Jon Gruden has 'a lot of confidence' in Saints' Sean Payton, Drew Brees

Drew Brees will bounce back from the 17 interceptions he threw last season, ESPN's Jon Gruden said. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Jon Gruden is still a believer in Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints offense.

ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst said he doesn’t think Brees is in decline at age 36, though he does understand why some would question the decisions Brees made that led to 17 interceptions last year.

Gruden also believes coach Sean Payton and Brees can find a way to keep producing a top offense after they traded away tight end Jimmy Graham, among others.

“A lot of people hadn't heard of (former Saints receiver) Lance Moore, hadn't heard of a lot of players, including Jimmy Graham. They have done an excellent job over the years developing unknown players,” Gruden said during a Wednesday conference call. “Pierre Thomas, a lot of those players that have flourished in New Orleans were players that people thought not much of. And I've got a lot of confidence in Sean's and Drew's leadership. I think Drew still has taken great care of himself. And in that dome, where the conditions are perfect, he’s going to be a handful to deal with."

I was eager to hear Gruden’s opinion on both of those questions because he is more plugged-in than most analysts when it comes to evaluating the Saints offense. He is a longtime friend of Payton, dating back to when Payton worked under him with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s, and they share a similar offensive philosophy.

Gruden also competed against Payton and Brees for years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Gruden got to study the Saints up close twice late last year when the Saints played twice on Monday Night Football over the final six weeks last season (a loss at home to Baltimore and a win at Chicago).

I first asked Gruden about Brees, who has been taking a hit in various offseason rankings after a down year in 2014.

"I don’t think he’s in decline. I think some of the decisions that he made, the interceptions, I think some of the decisions people are probably questioning," Gruden said of Brees, who still tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards but threw 17 picks as the team fell to 7-9. "But I have a lot of confidence that Drew Brees is gonna have another 4,000, 4,500, 4,700 yards passing. He's gonna probably throw 30 touchdowns again."

Gruden also stressed that he likes the top player that New Orleans got back in the Graham trade -- center Max Unger.

“I like the fact that they got Max Unger. I think the center position has been a problem for New Orleans,” said Gruden, who also said he liked the idea of the Saints drafting offensive tackle Andrus Peat in the first round to “give them some depth and some future at a position where they need it.”

“Jimmy Graham was a great pass receiver. I think they're looking more for a guy that can be an in-line blocker, a more dual-threat-type tight end so they can run the football and take a little pressure off of Brees and shorten the game and maybe take a little of the burden off of their defense as well. They’ve got to play better on defense. And they’ve got to prove a lot.

“But they’re not far away. This NFC South belongs to anyone. It's anyone's league.”