To Brees or not to Brees
Drew Brees is the greatest player in New Orleans Saints history. Go ahead, say it. Get it out of your system. Take a second if you’d like to think back through history and try to stretch your imagination to see if anyone comes remotely close. We love our patron Saints, Danny Abramowicz and Archie Manning, but their numbers don’t remotely stack up. Deuce McAllister was the leading rusher in our franchise history, but his 7,800 total yards pales comparatively speaking. The other three in the conversation are bigger names, because they are NFL Hall of Famers – and one in waiting: Willie Roaf, Rickey Jackson and Morten Andersen. All Saints greats to be sure, but none on the level of Drew Brees.
The record will show Brees not only as the most prolific passer in Saints history owning every Saints passing record, but one of the best in NFL history as well. He has amassed just under 61,000 yards passing yards (assuming health and normal pace, in the second game of the season, he’ll take over 3rd place all time surpassing Dan Marino) and a 66.4% completion percentage (second to none). He is a top 10 QB all time in at least 10 passing categories. Yes, he’s the product of a pass-happy offense, but were it not for his uncanny accuracy, this offense wouldn’t be possible.
And Drew is a young 37 years old. He’s quite fit and looks like he could easily play at a high level into his 40’s. While no one should expect the production he had the last 8 seasons to continue, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t continue to throw for 4,000 yards a season and in the upper 20’s to mid-30’s total touchdowns a year as a 40-something.
So some might think it might be sacreligious to speak of letting Brees go with good years on the table. It is definitely a risky move in a quarterback driven league. Think of the Super Bowl champion teams of the last 2 decades and while there some great defenses in there, you also see more than a couple of Hall of Fame level quarterbacks in that number. It’s tough to GET TO a Super Bowl — let alone win it — without a stud quarterback. Brees fits that bill and brought the Who Dat Nation to that promised land. But things change…
Drew currently counts $30 million towards our 2016 salary cap. That’s 19.28% of the $155,270,000 salary cap for the NFL this season – far and away the highest of all NFL players
The New Orleans Saints have obviously made some errors in judgement and finances with their signings. Be it drafts or free agency. Until last year’s draft, the previous years had been lean in talent but long in money. Those errors have left us on the books for a lot of players who no longer are members of this team. Those dollars add up financially, but they also add up internally. The powers that be have to wonder about doing what’s right for the long term health of this team.
When Brees’ contract came up last time, the Saints decided to play the wait and see game. He signed a 6-year deal with the Saints in 2006 that was up at the end of the 2011 season. Sometimes teams tear up deals or restructure deals before the contract ends to get their man signed under more favorable conditions. One might have thought the Saints should have taken that route with Brees in 2011. Getting the deal done before the 2011 season got underway would have made sense – you would have locked down your Super Bowl QB for a long term future and the terms might have been more favorable. Instead, the Saints waited through the 2011 season – and Brees simply went out and had the best year of his career and statistically one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. His 71.2% completion rating is a number that will be hard to match.
Still at an impasse in 2012, the Saints used the franchise tag on Brees. This brought up a lot of negativity with Brees (as it does with most players). But the sides worked out a deal before the season started and the tag was shelved (some might say the deal was finalized under the black cloud of Bountygate, which broke during that off-season; that this deal needed to be done as some olive branch to the city in a time of duress). This is the deal Brees is currently under, the 5-year, $100 million dollar deal that expires this season.
This puts us where we are. Drew currently counts $30 million towards our 2016 salary cap. That’s 19.28% of the $155,270,000 salary cap for the NFL this season – far and away the highest of all NFL players (by $5.8 million). And it’s untenable, particularly for a 7-9 team, which is why we are looking at a possible future without Drew Brees.
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The reality is this – looking back at our glory seasons, Brees’ contract was high, but within reason. We were able to sign and resign our own talent, get decent free agents, and create a solid team around him, particularly on the offensive line where we combined luck with moxie. Drafting Jahri Evans out of Bloomsburg College remains one of the Saints all-time wins. Along with Carl Nicks, these were the anchors of a solid front, and they were paid well. But when combined with Brees’ mushrooming cap number, as well as other big signings, it became tough to keep all the big money around. Such is the beast of the NFL, but mistakes also put us behind the eight ball.
Today we look at an offensive line with 2 solid NFL players and three question marks. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Saints offensive line allegedly was the 3rd ranked line in the NFL last season (https://www.profootballfocus.com/pro-ranking-all-32-offensive-lines-this-season/). They cited the interior line for issues, but said the line overall was good. Apparently, different game film goes to ProFootballFocus.com… the Saints offensive line last year wasn’t very good and left Brees running quite a bit. We don’t seem to be in the financial position to go out and get solid free agents to bolster that line, and some of that is due to Brees’ deal. Simply put, his deal is an albatross currently, and only looks to get worse.
