For what seems like the past four off-seasons, the New Orleans Saints have faced a handful of issues that threaten to derail what the franchise has built.
Coach Sean Payton comes up as a candidate for one or more job openings. The Saints, known for the fiscal irresponsibility, get into some sort of new salary cap hell. Or there’s a situation with QB Drew Brees’s contract that paralyzes the team and whatever moves the Saints may make that offseason and beyond.
It’s been 12 years of the Brees/Payton marriage, and even though it’s seen some rocky times—especially the last three seasons, with identical 7–9 records—it remains in tact. But for how much longer? Since winning Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints have two playoff wins in five postseason games. Is it reasonable to think this season may be the Saints’ last good season with Payton and Brees?
First and foremost, it should be noted that even though Brees is entering his age-38 season, there’s not much sign of his play diminishing. Surely his arm would get weaker as the season goes along, but he hasn’t played January football since he was 34 so it’s difficult to assess. Brees is likely a season and a half away from catching Peyton Manning for first place on the all-time passing yards list, and the Saints have been in the top six of the league in passing yards since he got to New Orleans (and top 10 in points in eight of his 11 seasons.)
Just before the start of the 2016 regular season, Brees and the Saints struck a deal that amounted to a one-year contract extension that would run $24.25 million in ’17 but with $18 million in dead cap money for ’18. It’s the same kind of can-kicking the Saints have played the past several off-seasons with Brees’s contract, hoping that they won’t have to pay the piper until after he’s left town or retired with the team in full rebuild mode.
“I plan on playing [the contract] out and just allowing things to take form and take shape here for next year,” Brees said in January, according to the NOLA.com, “and putting my absolute best effort to help us win a division championship and then a world championship.”
Heading into 2017, how do the pieces around Brees look? Even though the Saints traded away speedster Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas appears ready to take over No. 1-receiver duties while Ted Ginn Jr. has the speed to replace Cooks. It’s unclear how many touches Adrian Peterson will get in New Orleans’ backfield, but the combination of the best running back of the decade with Mark Ingram makes for a formidable ground game.
And the Cooks’ trade allowed the Saints to get cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the first round to help one of the most consistently bad defenses of the past three seasons. That’s where the rainbow ends for these Saints, though.
Center Max Unger underwent foot surgery for a Lisfranc injury and won’t be available until at least Week 3 of the preseason. Left tackle Terron Armstead tore his labrum this month and will be unavailable for half of the regular season, leaving veteran tackle Khalif Barnes to protect Brees’ blindside. The two most important offensive line positions likely won’t be in harmony to start the season.
There’s also the matter of defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s heart condition that landed him on the non-football injury list this week and will leave his football career in jeopardy. He’s coming off a career-high 6.5-sack season and would have created a fearsome interior with second-year tackle Sheldon Rankins.
So do these injuries, recent failures and the potential for Brees’ free agency spell the end for the Saints as we know them? For all the doom and gloom of the past two paragraphs, probably not.
An unrestricted free agent in 2018, Brees could be the first franchise quarterback to hit the market since Peyton Manning in ’12. Derek Carr is set for his payday of about $25 million per season, and next offseason will see the likes of Matt Stafford and Kirk Cousins getting $25 million-plus-per-year (not to mention possible new contracts for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady). Any deal for Brees will have to begin at $25 million per year.
But take into consideration—the Saints can’t be ready to move on from Brees. Garrett Grayson, a third-round pick in 2015, has yet to throw a pass in an NFL game. Chase Daniel has thrown three passes in the past two years. There is no heir apparent to Brees in New Orleans.
This season could be another disappointing one for the Saints—especially in a division with the past two NFC champions and a surging Buccaneers squad—but no matter the outcome, there should still be hope for “next year” when “next year” arrives.