A Few Great Drafts Make it Easier for the Saints to Afford Drew Brees

The Saints' star quarterback is returning for his 20th season, and the team can afford him because they've had so many hits in the draft in recent years. Plus, mailbag questions on teams that could trade back, where Chase Young might land and a few prospects Albert Breer can't take his eyes off.
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A lot to get to in this week’s mailbag—on the cap situations of a number of teams, who goes where at the top of the draft and, of course, the fate of Tom Brady—but we have to start with Tuesday’s news that Drew Brees is coming back for a 20th NFL season, and why the Saints have to be breathing a pretty healthy sigh of relief. And that’s even though they may have seen this one coming from a mile away.

This’ll sound strange, but you can boil it all down to Vonn Bell and David Onyemata.

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You’ll have to follow me here. Over the last four years, the Saints have caught fire in the draft. They’ve hit on first-rounders (Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Davenport), they’ve found studs later in the draft (Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marcus William, Erik McCoy), and found plenty of valuable role players too (Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Tre’Quan Smith, Trey Hendrickson, Alex Anzalone).

It’s a huge reason why, over the last three years, they’ve gone 37-11, and won two playoff games, and look like they’ve got one of the best rosters in the league going into 2020.

But these things don’t last forever. Eventually, young players grow up and are financially rewarded for outperforming their draft position, and a team that drafts well sees its fiscal reality change as a result. Which brings us back to Bell and Onyemata.

Their draft class was the start of this. Rankins is going into his option year and, if he’s fully healthy again, could theoretically get a new deal later in the year. Thomas signed a five-year extension worth up to $100 million and has emerged as the league’s best receiver. And with so many other young players to take care of on the horizon, the team’s 2016 third- and fourth-rounders will probably have to seek their fortune elsewhere in free agency.

Those guys, Bell and Onyemata, were vital cogs in 2019. Bell’s cap number for 2019 was $1.26 million. Onyemata’s was $2.16 million. And this year, Williams, Kamara, Anzalone and Hendrickson have cap figures under $2 million. Ramczyk’s is still under $3 million.

The bottom line is, because of how well they’ve drafted, the Saints are very much in a sweet spot and have been for a couple years—stocked with guys entering their prime, playing like veterans, but paid like rookies. New Orleans should be able to keep the elite guys like Thomas and Lattimore around. But the pinch has to be felt somewhere. One area will be in the team’s ability to be an aggressor in acquiring outside vets, with bigger contracts topping the cap sheet. Another is in second-wave guys, like Onyemata and Bell, that have to go.

The latter two illustrate the value of being in the spot the Saints are now. Again, it doesn’t last forever. And while you’re in that spot, you want to be able to take full advantage of it.

Without Brees, it would’ve been tough for the Saints to do that, which is why getting him back is a very, very big deal.

We’ll have more on Brees in the coming days. For now, we’re on to your mail…

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MAIL TIME!

From BarrNone55 (@BarrNone55): What are the most likely moves Minnesota makes to escape cap hell?

BarrNone, the good news is the Vikings have been planning for this for a while, and it won’t take a ton of work to get them under the cap. Cutting Xavier Rhodes will save $8.1 million against it. Cutting Everson Griffen will save another $13.1 million. That’s $21.2 million, and Minnesota’s right up against the projected cap now ($198.5 million in commitments), not necessarily over it. So that’ll create room for the draft and minor additions.

Now, the bad news is that cutting Rhodes loose, coupled with the free agency of Trae Waynes, leaves Minnesota in dire need of corner help. Add that to the big payday that safety Anthony Harris has coming, which will likely price the Vikings out of his bidding, and you’ve got issues in the secondary. Losing Griffen would be less of an issue from a roster standpoint, but losing a good pass-rusher could compound problems on the back end.

GM Rick Spielman and cap czar Rob Brzezinski have been very good at handling these sorts of things in the past. They have their work cut out for them this time around.

From Paul Bruccoleri (@pbroc19): Do Giants wind up trading back? And if so, who is most likely trade partner?

Paul, it’s been well-documented that GM Dave Gettleman has zero—that’s z-e-r-o—history of trading back in either Carolina or New York. But there’s a scenario out there where you could see a trade-down opportunity prove too much to pass up for even Gettleman. And I can explain.

Let’s say, as has been expected, the Bengals draft Joe Burrow first and the Redskins take Chase Young with the second overall pick. Let’s say, then, the Lions move Darius Slay for a 1 plus something else—and Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, needing to win now, feel compelled to take Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick, given the dropoff to the next corner (probably Kristian Fulton) on the board.

At that point, the Giants move into the catbird seat. The Dolphins pick fifth, the Chargers pick sixth, the Panthers pick seventh, and, depending on what happens with Cam Newton, there’s a decent chance all three will be in the market for a young quarterback. At that point, if you’re a team in love with Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, what do you do? If you struck out with the Lions, you blow Gettleman away. That’s how it’d happen.