So we have Brees for this season; assuming the offensive line play improves, and he doesn’t get hurt. An 8-8 or worse season puts the Saints at a crossroads for many issues – front office, coaching and QB. Let’s look at resigning Brees. Don’t look for the Tom Brady New England discount. Several things about that brother-in-law type deal Brady signed. First, Brady’s wife earns more annually than he does – that family isn’t hurting for cash. Second, he’s been there a bit and has developed a special relationship with Robert Kraft, more so than Brees with Tom Benson. As well, there’s this thing about having so many rings that your hand is weighed down – money is status in the NFL…. unless you have a bunch of rings. And you’re generally considered the best ever at your position. Also, the 4 game suspension comes into play with this new contract. Knowing he was possibly going to be suspended, Brady opted for a contract which pays him a salary of $1 million, and gives him a signing bonus of $13 million. So while he sits for four games, instead of losing $2.1 million dollars, he’ll only lose about $235,000 That’s why Brady’s deal is what it is.
Brees on the other hand is a different bird of a different feather. A former member of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee, he’s going to do what’s in line with what the players union would want, which is to get the best deal (most money for the most years). He’s going to look for at least 4 years in a deal, which takes him to 42 years old from the time he signs. As for money, the market stinks if you’re a Saints fan. When the Houston Texans signed Brock Osweiler for 4 years at $72 million you see that the market is favorable for Brees. Brees is an elite quarterback; there are only a small handful of quarterbacks who have his complete skill set and makeup as well as the hardware to back up the skill. For this reason, we may be looking at the last year of Brees in the black and gold. He’s going to be much more valuable to someone else than to us. Just to throw out some numbers in the ballpark of what Brees is worth; we’ll likely be looking to play in: Aaron Rodgers – 5 years, $110 million, $22 million/yr.; Andrew Luck – 5 years, around $123 million, $24.6 million/yr.; Carson Palmer – 1 year, $24.35 million. It seems that even if you convinced Brees to drop down to 2 years, he’d want around $50 million, and if you sign him for 4 years – which isn’t tremendously wise – what would you need to guarantee to make the contract work? The guaranteed number ends up under the cap one way or another, so you may still end up back at square one. Even if you end load it, as the Saints had done with his current and previous contracts, that cap hit still comes home to roost.
The Saints are 14-18 over their last 2 seasons – 17-22 since beginning of the 2013 season – 9-2 then swooning into the end of the year. Assuming the 8-8 season mentioned before, conventional wisdom says there isn’t any good reason to break the bank to sign an older veteran quarterback to a long term deal, if that deal is going to eat up more than 20% of your salary cap, particularly if your team has just endured 3 consecutive non-winning seasons. As much as we love Brees here, the reality is, it may not make sense to keep him here.
Now that you are miserable, let’s look at the flip side. Let’s say the Saints offensive line figures out what they were doing wrong and gels in time for the regular season. We get off to that mythical 4-0 start playing teams that we truly can beat in the first 4 games of the season and that sets us on the road to a 10-6 season and a playoff berth. Brees once again has a stellar season. At the end of the season, he tells his agent Tom Condon that he doesn’t want to play anywhere else but New Orleans. If the Saints can re-sign him for something reasonable, then they absolutely should.
While it makes no sense to re-sign Brees to a 5 year $25+ million per year deal, if he wants to play here and will take something reasonable that allows the Saints to be competitive, then by all means we should keep him. A realistic number would likely be in the $17-$21 million per year range, 3-4 years. Maybe the Saints can stretch to $22 million, but the per year cap hit can’t be $30 million again. There is room for a deal to be done, it just has to make sense for both sides. As well if we are looking at a .500 region team (7-9, 8-8, 9-7) then we aren’t making any progress as a franchise. Without Brees taking a steep cut at that point (the Saints will argue his value has dropped since he’s only a .500 or less over the last 3 seasons regardless of his personal numbers…) there should be no deal made.
The bottom line is the Saints are trending poorly. They need to make some positive strides. They’ve gone out and made wholesale changes defensively. We’ll be looking to see if those changes pay dividends come September 11 – the jury is still out. But two very good looking drafts concentrating on defense have helped solidify a broken unit. The general consensus is when you are this far down there isn’t any way to go but up. Now the Saints need to focus on continuing to produce the type of offense that’s kept us a top six offense for the past decade. Drew Brees has been the catalyst of that offense, and we’d sure love to see him remain there – but the reality is he may be too expensive for it to make sense for us.