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Exit Interview: New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton’s squad came up short in the playoffs again, and now must decide what to do with free agent Drew Brees

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As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the New Orleans Saints, who lost to the Minnesota Vikings 26-20 in the wild-card round on Sunday.

What Went Right

Not even a Drew Brees injury could derail the Saints during the regular season. New Orleans finished 13-3 for the second straight year and claimed its third straight NFC South title. This came despite losing Brees to a torn right thumb ligament in the first half of the season. In five starts from Weeks 3 to 7, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns, and two picks while posting a 69.7 percent completion percentage and 103.7 passer rating. The Saints went undefeated in those games and seemed destined for another first-round bye.

When Brees returned, he looked like he hadn’t missed a step: He threw 25 touchdowns and two picks from Week 8 onward, a stretch that included a five-TD performance against the fearsome San Francisco 49ers defense in Week 14. Against the Colts the next week, he set the all-time touchdown mark, adding another record to his growing collection. There’s never been a better statistical QB than Brees.

Brees’s top target, Michael Thomas, set a record of his own: The fourth-year pro smashed Marvin Harrison’s single-season reception mark, ending the year with 149. He also led the league in receiving yards and was named to the All-Pro first team for the second straight season.

The offense line is the engine that makes all this go: Football Outsiders had it as the best run-blocking unit in the league and the third best at protecting the pass, while Pro Football Focus ranked it fifth overall. That stellar performance starts with tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, who may be the best pair in the NFL. The line gave up just 25 sacks in 2019, and Brees had the lowest pressure rate in the NFL (24.9 percent).

The Saints defense is still good, too: First-team All-Pro Demario Davis was the no. 2 graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus, while Kiko Alonso came in at no. 18. Safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Cameron Jordan also ranked near the top at their positions. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, whose season may be remembered for a sideline yelling match with an assistant coach on Sunday, made the Pro Bowl for the second time in his young career. The defense as a whole may not be among the league’s best, but the individual playmakers are as talented as anyone.

What Went Wrong

Twenty-five teams have won 11 games or more for three straight seasons. Twenty-two of them made the Super Bowl at some point in that run. Only the 1990s Jaguars, the Andrew Luck Colts, and these Saints haven’t. They’re also the first team to go 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and not advance past the conference championship game. All that regular-season greatness since their February 2010 Super Bowl win has not translated into anything meaningful.

Unlike their playoff games in 2018 and 2019—when the Saints fell victim to the Minneapolis Miracle and the worst officiating no-call of the 21st century, respectively—New Orleans was simply outplayed down the stretch on Sunday. While there will be cries that Kyle Rudolph’s game-winning touchdown in overtime was made possible by offensive pass interference, the Saints still allowed the Vikings to be in position to score a touchdown there. The wild-card-round exit is another heartbreak for the fan base, but this one is on Sean Payton’s team.

Free Agency

What will Drew Brees do this offseason? Like Tom Brady, the 40-year-old quarterback will be a free agent in March, and he’s given no indication that he plans to retire. It’s virtually impossible to imagine him leaving, but what kind of contract makes sense for him? He signed a two-year, $50 million deal in 2018. He should be worth that much again, but how long is New Orleans willing to extend him for? We’re at the point with Brees where the only comparable player is Brady.

The more interesting QB decision could be what the Saints decide to do with Bridgewater. The 27-year-old’s contract is set up to void after the league year. He’s sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, and after he performed well in relief of Brees, it’s likely that some team will take a chance on him as a starter. (Perhaps the Patriots, should Brady move on?)

Beyond the quarterbacks, the Saints have most of their key pieces under contract for 2020. Cornerback Eli Apple, guard Andrus Peat, receiver Ted Ginn Jr., and safety Vonn Bell are all set to hit the market, as is quarterback/tight end/utility man Taysom Hill, who has been the ultimate weapon for Sean Payton’s team. But the core will be back next season.

The Draft

The Saints will have the 24th pick in April but only five selections overall thanks to previous trades that netted them the likes of center Erik McCoy and Apple.

Luckily, the Saints don’t have many holes to fill. They’ll likely pick a quarterback at some point, but whether that’s a second-day player or someone like Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Georia’s Jake Fromm at the end of the first round remains to be seen. Also expect them to add wide receiver help later in the draft—the depth behind Michael Thomas consists of Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harris.