Photo courtesy Drew Brees
It took a "Minnesota Miracle" to knock the New Orleans Saints out of last season's NFC Playoffs. The Saints were mere seconds away from a trip to a championship game when Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum connected with receiver Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown, putting an abrupt end to New Orleans' first winning season since 2013.
New Orleans entered this offseason, much like many in the past years, with one major question: "What will happen with quarterback Drew Brees?" Fans got their answer on March 13 when the quarterback signed a new two-year deal to stay with the franchise.
Brees is without question a future Hall-of-Famer and the face of the Saints. Just extending his contract was major news, but the price the quarterback agreed to return for might be even bigger news. New Orleans signed him for $50 million with just $27 million guaranteed over the two-year deal.
Some media and fans have knocked Brees for taking his full market value on his past few contracts. His new contract puts him behind quarterbacks such as the San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford, the Washington Redskins' Alex Smith and the Minnesota Vikings' Kirk Cousins, all of whom received $71 million or more in guaranteed money in their new contracts.
Mike Triplett of ESPN reported that one unnamed team was willing to give Brees $60 million in guaranteed money if he was willing to leave New Orleans. But being with the Saints since 2006 and becoming a fixture in the city may have changed his view on future contracts.
Last season saw a change in New Orleans. The defense improved by leaps and bounds compared to past seasons, and the offense became more balanced instead of centering on Brees.
The Saints went from 27th in total defense, giving up 28.4 points per game, in 2016 to being ranked 17th in total defense and giving up 20.4 points on average. They also went from 16th in rushing in 2016 to fifth place, but dipped from first to fifth in passing.
Brees had his lowest total passing yards since signing with the Saints in 2006. His 4,334 passing yards were the fewest that he has thrown since 2005, his last season with the San Diego Chargers. The 536 pass attempts that he made were also his fewest as a Saint and fewest since his 500 attempts in 2005. However, he threw for 386 completions this past season, which was still better than his 356 in 2006 and 363 in 2009.
The advantages to running the ball more were easy to see. Brees threw just eight interceptions, the fewest that he has thrown since throwing seven in 2004. Brees only had three fumbles, which is the fewest since his two fumbles in 2002, his second year with the league.
He also went from 20 total turnovers, combined fumbles and interceptions, in 2016 to just 11 in 2017. Those turnovers tied a career-low set in 2004 and were the fewest turnovers for Brees since his 14 in 2011.
The Saints' newly revived defense and running game helped them break the cycle of 7-9 records that they were in for three consecutive seasons from 2014 to 2016. Last season, the team won the NFC South for the first time since 2011 and made its first playoff appearance since 2013, finishing 11-5 for the year.
The Saints' new friendly deal with Brees will help them if the 39-year-old quarterback suffers a major injury or his play begins to decline. He will turn 40 before the start of the 2019 season and has said that he wants to play until he is 45.
It seems likely that New Orleans will be willing to sign the quarterback to short-term deals until he shows some sort of decline. If the Saints keep running the ball, he could spend another three to six years leading the club.
The Saints will need to find a replacement for backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who recently left for the Chicago Bears. Taysom Hill is now the only other quarterback on New Orleans' roster. Brees also said goodbye to 34-year-old right tackle Zach Strief, who announced his retirement on Monday, March 12.