The 2020 NFL offseason is mostly about quarterbacks and free agency, and no NFL team is dealing with a wider range of outcomes on that front than the Saints are as they enter the spring.
New Orleans has had a Big Easy solution at the game's most important position for 14 years with Drew Brees. But now, for the first time in the Sean Payton era that began with the offensive-minded coach attaching himself to Brees in 2006, the Saints have to consider big changes.
Brees is a pending unrestricted free agent. So is top backup QB Teddy Bridgewater. Taysom Hill, quadruple threat extraordinaire, is set to become a restricted free agent.
Any one of those QBs can start for the Saints next season. Here's breaking down all of New Orleans' scenarios, from the most likely (and simplest) to the least likely (and most complicated).
1. Brees doesn't retire; Hill stays; Bridgewater leaves
Brees is taking his time to decide on his future. The longer he takes, the more the Saints should accept that he might be hanging it up at age 41 instead of grinding through another year with hopes of leading them to a second Super Bowl.
If Brees comes back (still the most likely scenario), he will be in line to cost them anywhere between $10 million and $20 million against the salary cap. The Saints will make his new deal more team-friendly in terms of cap space and free up significantly more than their current number of approximately $9.4 million. But they will need some roster cuts to make it work, and it's not like Brees' return will allow them to go on a veteran spending spree.
That should mean the team can't afford to sign Bridgewater, the 27-year-old who returned on a rookie-like one year, $7.25 million deal to remain Brees' No. 2 in 2019. Given Bridgewater's strong starting stint for an injured Brees — during which the Saints went 5-0 and he rated 99.1 as a passer — and considering an open market set up for a QB carousel, he is bound to see a major salary spike.
The Saints can't afford that, especially because they are so enamored with Hill, who turns 30 in August. Hill will be much cheaper (between $4.6 million and $4.8 million at the highest tender) and easier to keep, and Payton thinks he has starting QB potential.
In this scenario, Brees probably gives it one more shot with a talented NFC contender and imparts a little more wisdom to Hill before setting him up to take over as New Orleans' No. 1 in 2021.
2. Brees retires; Hill stays; Bridgewater leaves
Don't be surprised, then, to see Brees walk away now and leave Hill as the starting QB. Even without a Brees contract, it will be challenging for the Saints to sign Bridgewater at the same lucrative level (around $27 million per season) in relation to what he might get on the open market.
Unless Bridgewater were to settle for significantly less to ensure he would get the keys to a win-now Saints team as opposed to a lesser team, it can be presumed that Hill would start in 2020.
The Saints in this scenario likely would need to hedge their bets at QB with a somewhat high draft pick.
3. Brees retires; Bridgewater and Hill both stay
The Saints are prepared to keep both Brees and Hill, so why not go forward with Bridgewater and Hill, instead? If they can get a manageable deal with Bridgewater, and if they believe he is better positioned to help them keep winning as the starter, this should be the play. Hill would remain the dangerous Swiss Army knife he has been for their offense.
Money aside, this comes down to how much the Saints believe in Bridgewater being a top-half QB option. They know they can't give him a bridge QB type of bargain contract with Hill as a contingency plan for 2021.
4. Brees doesn't retire; Bridgewater and Hill both leave
The Saints couldn't possibly go with Brees and not have a near-future succession plan in house, could they? Sure they could. Bridgewater remains too expensive for them in this scenario, with the added twist of another team aggressively signing Hill to an offer sheet and New Orleans refusing to match.
Let's say the Saints tender Hill at the middle level at around $3.3 million. As Payton has suggested, another team that covets Hill's skill set could be willing to give him a big bump from that number and the required second-round draft pick in compensation. Tendering Hill at the highest level does change that, because then it raises his compensation value on top of salary to a first-round pick.
This scenario happens if the Saints either can't afford or are not sold on Bridgewater, and someone wants Hill more than they do. They would either pursue a backup-type veteran successor who can work in Payton's system (Marcus Mariota?) or draft Brees' heir-apparent as high as the first round, where they currently pick at No. 24 overall.
5. Brees retires; Bridgewater and Hill both leave
Call this the tabula rasa scenario, as Payton would need to reboot his entire QB room.
This means the Saints being lukewarm on Bridgewater as a long-term solution and overselling how much they value Hill to try to get a first-round pick for him. The Saints could then dive all into the veteran starting QB options in free agency (think Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill or Jameis Winston) or be more aggressive drafting their franchise option (Tua Tagovailoa?) with a possible big trade-up in the first round.
If they feel strongly enough about a top rookie prospect who can start immediately, the Saints taking advantage of that contract to stay loaded at other positions would be the preferred route vs. signing an expensive veteran in free agency.
6. Brees retires; Bridgewater stays; Hill leaves
It's difficult to see a situation in which the Saints are comfortable splurging to the level necessary to lock up Bridgewater.
They are much more likely to consider Hill the more worthy investment at a much cheaper price tag.
7. Brees doesn't retire; Bridgewater stays; Hill leaves
Forget about this scenario. Sizable contracts for both Brees and Bridgewater would be way too much to carry on the Saints' books, even if another team's offer sheet for Hill is double his highest tender value (at around $10 million).
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Hill says he wants to keep playing with and complementing Brees. At the same time, he wants his chance to prove he can be a full-time franchise QB, much more than an effective passing/running/receiving/blocking Taysom of all trades.
Should scenario No. 1 play out, Hill likely will get both of his wishes — one year as Brees' backup before getting his solo shot a year later.