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Could 2020 Be the End of the Saints’ High-Wire Act?

For years, New Orleans has been drafting well and pulling off magical feats against the salary cap. But as Drew Brees ages and a cap decline looms, this may be the last year the team can pull it off.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past few years, the Saints’ contender status has been treated as a given. Following a swoon of 7-9 seasons that seemed to signal a downturn for the franchise, New Orleans has experienced a renaissance. Since 2017, the Saints have been the best team in football at identifying and stockpiling talent. Their historically great draft class that year—one that included four Pro Bowl–caliber starters in the first three rounds—fueled an 11-5 season and a return to the league’s elite. And with the help of shrewd signings like Demario Davis and Jared Cook, the Saints have only gotten better, going 13-3 each of the past two years.

As the 2020 season approaches, Sean Payton’s team is once again on the short list of Super Bowl favorites—but that extended stay at the top may be coming to an end. With Brees nearing the end of his career and a dip in the salary cap looming, the organization’s title window is closing faster than anyone anticipated. The pending impact of those changes means that this season, no team in the NFL has more urgency to bring home a championship than the Saints.

Throughout the back half of his career, Brees and the Saints have performed a familiar song and dance every couple offseasons. Each time Brees was set to “hit free agency,” the two sides agreed on a new short-term contract that paid the QB handsomely but granted the franchise financial flexibility. His past two extensions have both been two-year deals worth $50 million with dummy years attached, allowing New Orleans to spread out his signing bonus over future seasons. It’s a symbiotic partnership that enriches Brees and gives the Saints stability. But it’s also a relationship that can’t go on forever.

Brees is 41 years old and still an elite starting quarterback. In a world where Tom Brady doesn’t exist, that would seem like a miracle. After his return from a thumb injury last season, Brees was arguably the most efficient quarterback in football. He completed 74.6 percent of his passes in his final nine starts, averaged 9 adjusted yards per attempt, and threw 25 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Brees also finished second in Next Gen Stats’ completion percentage over expectations—a sign that his gaudy efficiency numbers weren’t just a product of short, easy completions. Brees may be older than eight NFL head coaches, but this 40-something version has still been able to thrive in the Saints’ loaded, expertly designed offense.

There are some signs, though, that Brees is already on the decline. Only 8.2 percent of his passes traveled 20-plus yards in the air last season—the second-lowest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Brees also finished with the fourth-lowest average depth of target in the league (6.9 yards). New Orleans rarely went over the top last season, but it’s worth noting that Brees and the Saints have been near the bottom of the league in that category for several years. Brees finished with the eighth-lowest ADOT in 2018 (7.1 yards), and the lowest in 2017 (6.9). While filling in for Brees last season, Teddy Bridgewater had the lowest ADOT in football at 6.1 yards. It seems that the Saints’ offensive structure and a desire to incorporate talented underneath options like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are a better explanation for the dink-and-dunk approach than any deterioration from Brees.

The work that Brees has done to keep his aging arm fresh has been a hot topic among Saints writers this offseason, but that shouldn’t be taken as an indictment. There’s no shame in a 41-year-old QB losing a little juice on his fastball. The cliff often comes without much warning for even the best aging quarterbacks, and it’s fair to speculate when that moment might come for Brees. But even if his body can hold up for the entire 2020 season, there are still off-field factors that threaten to end the Brees era in New Orleans. In April, Brees reportedly reached an agreement with NBC to begin broadcasting for the network after he retires. Neither Brees nor the Saints have given any indication that he’ll step away after this season, but it’s certainly possible that a cushy, well-paying job in the booth is more attractive than another year spent getting knocked around by guys built like Khalil Mack. Tony Romo has a lot of time to play golf these days.

Brees’s early-season thumb injury last year provided a rare glimpse into what Payton’s team might look like without his Canton-bound quarterback. New Orleans went 5-0 during his absence, riding monster performances from Thomas and Kamara as Bridgewater played well enough to get $33 million guaranteed from Carolina this offseason. The Saints responded to losing Bridgwater by inking the multifaceted Taysom Hill to a one-year, $16.3 million extension and bringing in Jameis Winston on a one-year, $1.1 million deal. Outfitted with one of the league’s best coaches and arguably the NFL’s most loaded roster, New Orleans is set up to succeed after Brees rides into the sunset. But how long the Saints can keep this stacked collection of talent together is another question.