From Jason T (@JT9225): What veteran WR could the Pats trade for before free agency to entice Brady? Diggs? Woods?

Jason, I don’t think the Vikings trade Stefon Diggs. I think Bill Belichick would be a little leery of Odell Beckham. And I hadn’t heard Robert Woods’s name as a potential trade candidate, but I really like the fit there. It feels like Woods has been in the NFL forever, but he doesn’t turn 28 until April, and he’s under contract for the next two years for just $14 million, which is (and this is key) less than Julian Edelman makes.

Woods is also precisely Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels’s kind of receiver—versatile, smart and a really good route-runner. I could see them looking at him almost as a bigger version on Deion Branch for their offense. That said, I’m not sure if the Rams, given Brandin Cooks’s concussion issue, would even listen to an offer for Woods, even with their cap situation. But if they would? The Patriots should make that call yesterday.

From Elaine Seaman (@ElaineSeaman): Do think Drew Brees’ decision to come back will have any effect on Tom Brady’s decision to return?

Elaine, I’d say no, I don’t. But I do think it’s instructive to look at it, and how quickly it came together, and how established trust between Brees and the Saints mattered. New Orleans gave Brees the space to make his decision, and Brees rewarded that by announcing he’d be returning to the team before a contract was even worked out. He, and the team, knew they’d find common ground there, so there wasn’t a need to hold off on making it public.

Are things strained between Brady and the Patriots? Yes, to a degree, they are. My sense all along is that the quarterback’s displeasure last summer was over years, not raw dollars, and I don’t think the team’s stance that they had to be careful in entering uncharted territory with a 40-something quarterback helped much either. But did that blow up a two-decade partnership? No, it didn’t.

The Krafts and Brady still have the rapport the Saints and Brees have, and so things could happen quickly. We’re entering a critical time on that front now. Brady’s last two extensions with the team were done right around this time. His 2013 deal was agreed to on Feb. 26, the last day of that year’s combine. His 2016 deal was done on March 10, a little while after the end of the combine that year.

That’s not a mistake, either. Most teams, the Patriots included, work out their strategy for the offseason just ahead of the combine. So it makes sense that this would be when they start dialogue with a free agent like Brady, whose fate affects everything else they do this offseason.

So do I think Brees returning to the Saints will make Brady sentimental about staying in New England? No. But I do think Brees’s situation gives Patriots fans a reason to be optimistic about Brady. And that’s without even getting to the fact that Brees’s new deal could give the Patriots and Brady rough parameters on a contract.

From Micah Fair (@fairbod123): Will the NFL ever get as transparent as the XFL replay reviews? What are they hiding?

Micah, I’m not sure that the NFL will ever get to the point where everything in the review process is broadcast, for one very simple reason—they don’t have to. The league does call for more access from teams, players, everyone. But where they try to get that access is where they can make money off it. They can monetize Hard Knocks, teams can create in-house content with behind-closed-doors look-ins, and mic’d up-style shows given fans can create another product off a game that just happened.

I think it’d be cool to see how the sausage is made, frame-by-frame, in the review process. But will that really make a difference in how the NFL can monetize its product? I don’t think so. And I definitely don’t think it’s worth the risk, to them, of exposing the officials to another layer of scrutiny—there’s a reason why postgame access to game officials is limited to certain instances, and even then, the officials don’t have to face the press en masse.

The fact is, the XFL is doing it because the guys who run the league, wisely, recognize that they have to do things to differentiate the product from what we’ve all seen forever from college football and the NFL on fall weekends. The NFL itself? The guys at 345 Park Ave. don’t need to do that to draw a crowd.

From Lord_Timmmaayy (@Lord_Timmaayy): Tua best fit for Colts scheme?

Lord, I love Tua’s fit in Indianapolis—and for me, this goes back to a conversation I remember having with Doug Pederson after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. We were talking about their RPO game, and whether you’d see copycatting happening in the aftermath. Pederson kept emphasizing that it’s not as simple as it looks. Coaches need to know how to teach it, and players need quick-twitch minds and bodies to execute it.

That is where this works. Colts coach Frank Reich? He was a huge part of teaching RPOs in Philly in 2016 and ’17. And Tagovailoa was part of an RPO game so sound at Alabama that NFL coaches were routinely hitting up the Tide’s staff to learn more about how they run it.

Now, it’s not like Indy’s whole offense is RPO concepts, nor is it like that’s Tagovailoa’s whole game. But it’d be a nice starting point for both, if the quarterback were to land there, which is probably unlikely based on where the Colts are in the draft order (13th).

