Drew Brees' Contract Could Be a Big Problem for the Saints

Could Brees, with $30 million coming his way in 2016, be playing somewhere other than New Orleans next year?

After a 35-27 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football, the New Orleans Saints dropped to 5-9 on the season and to last place in the NFC South.

This will mark the second straight season the Saints miss the playoffs with at least nine losses on the season. That type of showing in back-to-back years wouldn’t be a problem for, say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a young team in the second year of a head coach with a rookie quarterback. But these Saints, filled with pricey veteran players, are at least hypothetically built to win now.

Over the past few seasons, New Orleans has brought in players such as Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner and Keenan Lewis to help sure up a defensive unit that could match the production of the offense. In most of these cases, significant money was handed out to make these deals happen.

Much of this is due to the presence of Drew Brees at quarterback.

Understandably it would be hard for any team to commit to a rebuilding process with a 36-year-old quarterback on the roster who is still quite good. And Brees is still quite good. 

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Brees is the ninth best quarterback in Passing NEP per drop back through Week 15 even in a season without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills catching passes.

NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

Brees still likely has the ability to play for a few more seasons at high level, but it’s becoming tough to see how that will be done in New Orleans.

Return on Investment

Reports have come out over the past month that the 2016 salary cap is expected to be around $150 million and possibly north of that figure. Per Spotrac, the Saints currently have $154.6 million committed to the cap next season, which will either place them over the cap or dangerously close to it. A lot of that money is committed to players who have played well below the expectations of their salary.

Six of New Orleans’ top 11 cap hits for the 2016 season come on the defensive side of the ball, to players who have participated in the league’s worst defense by NEP for the second season in a row. By Adjusted NEP per play, the 2015 Saints defense is almost twice as bad as the Chargers defense, which is ranked 31st. There’s currently a bigger gap between the Saints and Chargers in Adjusted NEP per play than between the Chargers and the Philadelphia Eagles, who are ranked 14th.

Some of those cap hits are warranted. Cameron Jordan's production has been worth the $12.8 million cap hit he’ll count for in 2016, though that contract is almost assuredly going to be restructured just one year in. But others, like Jairus Byrd, will need to improve exponentially to match how much money the Saints are on the hook to pay them.

Byrd is a microcosm of New Orleans’ issue here. He was given a huge contract as a “win now” move in a year the Saints were already against the cap. The contract was structured so that he would count for just a total of $9 million across the first two years of the deal -- split $3.5 million and $5.5 million -- before ballooning to $10.9 million in 2016. 

The Saints have won in neither of the first two years and now face $11.4 million in dead money should they part ways this offseason, $3.4 million as a post-June 1 cut, which would also continue to push dead money down the line to the 2017 season.

The misfire on Byrd was compounded this past offseason when the Saints inked Brandon Browner to a three-year, $15 million deal and running back C.J. Spiller to a four-year deal worth $16 million. Since leaving Seattle, Browner has been a liability in coverage, and while he had some success on last year’s Super Bowl winning New England Patriots team, he became prone to defensive penalties. He’s taken that a step further this season by committing a record 23 penalties through 14 games, 13 of which have been for defensive holding or pass interference.

The Spiller signing was a strange deal from the moment the contract was inked. New Orleans had just committed $16 million over four years to keep Mark Ingram at running back only to give Spiller the exact same commitment a week later.

When Ingram was healthy, Spiller was sparsely used, and now with Spiller seeing more time he’s still been ineffective. Among 76 running backs with at least 35 carries this season, Spiller ranks 72nd in Rushing NEP per attempt.

Flow With the Brees

Brees isn’t exempt from the mismanagement of the cap in New Orleans. His $30 million cap hit in 2016 is the highest for any player in the league in 2016. It’s also the last year of his current contract, which does not make a salary restructure possible. If the Saints wanted to relieve some cap space, they would need to sign Brees to an extension and then push some 2016 money back into future years. That option involves extending a quarterback who will turn 37 years old in January, a risky endeavor itself even with as well as Brees has played.

This is a decision that won’t be an easy one for the Saints' front office. It’s not as if this is a Peyton Manning situation in Denver where there’s clearly been a decline in skill and performance. As bad as the Saints have been on defense, the team still ranks sixth in Adjusted NEP per play on offense. That’s not possible without Brees, but it’s also not helping the 2015 Saints contend either.

Releasing Brees in the offseason would immediately free up $20 million in cap space but leave New Orleans without a quarterback or anything in return. It’s hard to figure what one $30 million year of a 37-year-old quarterback would command on the trade market, but it might not be crazy to imagine some team attempting a hail mary to get the last of Brees’ production.

Imagine Brees on the Jets paired with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and a defense currently ranked fifth in Adjusted NEP per play. Of course, a trade like that would also require some type of extension to limit the impact of the $30 million hit.

The most likely scenario is Brees receiving some type of extension to stay in New Orleans. But that will also mean the Saints have some major work to do reshaping the rest of the roster. They can free themselves some money by releasing a few overpriced players, but those players will then have to be replaced, and it's not as if they can fill the roster with players at the league minimum in terms of salary.

If the Saints keep missing like they have been with free agent signings, that could continue to lead to a team with a top-10 offense, a bad defense, a 27th ranking in nERD, a zero percent chance of making the playoffs and a waste of one of the best quarterbacks of the past 10 years.