In the past several years, the Saints have pulled off a daring high-wire act in building their star-studded roster. No team has been more aggressive in trading up for the prospects they covet, and no franchise has been bolder in pushing the limits of the salary cap. Adding voidable years onto the end of new contracts in order to borrow money from future years was a popular tactic among teams this spring, but it’s been a staple of the Saints’ approach for some time. That freewheeling mindset might not be advisable for most franchises, but damn, if the Saints haven’t made it work.

It’s tough to find a recent glaring mistake from the Saints’ pro and college scouting departments. The front office routinely treats future draft capital like Monopoly money, but with the way this team has drafted, that strategy hasn’t come back to bite them. Thomas, Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Marcus Davenport, and Erik McCoy have been towering home-run picks all made between 2016 and 2019. Even lesser-known homegrown talents like Trey Hendrickson (2017 third-rounder) and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (2019 fourth-rounder) have been solid contributors early in their careers. On the pro personnel side, the Davis signing (three years, $24 million) is arguably one of the top free-agent deals of the past few years. In two seasons with the franchise, Davis has been one of the best linebackers in football. The 2019 first-team All-Pro will carry a $9.9 million cap hit this fall—the 15th-highest charge among off-ball linebackers.

Davis is the most valuable of New Orleans’s recent acquisitions, but other veterans like tight end Jared Cook, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and guard Larry Warford (who was recently released after three seasons as a starter) have all been smart moves. Earlier this week, former pro personnel director Terry Fontenot received a deserved promotion to vice president and assistant general manager for his work scouting the open market. The team of Fontenot, Payton, assistant GM for college scouting Jeff Ireland, and general manager Mickey Loomis has rivaled the work of any front office in football over the past few years, but it’s worth wondering when this hot streak may end.

This Saints regime has done a remarkable job of unearthing college talent, but history has proved that for even the best football minds, success in that area is hard to sustain. During their early years together in Seattle, GM John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll oversaw several fruitful drafts that included finds like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Golden Tate, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson. That collection of players helped turn the Seahawks into a perennial contender and the most dynamic NFL team of the 2010s. But less than a decade later, Seattle’s recent draft failings were used by some as justification for dealing a pair of first-round picks for Jamal Adams. It’s possible that the Saints’ ultra-aggressive draft strategy has been motivated by the desire to squeeze all they can out of Brees’s final years, but if New Orleans continues to play fast and loose with their draft picks after Brees is gone, things could go downhill fast.

Along with their daring approach to the draft, the Saints have also treated the salary cap more like a suggestion than an obstacle. Take the deal that New Orleans gave cornerback Janoris Jenkins this offseason. The former Rams and Giants corner signed a two-year, $16.8 extension in late March that pushed his 2020 cap hit down to $4 million and gave New Orleans some much-needed short-term relief. But that money has to go somewhere. In lowering Jenkins’s 2020 charge, New Orleans pushed his 2021 cap number to $14.2 million. That strategy of pushing money into future years has worked masterfully for the Saints in the past, when the league was thriving and the cap increased by at least $10 million each year. But with the cap likely cratering to a floor of $175 million in 2021 because of lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saints will be faced with some tough decisions next offseason. New Orleans currently has more than $250 million in cap liabilities for 2021, putting the franchise about $75 million over the agreed-upon cap floor for next year. Players like Thomas, Cameron Jordan, and potentially Brees will obviously be on the roster if they want to be, but the second tier—a collection of very good players that make up one of the deepest, most talented teams in the entire league—may be in trouble.

A dip in the cap will affect every team in some way, but the way the Saints have built their roster and treated Brees’s twilight makes them more susceptible than most. Lately, it’s just been understood that the Saints would be in the playoff mix, but it’s possible that this is the final year of the New Orleans roster as we know it.

For all the Saints’ team-building luck in recent years, they’ve been just as unlucky down the stretch. The late-season heartbreaks they suffered with the Minneapolis Miracle and the notorious no-call against the Rams in the NFC championship game would sting either way, but those awful breaks may hurt even worse if New Orleans has to turn over a significant portion of its roster—including Brees—in the next 12 months. The Saints are, rightly, among this season’s Super Bowl favorites, and with so much uncertainty hovering over both the franchise and the league at large, they better make the most of it.