MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Drew Brees has reached the home stretch of his extraordinary career, preferring to play out the final year of his contract with New Orleans while trying to bring the Saints back to the playoffs.
Then he will figure out what's next.
Sam Bradford is coming off a career-best season for Minnesota; he also is playing 2017 on an expiring deal. What the Vikings decide to do next year about his position, with 2014 first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater still in rehabilitation mode for his left knee, remains unclear.
When the Saints visit the Vikings in their opener Monday night, Brees and Bradford will formally begin a season that has put each player in a relatively awkward position: the rare established NFL quarterback on a path toward free agency. They're at different stages with dissimilar track records, but here they are, both coming off remarkably accurate performances in 2016 for teams that didn't match their excellence.
Brees had another ho-hum, league-leading 5,208 yards passing , a record seventh time he's topped the NFL. He completed exactly 70 percent of his passes, while the Saints went a so-so 7-9 for a third straight year.
''He has incredible body quickness. He is such a football master. He understands defenses. He has great recognition. He can make all the throws. He's a Hall of Famer,'' said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, the former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach. ''There's nothing that man can't do.''
Bradford set the all-time record for completion percentage (71.6) and threw for a career-most 3,877 yards in 15 games after Bridgewater's injury forced an emergency trade with Philadelphia right before the regular season. Bradford had a mere 10 turnovers despite a leaky offensive line that helped shape the context for a sharp fade to an 8-8 finish following a 5-0 start.
''Bradford, he should get a medal. He might be one of the toughest guys we've got playing. Forget about the 70 percent completion percentage. He got pummeled last year. He showed up, had to learn an offense, very short notice. He won some games for the Vikings. He took a lot of shots, major shots, and I commend him for getting up and keeping the Vikings alive until deep in the season,'' Gruden said, adding: ''He needs to be protected better for him to flourish like Drew Brees has. He just hasn't had that.''
No matter what happens this year, barring injury, Brees ($19 million) and Bradford ($18 million) will count a lot more than that in 2018 against their team's salary cap. True to their form as the classy leader, neither player has come close to publicly expressing disenchantment with his deal.
''My sense of urgency is in making myself and my team better and putting ourselves in the best position to go out this year and have success,'' said Brees, a 10-time Pro Bowl pick who will turn 39 in January. ''I know that that stuff takes care of itself. It takes care of itself when it's supposed to. And that just shouldn't be the priority right now.''
Even if Brees produces another vintage season, he insisted, the contract ramification is not on his mind.
''Well, I expect to anyway,'' Brees said. ''That mindset is the same every year.''
Bradford, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, has not enjoyed the same level of success that Brees has. But even as a middle-of-the-pack starter in the NFL, he will be in line for a big payday. If he performs under pressure as he did in 2016, the Vikings could have no choice but to commit to him even if Bridgewater's status is still unsettled. To this point, the two sides have not talked about a new deal.
''If something changes then I would look at it, but at this time it's really not on my radar,'' said Bradford, who will turn 30 in November.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has noticed a more assertive, talkative Bradford in their discussions about the team during the spring and summer. He'll have the benefit of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, his play caller as a rookie in St. Louis and in 2015 with Philadelphia, being in charge from the start. Shurmur took over at midseason after the resignation of Norv Turner.
''This year is only the second time in my career where I haven't been rehabbing an injury and I have the same offensive coordinator and been able to kind of fine-tune an offense, so that's been really enjoyable for me,'' Bradford said, adding: ''It was nice to not really have to start over this offseason.''
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