If Drew Brees gets franchise tag, Saints doomed

It took a natural disaster for the New Orleans Saints to be desperate enough to sign Drew Brees in 2006. Six glorious years later, the team is privately trying to sell itself on the notion that Brees is simply a "very good" quarterback.

That was the word coming out of the NFL scouting combine this past week, when Saints general manager Mickey Loomis tried to define Brees as "very good" when the quarterback was called "great," according to three league sources. All three sources were asking Loomis why it was taking so long to sign Brees to a contract extension. Loomis' answer spoke volumes.

It also spoke to the fact that Saints owner Tom Benson is likely going to have to step in to solve the situation. To this point, Benson has left the matter to Loomis.

As one league insider said: "Benson knows where this team was 15 years ago and he sees where it is now. He has to make the call. Mickey is not going to do it."



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As of Thursday, the sides remain roughly $5 million a year apart on a new contract. The Saints are making moves to free up salary-cap money, such as a guaranteed deal for defensive end Will Smith that should free at least $5 million. That move will put the Saints at roughly $19 million under the salary cap, assuming the cap remains close to $120 million.

The Saints have a bevy of other moves they can make for more cap room (cutting linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis would save the team roughly $11 million).

Regardless, if a deal with Brees isn't done by Monday, the team will have to use the franchise tag on him. The ripple effect of that is significant because the Saints also have wide receiver Marques Colston and guard Carl Nicks coming up as free agents. If the Saints are forced to franchise Brees, there is a strong chance they will lose both Colston and Nicks, each of whom are looking for about $9 million per year.

If that happens, the Saints are in trouble.

If the Saints sign Brees, they will keep at least two of those three players. There's a decent chance the team could retain all three by using the franchise tag as leverage against either Colston or Nicks, signing one of them and then slapping the tag on the other.

Coming off the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the belief among many people at the time was that the Saints had to overpay to get Brees because few players wanted to play in the ravaged city. The Saints gave Brees a six-year, $60 million contract in 2006, including $12 million guaranteed and a $12 million option bonus that was due in the second year of the deal. The option was considered a hedge against Brees returning to health since his arm was still in a sling following shoulder surgery.

Since then, Brees has become the greatest free-agent signing in the history of the NFL, the rare player who exceeds any projectable performance. Furthermore, Brees is the best player to ever don a Saints jersey. And that's just the football part.

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Brees has shown dedication to rebuilding New Orleans, so much so that he has earned the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year awards during the past six years.

To top all of that, Brees made himself the face of the NFL Players Association by putting his name to the class-action lawsuit the players filed and by serving on the NFLPA executive board. He was regularly part of the labor negotiations with the owners, showing uncommon leadership for a player of his stature.

Oh yeah, and there's the Super Bowl, which the Saints won for the first time in the 2009 season. Brees just happened to be MVP of that game.

Brees can name his price. Is he worth $20 million a year? How about $25 million?

Short-sighted thinkers will say that whatever Brees gets means there's less for the Saints to sign other players. That's not really the case. Teams can be incredibly creative.

Keeping Brees, Nicks and Colston is critical over the next three years. If not for the dramatic collapse of their defense in the NFC playoffs at San Francisco, the Saints easily could be the Super Bowl champions right now. They are that close and need to remain so.

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The strength of the team is on offense and the defense can be rebuilt through the draft and judicious moves in free agency. First, however, the Saints need to realize that Brees is a bargain at any price.

Stop nickel-and-diming the best player in franchise history and spend the dollars it takes to get it done.

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