Free-agency Debrief: Why the Saints must pay for Drew Brees

The Saints shouldn’t have allowed Drew Brees‘ contract situation get to this point. With less than two days remaining before Brees can officially become a free agent, burying the Saints in $18 million of dead money, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the Vikingscalled Brees’ representatives Monday to gauge his interest in calling a new roofed stadium his home.

That doesn’t mean Brees is likely to leave New Orleans, but it’s a reminder of how much leverage he wields in this negotiation, despite all the assumptions that another contract with the Saints was a fait accompli. Within minutes of New Orleans’ heartbreaking playoff loss in Minnesota, there were reports that Brees was expected to be re-signed without fanfare. Brees has said repeatedly he plans to stay in New Orleans, telling a local radio station (WWL) last week that he didn’t have any intention on shopping his wares. The team expressed the same sentiment.

“I don’t see that being a long, drawn-out process,” coach Sean Payton said about Brees’ contract when asked at the NFL Scouting Combine, via the New Orleans Advocate. “We’ve been here before. … I think that’s going to get done fairly smooth.”

I’d expect a contract to still get worked out, because it makes way too much sense, but it’s fair to surmise that the two sides currently disagree on Brees’ value. Brees’ most recent extension paid him an average of $22.13 million, and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport has passed along expectations that Brees would be paid between $20 million and $25 million on a new short-term deal. But why should Brees settle for that little?

Brees is the most important player in franchise history, and he’s still playing at the level of a top-five quarterback at age 39. His accuracy and anticipation in the team’s playoff win over Carolina was breathtaking. His 17-point comeback in Minnesota is only forgotten now because of a blown defensive play. If Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford are worth more than $27 million in annual pay, isn’t Brees worth that much on a short-term deal? Kirk Cousins may wind up getting over $30 million per season — and Brees is still a superior player despite his being 10 years older than Cousins.

That brings us back to the Vikings, who likely made their call to Brees on Monday as a matter of due diligence. Any team should expect Brees to stay in New Orleans, just like everyone in New Orleans gets prickly when the possibility of him leaving is even mentioned. But it couldn’t hurt to throw out an offer.

Drew Brees stop playing and pickup the phone , and the Vikings are serious about you joining the squad #Skol

— Cris Carter (@criscarter80)
March 12, 2018

If I were running the Vikings, I’d rather pay Brees $60 million guaranteed over the next two seasons with a Super Bowl-ready roster than hand any contract to Cousins. Even with Brees likely to find a way to stay in New Orleans, there is value in making another NFC contender pay a fair price to keep its team together. It’s a chance for the Vikings to drop a second L on the Saints in the last three months.

It’s not like the Saints truly have options. They have to either sign Brees or eat a ridiculous total of dead money on his salary and find a new quarterback, just when the organization believes it has a Super Bowl-ready roster of its own. All true franchise quarterbacks are underpaid for the value they bring to a team, and Brees remains one of the best. There’s no reason he should be paid far less than Cousins, and Brees knows it. The Saints are beginning to realize it, too, along with the reality that this negotiation isn’t going as smoothly as they hoped.

Brees wasn’t the only player creating drama as the NFL’s negotiating period before free agency kicked off Monday. Here’s a look at the day’s other big stories:

Suh to crash free agency party

Ndamukong Suh is set to become the best defensive player in free agency. Again. Rapoport reported that the Dolphins are likely to release their talented defensive tackle before the new league year begins Wednesday. While it’s unlikely another team would trade for Suh’s contract, which is scheduled to pay him $17 million in 2018, Suh should still inspire a strong market.

Suh is 31 years old and not quite the pass rusher he was earlier in his career, but he is still durable, drawing double teams and dominating in the running game. Suh has missed two career games and played over 83 percent of all of his possible snaps in Miami. He ranked seventh among all defensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ ratings in 2017, the lowest rank of his time in Miami. What were the Dolphins expecting out of him exactly?

Perhaps it’s not worth paying any defensive player $20 million per season, but that’s a choice the Dolphins already made. Cutting Suh makes some sense in a vacuum, but it’s hard to see the plan here when they are trading away young talent like receiver Jarvis Landry and they are taking on other teams’ bad contracts by paying defensive end Robert Quinn over $11 million. Paying Suh $20 million per year isn’t the problem. Paying guys like Julius Thomas, Lawrence Timmons and Andre Branch last year was.

Suh won’t get nearly the same guarantees in this contract as his last one, but some early estimates I’ve seen floated for him in free agency this offseason look way too low. He’s a borderline Hall of Fame-caliber talent who has been as consistent year-to-year as any defensive tackle this decade. If he’s not playing at a Pro Bowl level now, he’s close. You simply can’t say that about virtually any other free agent, which is why he’ll land at No. 3 on our Top 101 Free Agents list when he’s officially cut. Nearly every top-shelf free agent has red flags associated with him, but Suh’s play on the field has been more reliable than any defender available.

Bills are blowing it up

First Tyrod Taylor was dealt to the Browns. Now the Bills sent their talented left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati in a move that was part salary dump, part maneuvering for Buffalo’s franchise quarterback to be named later. The trade with the Bengals includes a swap of first round picks, allowing Buffalo to move up to the No. 12 overall pick in the draft.

The trade echoes the Eagles‘ trade two years ago of Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to Miami in a move that elevated them into the top 10 of the draft, setting up Philadelphia’s monster trade up for Carson Wentz to follow. But the Bills potentially gave up a lot to do so. Coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane may have made the playoffs ahead of schedule in 2017, but it’s clear they believe they have a lot of work to do to re-shape the organization in their image. That means getting rid of a lot of key players brought in by former GM Doug Whaley.

This is a low-risk, high-reward trade for the Bengals who badly needed a left tackle. Glenn is one of the most talented blindside protectors in football, a position that is virtually non-existent in free agency this season. Glenn has missed 17 games over the last two seasons, but he was a top-10 quality tackle in the years before that.

Hayward exemplifies free agency gone right

The Chargers signed cornerback Casey Hayward to a three-year, $15.3 million contract in 2016 after Hayward struggled to find the right place in former Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system. Two second-team All Pro nods later, the Chargers handed Hayward another contract for far more money over the weekend.

Los Angeles’ three-year, $36 million extension for Hayward with $20 million guaranteed is an example that teams can find budding stars in free agency if they know where to look. (Start with young starters who have shown an ability to produce, even if they are coming off a down year.)

I’ve seen a lot of Packers fans bemoan the team’s front office allowing Hayward to get away, but this comes back to coaching. If Hayward had this type of ability in him, the previous Packers coaching staff should have found a way to maximize it. Instead, the Chargers will continue to reap the benefits of a young top-five cornerback who fell in their laps.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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