METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints just got their first win of 2020.
Quarterback Drew Brees‘ decision to return for a 20th NFL season ensures that the Saints will remain among the top Super Bowl contenders after three straight years of gut-wrenching playoff exits.
But there are plenty of questions to be answered this offseason for a team slammed against the salary cap, starting with how Brees’ return affects the other quarterbacks.
In a perfect world, the Saints would love to keep all three of their quarterbacks. But coach Sean Payton told ESPN’s First Take last month that he thinks that would be “unrealistic” and “very difficult.”
That almost certainly makes Bridgewater the odd man out, given that he is an unrestricted free agent and Hill is a restricted free agent. Bridgewater, 27, should draw significant interest after going 5-0 as a starter in 2019 while Brees was out because of a thumb injury.
From NFL Live: Multiple teams expect Teddy Bridgewater to have a strong free agency market as a starting or bridge quarterback for a team in transition. Widely expected to be on the move unless Drew Brees retires.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) February 17, 2020
It remains to be seen if Bridgewater will receive offers worth $20 million or more per season. But he should get more opportunities than he did last year, when his hometown Miami Dolphins were the only team to offer a starting opportunity, and he signed a one-year deal in New Orleans worth $7.25 million plus incentives.
Bridgewater was more solid than spectacular in his five starts, averaging 241 passing yards per game. He completed 69.7% of his passes with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 103.7 passer rating.
That same formula helped Bridgewater lead the Vikings to the playoffs during his most recent season as a full-time starter in 2015, when he went 11-5 while averaging 202 passing yards per game, with 14 TDs and nine interceptions.
If Brees had retired, the Saints might have wanted to keep Bridgewater as the more proven and experienced option to replace him. But there have been multiple reports suggesting that Payton sees the athletic, versatile Hill as a legitimate franchise quarterback option for the future, despite the fact that he has attempted only 15 career passes, including the playoffs. Brees’ return will allow the Saints to keep grooming Hill as a possible successor.
Louis Riddick reacts to Drew Brees returning to the Saints for another season, including what it means for Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill’s futures.
Hill, 29, will be easier for the Saints to retain because he is a restricted free agent, and the Saints can match any offer he might sign with another team. Depending on the size of New Orleans’ qualifying offer to Hill, teams would have to give up a first- or second-round draft pick if the Saints don’t match the offer. A first-round tender will likely cost somewhere between $4.5 million and $5 million.
If Hill becomes the No. 2 quarterback, the Saints will have to decide how much they can keep using him in his game-changing role as a read-option QB/RB/WR/TE. He was an absolute monster in their playoff loss to Minnesota, completing a 50-yard pass, running the ball four times for 50 yards and catching two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Chances are the Saints will continue to use Hill in a similar fashion, given that he has become so vital to their offense. But they might back off his special-teams snaps, with which he has been a force with blocked punts, fake punt conversions, kickoff returns and coverage tackles. They will definitely make it a priority to add a reliable third quarterback to the mix because of the added risk that Hill could get injured.
What will Brees’ contract look like?
Brees is an unrestricted free agent, but his negotiations shouldn’t be contentious. The last time he was a free agent in 2018, he signed a two-year, $50 million deal that was slightly below market value, with $27 million guaranteed.
Based on inflation around the league, a similar deal this time could be worth somewhere between $28 million and $30 million per year. Maybe Brees will take even less if he’s feeling generous. But the biggest “hometown benefit” he has granted the Saints in recent years is agreeing to one year’s worth of guaranteed salary so the team won’t be hamstrung if he suffers a career-ending injury.
The Saints have to account for $21.3 million in “dead money” against the salary cap from Brees’ previous contracts. They will likely find a way to keep pushing those cap costs into future years through their usual creative bookkeeping methods.
Can the Saints afford everyone else?
Until now, the Saints have used that creative cap management to keep reloading their roster year after year, re-signing core veterans such as Michael Thomas, Cameron Jordan and Terron Armstead to lucrative extensions while adding a few key free agents.
That’s going to get harder now that their spectacular 2017 draft class is eligible for contract extensions. We could see holdouts this offseason from guys such as running back Alvin Kamara (one year left on his deal), cornerback Marshon Lattimore (two years left) and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (two years left).
The Saints also need to decide how many of their unrestricted free agents to keep this year. That list includes G Andrus Peat, S Vonn Bell, CB Eli Apple, LB A.J. Klein, DT David Onyemata, CB P.J. Williams and WR Ted Ginn Jr., among others.
Also, the Saints need to add one or two complementary players to their roster, with a No. 2 receiver among the top priorities.
The good news is the Saints are still loaded with talent, even if they do absorb a couple of losses. They had a total of 14 players named to either an Associated Press All-Pro team or the Pro Bowl the past season.
Is this Brees’ last shot?
Maybe? Brees’ window is closing by the year — not just because of his age but because his roster might never be this loaded again.
But it’s almost impossible to put an expiration date on Brees because of the way he keeps adapting his game so efficiently. No, he doesn’t throw the deep ball as well as he used to, but he has made up for that by working relentlessly in the offseason to tweak his mechanics and by making good decisions on the field.
Brees had the two best passer ratings of his career the past two seasons (116.3 in 2019, 115.7 in 2018). He has the three best completion percentages in NFL history the past three seasons (72.0 in 2017, 74.4 in 2018, 74.3 in 2019). His interception totals the past three seasons are among the four lowest of his career (eight in 2017, five in 2018, four in 11 games played last season).
Before his disappointing performance in the playoff loss, Brees had one of the best months of his career in December, throwing 15 touchdown passes with no turnovers. He set yet another NFL record by completing 29 of 30 passes in a Week 15 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football.
Brees has long insisted that he thinks he can keep playing at a high level until the age of 45. Until we see him walk away or suffer a significant drop-off in performance, it’s hard to discount that possibility.