First, let’s get the obvious disclaimer out of the way: You cannot replace Drew Brees.
Not as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Not as the leader who sets the tone on the field, in the locker room and in his signature pregame huddles. Not as the beloved member of the community who embraced New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and led the franchise to its only Super Bowl win in 2009.
And not even as the 2019 version of Brees, who was still one of the league’s best quarterbacks at age 40 with a career-high passer rating of 116.3.
But if Brees does decide to retire this year -- a decision he said he will probably make later in February after taking time to discuss it with his family -- the one saving grace for the Saints is that they have never been better prepared to try to fill the void.
Just as importantly, the Saints have become more of a complete, well-rounded team over the past three years instead of the days when they used to rely on Brees to throw for more than 5,000 yards per season.
Here’s a look at what would lie ahead for the Saints if Brees indeed decides to end his Hall of Fame career after 19 seasons.
Teddy, Taysom or the draft?
Even if Brees comes back, choosing his heir will be a huge decision for the Saints this offseason. Brees and Bridgewater are both unrestricted free agents, and Hill is a restricted free agent. And Saints coach Sean Payton said last week on ESPN’s First Take that he thinks it would be “very difficult” and “unrealistic” to keep all three of them.
That would seemingly make Bridgewater the odd man out if Brees returns -- especially if another team is willing to pay Bridgewater like a starter on the open market.
There have been multiple reports this offseason suggesting that Payton views the versatile Hill as the team’s quarterback of the future. And the Saints would have more time to groom the 29-year-old QB/RB/WR/TE/special-teams ace for that transition if Brees comes back.
However, if Brees does retire, the 27-year-old Bridgewater would still have to be considered the front-runner to replace him in the short term, at least. He went 5-0 as a starter for the Saints in 2019 after Brees suffered a thumb injury in Week 2. And he is the more experienced quarterback, having gone 11-5 as a starter for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 before a major knee injury interrupted his career.
The Saints liked Bridgewater enough to trade a third-round pick for him in 2018. They liked him enough to make him the highest-paid backup in the league last year at $7.5 million plus incentives. And their opinion of him only grew after they felt he got better each week as Brees’ replacement.
Likewise, Bridgewater has made it clear he loves the fit in Payton’s offense, in the Saints’ locker room and in New Orleans in general. He proved that by turning down the chance to leave in free agency last year, when he could have become a starter for his hometown Miami Dolphins.
Bridgewater was more solid than spectacular in his five starts, averaging just 241 passing yards per game. But he completed 69.7% of his passes with nine touchdowns and just two turnovers. And that has actually become a formula that can work in New Orleans -- just as it did when Bridgewater led the Vikings to the playoffs in that 2015 season while averaging 202 passing yards per game with 14 TDs and nine interceptions.
The “Taysom factor” does loom as a fascinating one, though. Payton has repeatedly said he believes Hill has a future as a quarterback -- even comparing him to Hall of Famer Steve Young as an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who was a late bloomer in the NFL.
And Hill was a monster in the Saints’ overtime playoff loss to Minnesota in January, completing a 50-yard pass, running the ball four times for 50 yards and catching two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown.
It’s enticing to think what New Orleans’ offense might look like if Payton fully devoted himself to designing it around the uber-athletic Hill. One possible drawback would be Hill’s injury history in college, especially since the 6-foot-2, 221-pounder loves to challenge tacklers head-on.
But you could envision the Saints running an offense like the Buffalo Bills have with quarterback Josh Allen -- if not an offense resembling what the Baltimore Ravens are doing with quarterback Lamar Jackson. Since Hill is a restricted free agent, the Saints will have the right to match any offer he signs elsewhere or receive lofty draft-pick compensation if he leaves -- depending on the size of their qualifying offer. The exact dollar amounts have not yet been set. But they’ll need to pay at least $4.5 million to force teams to give up a first-round draft pick and at least $3.2 million for a second-round pick.
The Saints should be able to afford to keep both quarterbacks if Brees retires. Although Brees’ old contract will count for a total of $21.3 million in “dead money” against the Saints’ salary cap in 2020, he will be off the books after the season.
It seems unlikely the Saints will consider other free-agent quarterbacks, even though there are some fascinating names who could be in play -- from Tom Brady and Philip Rivers to Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, among many others.
Payton also said on First Take: “We feel like that heir apparent potentially is in the building.” (Though he didn’t specify that heir apparent by name. He also stressed that both Hill and Bridgewater are “fantastic leaders and teammates.”)
“When you watch them play, watch the sideline and the bench and see the excitement,” Payton said.
The draft is certainly a possibility to keep restocking the shelves. But the Saints don’t have much ammunition to work with. They don’t pick until 24th overall in Round 1, and they don’t have a second-round pick.
If they find a prospect they love, they’ll pounce. But having Bridgewater and Hill gives them the luxury of not having to reach.
Why the Saints are built for this
No, we might never again see a Saints offense as prolific as the one Brees and Payton delivered at their peak -- like when Brees threw for a staggering 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns in 2011. New Orleans still holds the NFL record with 7,474 yards gained that season.
But there was a time when everyone in the Who Dat Nation just accepted the fact the Saints would be sunk whenever Brees got hurt or decided to retire. And that’s simply not the case anymore.
The Saints’ run game and defense have not been perfect over the past three years. And they certainly weren’t perfect in their stunning, wild-card playoff loss to the Vikings.
But they have ranked ninth and 13th, respectively, in those two categories from 2017 to 2019 -- which is a marked improvement from years past. They ranked 23rd in rushing and 32nd in defense from 2012 to 2016.
That’s a big reason the Saints were able to win games during Brees’ absence by scores of 12-10 over Dallas in Week 4 and 13-6 at Jacksonville in Week 6.
And it’s a big reason New Orleans has won more regular-season games than any team in the NFL over the past three seasons, finishing 11-5, 13-3 and 13-3 before a series of infamous playoff exits.
The influx of talent from the 2016 and 2017 drafts helped a lot (wide receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, among others). So did key free-agent additions such as linebacker Demario Davis, guard Larry Warford and tight end Jared Cook. They joined mainstays such as defensive end Cameron Jordan, offensive tackle Terron Armstead and one of the league’s best special-teams units.
The Saints had a total of 14 players named to either the Pro Bowl or the Associated Press’ All-Pro team this year. And Payton’s coaching chops and adaptability should be undeniable at this point.
It won’t be easy to keep this loaded roster together, since the Saints are slammed tight against the salary cap and Kamara, Lattimore and Ramczyk are all eligible for contract extensions. But once Brees is off the books, they should be able to afford most of the core players they want to keep, while still adding a few more pieces in free agency.