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When Peyton Manning signed the final contract of his career with the Denver Broncos a little more than four years ago, the clock began to tick on Denver's succession process. The Broncos had four years to groom a replacement for one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. That plan, built around Brock Osweiler, failed when the Houston Texans plucked away Manning's understudy in free agency.
Less than three months after that failure in Denver, the New Orleans Saints are heading into a similar long-term quandary, staring at a significant commitment to an aging, elite quarterback, while also measuring how to survive his inevitable departure. The Saints are weighing two sizeable issues regarding their quarterback spot, two league sources told Yahoo Sports: the amount of guaranteed money that will be necessary to get a contract extension done with Drew Brees, and finding and properly grooming the player who will eventually replace him.
Neither task appears simple at the moment.
It begins with Brees' contract talks, which multiple sources said are at a standstill as the Saints head toward the opening of mandatory minicamp on June 14. Brees is in the final year of a five-year, $100 million deal. A swelling market for middle-tier starting quarterbacks drove up the price on his extension. Brees’ agent, Tom Condon, secured an $18 million per season extension for Philadelphia Eagles starter Sam Bradford, and last offseason inked a $21 million per year extension for Eli Manning (including $65 million in guaranteed money).
Jimmy Sexton, Condon's partner at CAA, also secured a $20.8 million per season extension and $65 million guaranteed for the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers last offseason. And with the salary cap rising this offseason, that translates into a harder bargain driven for Brees, even at age 37.
Given those numbers, two league sources pegged a Brees extension as landing somewhere in the neighborhood of four years and $95 million to $100 million, with guaranteed money likely to exceed $65 million. For now, one league source said the asking price on the extension has played a part in the talks failing to progress. But that lack of movement was also characterized in multiple ways with varying levels of optimism. Among the factors believed to be playing a part …
• The upcoming season's $30 million cap charge for Brees is no longer a pressure point for the Saints. The franchise completed the heavy lifting for this offseason and can carry Brees' cap number without being forced to do an extension simply for space. Cornerback Josh Norman's unexpected availability in free agency stimulated talks between New Orleans and Condon, but the need to get something done quickly dissipated when Norman signed with the Washington Redskins.
• Being able to carry Brees' cap charge has given New Orleans the flexibility of seeing how he performs in 2016. That mitigates some risk of doing an extension now and then potentially having Brees suffer a drop-off in play this coming season. While making Brees wait for a new deal also carries risk of him hitting free agency, the Saints know that Brees loves New Orleans and wants to finish his career with the Saints, and that Condon represented Peyton Manning when Manning played through the entirety of two contracts with the Indianapolis Colts. When each of those deals expired for Manning, Condon and the Colts got another new contract done. The Saints believe they could accomplish the same thing with Condon and Brees if it becomes necessary. While Brees has said he doesn't want to have negotiations on a new deal overlap into next season, the reality is Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and Condon are capable of getting an extension done swiftly. Loomis and Condon have already hammered out two previous contracts for Brees. They have a groundwork and relationship to get another completed quickly.
One source familiar with the Saints' line of thinking said there is a wild card in play: guaranteed money.
There is a looming possibility that Brees could have an expeditious decline in play, potentially as soon as next season. If the Saints lock themselves into guaranteed money comparable (or exceeding) the $65 million given to Rivers or Eli Manning last year, cap economics suggest it's a minimum three-year commitment. Should Brees experience a sudden decline similar to the one experienced by Peyton Manning with the Broncos, he would essentially be uncuttable through the 2018 season and his 40th birthday.
This has given the Saints plenty to think about – and at least some additional motivation to let Brees play out his contract through next season. Should he put up another banner year and show no signs of slowing down, it gives the Saints reason to make another commitment. It would also give New Orleans another season to eye options for Brees' potential successor.
Garrett Grayson was drafted in the third round in 2015 to potentially be that player. But heading into Year 2, the Saints still don't know whether he is capable of rising to that expectation. Part of the problem could be the quarterback room that Grayson is sitting in. Grayson needs to master the New Orleans offense in two ways: through work in the classroom and reps on the field, a league source said. But that has been harder than it sounds.
Why? Grayson is sitting in a classroom with Brees and backup Luke McCown, two players whose mastery of the offense has put quarterback meetings into a constant mode of progression. While Grayson is still learning many of the basic ins and outs of the offense, Brees and McCown are operating at an advanced pace in meetings. As a result, the Saints coaching staff is facing a situation where it has become necessary for quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi to spend additional time with Grayson 1-on-1 in hopes of teaching him basics that Brees and McCown have long mastered.
It remains to be seen how Grayson responds to that environment, but the Saints have been open to exploring other options. The coaching and personnel staff kicked the tires on a few quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL draft, and were believed to be open to taking one if the opportunity presented itself.
It ultimately never did. That has left the Saints where they are now, looking for the right contractual fit with Brees and also considering life beyond him. Neither looks simple at the moment, but both are imperative to the long-term picture.
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