Brees’s age and the varied appeal of two backups — Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill — who are headed into a form of free agency make the Saints’ quarterback outlook a sneakily major spring NFL subplot.
Welcoming Brees back is the easiest, likeliest outcome and the clearest path for the Saints to contend for an elusive second Super Bowl next season. It’s still complicated for the Saints. Last season, they had three quarterbacks with the potential to lead an NFL team — one obvious legend, one ascendant leader and one intriguing project.
If Brees wants to come back, the Saints really do not have a choice. He is royalty in New Orleans, having helped to save the franchise in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and he remains very good, especially in the regular season. But if Brees returns, the Saints could go from holding three quarterbacks to zero in two or three years.
It’s possible the Saints could be tossing away a chance to secure their next version of Brees by welcoming him back. Brees, then an undersized passer with injury concerns known for accuracy and leadership, was 27 when he joined the Saints in 2006. Bridgewater, who fits the same description, is 27 now.
Bridgewater, an unrestricted free agent, has proved through both tangible and intangible means he is an NFL starting quarterback, maybe even at an elite level. He went 5-0 in Brees’s absence last year, improving in each game. At age 23, before he suffered a devastating knee injury in a late-summer practice, Bridgewater led an 11-5 Minnesota Vikings team to the 2015 playoffs. Teammates speak about him in reverential terms.
The Saints’ quarterbacking future bubbled up Tuesday after Hill told the Associated Press on a podcast that he sees himself as a franchise quarterback and he would prefer to play elsewhere if the Saints don’t share his outlook. The sentiment was neither new nor contentious. Hill always has said he wants to play quarterback, including in an interview with The Washington Post last season. Coach Sean Payton seems to share Hill’s belief. He has praised Hill’s quarterbacking at every chance; in the preseason, he compared Hill to Steve Young.
Even when the Saints first explored ways to use Hill as a special teamer, coaches “made it very clear that in no way is this dictating what my future is going to be like here,” Hill said last season. “They still felt like I had the potential to be a starter in this league. They addressed that early so I never had to.”
Hill’s comments this week were still notable because the downtime in the NFL calendar makes the league’s news machine desperate for fuel and because Hill’s contractual status has changed. Hill is a restricted free agent, which means the Saints can tender him a contract that would force another team to give them a first- or second-round pick if they sign him away. Payton may well give him a first-round tender to avoid losing him.
The most spectacular Saints outcome, even if it is a long shot, for neutral fans would be the Saints turning the offense over to Hill. Payton designing some kind of hybrid system around Hill that combines college concepts, the Baltimore Ravens’ scheme around Lamar Jackson and the Buffalo Bills’ offense around Josh Allen would be one of the most delicious football experiments imaginable.
But that probably will remain in the imagination. As thrilling as Hill is, the assumption he is a franchise quarterback is dubious. He shouldn’t be counted out — his athleticism is unusual, his arm strength is clear, and through near-constant injury, he led a major college program for four years at Brigham Young. There is a case to be made that Hill is an outlier, and Payton is an ideal coach to lead him. The overwhelmingly smart bet is that a 29-year-old who has never been a full-time NFL quarterback will fail at it if given a chance.
Brees’s recent postseason performance hovers over the Saints’ decision. The stakes of playoff games make it tempting to read too much into a one-game sample. But Brees was dismal in the Saints’ 26-20 home loss to the Vikings in January — the Saints functioned best when Hill played quarterback, even if his use then was gimmickry. Brees was also bad in the second half and overtime in New Orleans’s NFC championship game loss last year. His playoff history is littered with losses as a favorite. Maybe it’s a pointless nitpick — he is, after all, Drew Brees. But it’s worth wondering whether he has reached an age where his body, especially his surgically repaired shoulder, wears down late in the season.
The Saints probably can’t let Brees walk given the politics involved, but that would be a decision they may come to regret if Bridgewater flourishes elsewhere. The Saints may let Bridgewater walk and try to draft Brees’s eventual replacement with the 24th pick; perhaps talented prospects such as Jordan Love or Justin Herbert would be available.
The problem is that the Saints have mortgaged future assets for years to keep Brees’s championship window alive, and their plan relies on turning picks that valuable into instant contributors. Planning for a future without him inherently hurts the point of keeping Brees around.
For the Saints, that future is coming soon no matter what transpires in the coming months. Brees may well be their quarterback in the fall, but nothing about it will seem simple any longer.
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