National Football League
National Football League

New Orleans Saints find themselves in a difficult spot in the post-Drew Brees era

Updated Mar. 15, 2021 9:59 p.m. ET

The Drew Brees era is over. And what an era it was.

After the San Diego Chargers snagged Brees in the top of the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, the quarterback quickly became a star. After moving to New Orleans in 2006, he grew into a legend.

Now, 20 years later, Brees retires as a 13-time Pro Bowler, the all-time leader in passing yardage and completions, No. 2 in touchdown passes and No. 5 in passer rating.

Canton will be calling soon.

With all of that in mind, New Orleans still has a franchise to run, and the Saints will now take a deep breath and attempt to replace an all-time great.

The challenge goes far beyond replacing their quarterback’s talent, considering the Saints have been playing the ultimate game of kick-the-salary-cap-can-down-the-road – and you have to wonder how much road is left.

Indeed, if you Google "Saints salary cap," you can find enough reading material to fill an afternoon, most of which is covered under the piece Nora Princiotti wrote in "The Ringer" under the headline: "The Saints Are A Perfect Test Case For The NFL’s Salary-Cap Gymnastics."

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Put more succinctly:

Brees did his part to help his team, agreeing to a revised deal last month that allows the Saints to keep him on the roster through May and thus spread his cap hit over the next couple of years.

In the meantime, the team has made some other moves, including a reported plan to release defensive tackle Malcolm Brown, convincing receiver Michael Thomas to restructure his contract and redoing quarterback Taysom Hill’s contract into a four-year deal in which all four years are … voidable?

The creativity is impressive.

With all of these moves, including the expected release of Brown, the Saints should get close to the salary-cap limit for 2021. That still makes it tricky for them to add any more talent, including, say, a quarterback.

Perhaps the Saints could find their next signal-caller in the draft; they currently hold the 28th pick in the first round. Or they could go with Hill. Or maybe they can bring back Jameis Winston, who took a few snaps as a backup in New Orleans last season after throwing 88 interceptions as the primary starter for five years in Tampa Bay.

None of these options is exactly inspiring, as Nick Wright claimed on "First Things First." Wright pointed out that Winston is not under contract and might choose any number of teams that can offer more money than the Saints possess. This is the problem with salary-cap gymnastics, Wright said.

"We need to recognize that the Saints as contenders ended last postseason. … They’re in cap hell, and we’ve known this is coming."

Brandon Marshall claims that Hill is not the guy for New Orleans either, calling the part-time starter a "gadget guy."

"I’d rather go with [Winston]. If we can get those interceptions down to 10 and below, they’re going to be a contender," Marshall said. "He sat behind Sean Payton and Drew Brees for an entire year. If he is who he should be and elevates his game this year, that’s their division. I’m sorry, Tom Brady. I’m sorry, Shaq Barrett. I’m sorry, Lavonte David. No. This team, with that defense and Sean Payton as the head coach – oh my goodness."

That take might be overly optimistic, judging by the responses of Marshall’s colleagues. But according to Saints linebacker Demario Davis, none of that really matters.

"Drew Brees was the general and one of the greatest generals you could ever have," he said on "First Things First." "Any kingdom that you have, when you lose the general or the king or whoever that piece maybe, you’ve got to have a succession plan. I think that has already been in place. We’ve had to go long periods without our general, and it’s not like we can’t do it.

"I know we have two guys over there that are capable of playing in games. We know what Taysom can do as a dual-threat quarterback. We know what Jameis can do. He’s proven it throughout his career."

Marshall pressed Davis on the question: What is the solution? Is it Winston, or is it Hill?

Davis chose a different option, saying that all the Saints need is a quarterback to manage the game and let him and his defensive cohorts handle the rest.

"I’m telling you, the plan is defense," he said.

If that is the strategy, it's one that has worked in the past, perhaps most notably with the Baltimore Ravens, who won a championship in 2000 with Trent Dilfer at the helm and another in 2012 with Joe Flacco.

If the Saints go that route, however, it will be a drastic departure from their recipe for success in the Brees era, when their aerial assault became the stuff of legend – making many of their wins big and easy. 

Whether that will continue to be the case won't be an easy question to answer. 

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