winston is as good as any corker the team can find. I was surprised the Saints chose Hill when Brees was injured early in the season, but even then I’m not sure Hill’s performance – he recorded a total of 41 QBRs – gives me reason to believe he’ll be better than Winston in the future. Even in the 30-point season in 2019, Winston registered 56 QBRs.
Yates: They should consider a situation similar to Winston’s contract this season. There will be discounted quarterfinals again this off-season, as I expect supply to exceed demand for the second year in a row. Among the veterans about to sign this year are Winston, Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton and Mitchell Trubisky, as well as many others who may be available via trade. Not everyone gets the contract they want, and some will try to get the right one. New Orleans is a great place to play.
The Saints have major cap problems as the off-season approaches. Is your title window closed?
Triplets: No. They certainly missed their best shots. They can’t expect to find another quarterback like Brees in his prime, or another draft pick like the one they picked up in 2017. But part of the reason for the cap crisis is that they are so loaded with expensive talent – still enough to remain legitimate contenders in the qualifiers.
Bowen: No, but they will have to redo the list, given their border issues. New Orleans must be aggressive – and smart – about free agency while continuing to recruit actors with specific regime characteristics.
Fowler: No, because they have prepared so well over the past few years. They are probably the most talented in the entire league. They may not be suited to Brees’ skill set, but his age is starting to make itself felt and this is Payton’s chance to adapt his offense in a fun and refreshing way.
Graziano: No, there are still too many great players on the team to close the window. Whether they are still contenders for the title in 2021 will depend on what they do as quarterbacks. But whoever the quarterback is, there will be a team around him with enough talent to be competitive.
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Seifert: No. I don’t think he’s completely out of the game after seeing them lose 8-1 with Brees out of the lineup the last two seasons. The Saints will have to make some changes to their roster this season to manage their cap, but the real question in the current window is whether Brees is back. If you think it takes an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl, I don’t see the Saints winning with Hill or Winston behind center.
Fire: No, but they will win otherwise. New Orleans has a good defense (top 5 in the league in terms of yards and goals), and if he can stick to his game plan with fullback Alvin Kamara and not get caught on penalties, he could be competitive next season and beyond.
Walder: If Breece is back, no. When Brees retires, yes. They are a talented team outside of the quarterback, but the Saints would be an outsider at best if Brees didn’t come out for the season. Looking at the situation in the red in 2021 – OverTheCap.com estimates them at $95 million above the cap, although there are $13.5 million in savings on the cap if Brees doesn’t return – I have to assume the portion of the list that isn’t within CB’s reach won’t be as strong.
Yates: Firstly, I would like to raise the issue of cover: The Saints certainly have a knot to untangle this offseason, a knot that is bigger than they expected because of the impact of COWID-19 on the 2021 ceiling. But it’s a team that has long shown creativity and ingenuity, and is ready to move forward with the limited loads to make this year work. I admit it is the biggest challenge for Mickey Loomis and his management team, but they will overcome it. As for the title window, no, not even when Brees retires. He is a great man of all times. But the Saints have an offense this season that is catalyzed by a dynamic racing game. And I just saw Payton coach an offense for four games without Brees (not his old self when he came back) and most of the season without Michael Thomas, who still scored 30.1 points per game. My money goes to infrastructure.
Who is the free agent that the Saints are so eager to bring back?
Triplets: Winston. The good news for the Saints is that they locked up the top two names on that list before the start of the season (Kamara and linebacker Demario Davis) because their financial resources are too limited to support anyone else. Marcus Williams’ safety and Trey Hendrickson’s defense should cost the most, but Winston could be a top priority if they see him as a potential rookie.
Bowen: Williams. I would let Hendrickson go into free agency with Williams as my first priority. Williams has the range, skill and ball skills to play a big role in Dennis Allen’s defense.
Fowler: Williams. Hendrickson probably bought his way out of New Orleans. Williams is dynamic in space with 13 interceptions and 30 passes in his four-year career. He’s not a major player yet, so maybe a competitive bid from New Orleans in early March will give him some service.
Graziano: Winston, assuming Brees is gone and the Saints are telling the truth about how much they loved Winston this season. We all know the downside, but Winston just turned 27 and is a year away from a 5,000 yard season. They should at least keep him in the loop.
Seifert: Hendrickson. It will be expensive after registering 13.5 sacks in a one-year contract. But one of the secrets to the Saints’ long-term success was paying the key players and taking care of the rest. You know Hendrickson better than anyone, but it seems important to keep the 26-year-old capable of this kind of production – even if it’s through the franchise’s label.
Fire: Williams would be a top priority for me. Then there’s a drop. Then there was Sheldon Rankins’ defensive tackle, which was indistinguishable from the others. Jared Cook will be 34 at the start of next season, and his best years are behind him.
Walder: Winston when Brees retires. If he doesn’t, I don’t think the Saints can afford to think about bringing back one of their free agents, given the state of their cap. Hendrickson is a good player, but his dismissal rate is much higher than his success rate, so I’d be careful about paying for his career year.
Yates: Hendrickson. There are also good reasons to choose Williams, especially since the prices would be very different, but the answer is a player who has become one of the best setters in the league and has done so through incredible development. Hendrickson and Cam Jordan (who is already incredible) are helping each other keep the borderline combination from stopping. Hendrickson isn’t just a firecracker, he’s a sound man in his old style of play.
What should be the Saints’ top priority during the offseason other than solving the quarterback’s puzzle?
Triplets: The 2022 free agent list is even more daunting than the 2021 list, as cornerback Marshawn Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are each expected to cost a fortune. But the Saints now have to decide which ones they want to keep for the long haul, as an expansion could actually shrink their list in 2021.
Bowen: Assuming Winston is back to compete against Hill next season, I’d add a serviceable No. 2 wide receiver against Thomas. I’d look for a wide circle of offensive capability…. and lie down… in the middle of the field.
Fowler: Decide which key players they can spare. The Saints are facing a $98 million deficit that they can’t eliminate with a few simple contract restructurings. They have nearly 10 veterans (non-rookies) whose ceiling is over $10 million. At the very least, separation from established players like Armstead or cornerback Janoris Jenkins should be a separation.
Graziano: Extensions for Lattimore and Ramchik. This big 2017 law should be ready for implementation, as the Kamara extension showed this year, and they have Williams and Hendrickson to take over immediately in free agency. Saints are more likely to rebuild than to rebuild, but it is important to identify their building blocks for the long term and to have some certainty about their costs when making their plans.
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Seifert: They must then determine their long-term plan. Malcolm Jenkins is 33 years old. Janoris Jenkins, 32. Williams is a 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 part with and who will replace them?
Fire: Fixing their cap situation will be a priority, but seeing how they can move multiple contracts and extend players isn’t that crazy. In 2021, they will have to leave Bree and take a drug on their paycheck and start over in 2022.
Walder: If Brees retires, they should at least think about rebuilding this year because the ceiling situation is terrible. They would get as much money out of their ceiling as possible by letting all free agents go (allowing them to earn 2022 compensation picks), but also by selling veterans like Jordan, Armstead and big receiver Emmanuel Sanders to earn trade capital as well. Even someone like Ramczyk could be compensated if he is high enough.
Yates: Boost the bandwidth. With Cook’s departure to free agency, the team should get a notable boost from 2020 to recruit Adam Troutman, who has already established himself as a very useful blocker with promise of success. The Saints hired Sanders as a free agent last year, but this year the team could continue the insurance behind Thomas. We’ve seen them make their way with a diverse group of smugglers this year, but this is an area where a little more investment can go a long way.