The man who made the New Orleans Saints could end up breaking them.
Drew Brees arrived in 2006 as the Saints and the city of New Orleans were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He brought instant credibility, an explosive brand of offense and sustained success for a franchise that had been hapless through most of its existence. He also played a vital role in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf South region.
Now, the price tag on all that is coming due. Brees is scheduled to become a free agent on March 13. He and the Saints are negotiating, but reports indicate the two sides remain far apart. That in itself is a little unbelievable because the parameters of this deal are obvious. Brees deserves to be the highest-paid player in NFL history.
I have no doubt that, when all is said and done, Brees will remain with the Saints. If negotiations on a long-term deal continue to fail, the Saints will simply put the franchise tag on their franchise quarterback.
But, either way, this is when we could begin to see the beginning of the end of the Saints as we know them.
They’re not going to be the same team they were last season when they went 13-3. They might not even be the same team they were in 2010 when they went 11-5. And they certainly aren’t going to be the same team they were in the magical 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl.
They’ll have the same quarterback, and that’s a great start. But the economics of his contract mean the Saints aren’t going to have the same quality of players at a lot of other positions. That’s not Brees’ fault, or the team’s fault. It’s simply reality in the modern NFL.
By the time next season rolls around and everything has shaken out, the Saints could be taking several steps back. They’ll still have a high-powered offense because they’ll have Brees, Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, but that offense might not be quite the machine it’s been the past few seasons. That’s because some parts are going to be gone and they can’t truly be replaced.
On defense, which wasn’t an area of strength to begin with, the Saints have a new coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, who needs new pieces to execute his scheme. He’s not going to be able to get all he needs -- at least not this offseason.
So you’re looking at an offense that probably will be a notch or two below what it’s been in recent seasons. And you’re looking at a defense that’s probably going to be far from dominant.
Gee, that sounds pretty much like the Saints were in 2007 and ’08. They scored a lot of points, but the offense wasn’t quite perfect. The defense was far below perfect. That added up to mediocre seasons that didn’t end in trips to the playoffs.
That could be what the Saints face in 2012.
We haven’t even seen the full fallout yet, but we can start looking ahead and, no matter how you slice it, it’s tough to paint a pretty picture.
Brees isn’t the only big-name free agent the Saints have, but he’s the only one they’re absolutely sure to keep. The same can’t be said for guard Carl Nicks and wide receiver Marques Colston. It definitely can’t be said for receiver Robert Meachem and cornerback Tracy Porter, who aren’t on the Nicks/Colston level have been valuable contributors.
At absolute best, the Saints will be able to sign Brees and then place the franchise tag on either Nicks or Colston. At worst, they use the franchise tag on Brees, while Colston and Nicks both walk.
You don’t replace Nicks. He’s the best guard in the NFL and he may be just hitting his prime. Although the Saints have another very good guard in Jahri Evans, they no longer would have the unquestioned best guard tandem in the NFL.
Without Nicks, Brees would lose his best protector. Any quarterback, even Brees, isn’t quite as good when he’s getting pressured (think back to last season’s stunning loss to St. Louis).
Colston probably isn't on his way to the Hall of Fame, but he’s been Brees’ favorite target since they joined forces in 2006. Colston has had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in five of his six years. He’s a big target who isn't afraid to go over the middle. Take him away and take Meachem away, and the Saints would still have Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Adrian Arrington. Moore and Henderson are nice, experienced receivers, but they don’t do the things Colston does.
And when you’ve got no cap room to sign free agents and no first-round draft pick, where are you going to get a receiver who does anything close to what Colston does? And where are you going to get a guard who is anywhere near as good as Nicks?
So let’s subtract a few points a game from the Saints’ offense going forward. And we’re only just beginning to talk about a defense that could end up giving up more points than it has in recent seasons.
This defense isn’t loaded with talent and we soon could see subtraction by subtraction. This salary-cap jam almost certainly will force the Saints to let Porter walk. That’s not that big a deal. The Saints have a top-flight corner in Jabari Greer, and it’s pretty apparent they’ve been preparing for Porter’s eventual departure by drafting Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick in recent years.
But the cost of keeping Brees, and maybe Nicks or Colston, means it’s almost certain the Saints are going to have to trim some cap room by releasing some prominent defensive players or at least restructuring their contracts.
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith are likely the top two targets for that. Although both are aging and Vilma is coming off a knee injury, those two have been New Orleans’ defensive leaders throughout coach Sean Payton’s tenure. Take Vilma away from a group of linebackers that’s ordinary, and you’ve got a group of linebackers that’s less than ordinary. And you're without the next guy in the leadership chain after Brees.
Again, the Saints don’t have the currency (cap room or prime draft picks) to make major upgrades here. Take Smith away from a pass rush that hasn’t even been ordinary, and you’ve got the potential for huge problems.
Unlike predecessor Gregg Williams, whose defensive philosophy was to be opportunistic and create turnovers, Spagnuolo believes in playing more of a shutdown defense, and he likes to generate almost all of his pressure from the front four. With Smith, the Saints have one guy up front who can rush the passer. Without him, they won’t have any.
Good luck trying to find a guy in the middle rounds of the draft or a low-priced free agent who will step right in and give you double-digit sacks. Spagnuolo is a good coach and his hiring set off celebrations in New Orleans. But a coach is only as good as the players around him, and Spagnuolo is probably not going to have a great deal of defensive talent in his first year.
That could be the story of the Saints in 2012.
Keeping their quarterback would at least keep them competitive, but they won't take steps forward if their roster is wiped out and the cap situation keeps them from being rebuilt.