From GM wannabe (@GmWannabe): If you are the Bengals and Burrow won’t play for you, do you stay at #1 and pick Chase Young since a player of his caliber won’t be available later?

GM, during Senior Bowl week, as part of a story we did with coach Zac Taylor and scouting chief Duke Tobin, we reported that the Bengals’ focus with the first pick was on four players—the presumptive top 3 at quarterback (Burrow, Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert) and Young. Cincinnati is still working through that, so I’d tell you that Young remains in play to be the first overall pick.

Is Cincinnati taking him realistic? Probably not. The potential value of taking a quarterback first overall, and the trade value of the pick if there’s a quarterback others deem worth taking there, is probably just too great, no matter how great Young is, and he is great. So I think in the end, it’d take the Bengals not liking the other quarterbacks, Burrow saying no, and no one being motivated to come up and trade for the pick, for Young to go No. 1.

I don’t think all that happens.

From KnightWhoSaysNih (@KonSeanneryy): Is this scenario possible? I feel like there’s a chance with the Slay news. 1. CIN- Burrow. 2. Tua (WSH trades down) 3. DET- Okudah 4. NYG- Young.

Knight, no. If Young’s there at No. 3, I don’t think the Lions would hesitate to take him, regardless of the need at corner. And I don’t think it’s the most far-fetched scenario either. If Tagovailoa or Herbert get hot, it’s not nuts to think the Redskins could auction the pick—though I’d still say they’ll probably stay where they are and draft Young.

From Ramblin' Fan (@RamblinFan): With so much talent at quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft, which NFL free agents at quarterback may struggle to find a team willing to pay top dollar for their services?

This is a fun question, so I figured I’d look at the teams that could potentially bring in a veteran quarterback to start for them. I came up with the Patriots, Dolphins, Bengals, Titans, Colts, Jags, Raiders, Chargers, Bears, Bucs and Panthers, and that’s leaving out the Redskins and Broncos, who I think will stick with their young guys.

I think of the guys coming off those teams, Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Philip Rivers are the three fairly certain to land starting jobs somewhere. Ryan Tannehill’s in decent shape, too, though maybe not assured of being handed a starting job. From there, you have players who could get jobs as potential bridge quarterbacks (Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater) and those who’d be possible reclamation projects (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota).

Add it up, and we’ve got a pretty crazy amount of uncertainty here, with a month left until free agency.

From William Carbonetto (@CarboPho): The Jaguars are a mess right now. What is the best realistic offseason (free agency and draft) they could have?

Well, William, first and foremost, their cap situation has to be taken care of. Cutting Marcel Dareus would shave $18.6 million off their books, and releasing A.J. Bouye would save them $11.5 million, and that would get them at least in compliance. Then, I think getting in-house improvement from tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor would help, as would the continued ascension of D.J. Chark as a potential No. 1 option on offense.

But given the spot they’re in with the cap, there’s only so much that can be done. The looming Dareus and Bouye moves would leave the team needing help at defensive tackle and corner, depth at receiver is just OK, and it’s hard to say what they’ll get out of Gardner Minshew in his second year.

I think it’s fair to say this—they go into the offseason operating with a pretty small margin for error, and it’ll take a really good draft class to get them out of the hole they’re in.

From michael christopher (@Bigdogz1318): Have you heard any potential red flags for players in this draft like Polite who Jets drafted last year, where many teams took him off board because of different issues. Who are your favorite prospects in this draft we’re you seeing them being immediate impact players?

Michael, too early for red flags. We’ll be getting into those the deeper we get into the process leading up to April. But as for fun prospects to watch next week, here are a handful to wrap this week up…

Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons: A position-less Swiss Army knife on defense who’ll find his NFL home at linebacker, and project like Derwin James did two years ago, as a guy who can play at all three levels of a defense, even if those two guys play different positions.

Alabama WR Henry Ruggs: An absolute stick of dynamite, Ruggs blazed a 4.26 at Bama’s junior pro day last spring and could threaten John Ross’s combine record (4.22) next week. Ruggs should benefit from Tyreek Hill’s success as a focal point in the Chiefs’ offense.

Utah State QB Jordan Love: He’s not Patrick Mahomes, but you’ll hear that comp over the next few weeks, most because he’s a supremely talented quarterback who’ll enter the NFL raw as can be. (To be fair to both guys, Mahomes was clearly a better college player.)

Louisville OT Mekhi Becton: This dude is an absolute mountain of a person, at 6'7" and 369 pounds. He’s been inconsistent as a player. But if he puts it all together? He’s the rare prospect that big who can play on the left side.

LSU DE K’Lavon Chaisson: I was pointed to him late in the college season, so I made a point of watching him during the Tigers’ title run, and his athleticism pops right out at you. I’ll be really intrigued to see how much he weighs, and how he tests athletically, in Indy.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.