Will Sean Payton be back? This is the biggest question of them all -- and it won't take long to (finally) find out the answer after speculation about Payton's future has circled this team for months. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Sunday that other teams expect Payton will be allowed permission to talk with them about head coach vacancies. But the Saints will have to agree to draft-pick compensation because Payton still has two years remaining on his deal. Payton has repeatedly stressed that he "sees himself" staying in New Orleans long term, but he hasn't completely squashed the idea of leaving. I think it's entirely possible that Payton and the Saints will part ways, but both sides will be picky because this isn't a situation where divorce is imminent. The Saints still believe in Payton as the coach to lead their rebuilding process. And Payton will be hard-pressed to find the same level of power and control elsewhere.
Will Drew Brees sign an extension? I'll be even more surprised if Brees is traded, even though he turns 37 on Jan. 15 and is due to count $30 million against the salary cap in the final year of his contract. Brees is still playing at a high level, and the Saints don't have an obvious Plan B established yet. The more likely scenario is a contract extension that provides some cap relief. But deciding on Brees' value at his age will be tricky. Tom Brady has agreed to play below market value late in his career, but that's hardly the norm. Even if Brees reups at his current average of $20 million per year, it could be considered a discount because eight other NFL quarterbacks make more than that now.
How will the Saints get under the cap? Even if the Saints extend Brees, they'll still have to trim significant cap space. They are already over the projected 2016 cap of $150 million with just 41 players under contract. It won't be that hard to manage, but several veteran players will either be released or will have to agree to pay cuts, including receiver Marques Colston, offensive tackle Zach Strief and linebackers David Hawthorne and Dannell Ellerbe. Other wild cards include safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Brandon Browner, running back C.J. Spiller, guard Jahri Evans and punter Thomas Morstead, though some would be difficult to cut because they have so much "dead money" remaining on their contracts.
Can the defense be fixed? The Saints made fixing the defense their No. 1 priority after an atrocious 2014 season. They changed coaches, schemes, personnel -- even trading away Jimmy Graham, among others, to acquire resources. Yet they still have one of the worst defenses in NFL history, having shattered the NFL records for most touchdown passes allowed (45). There are several reasons for hope: Core players such as defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Kenny Vaccaro had nice bounce-back years; former CFL cornerback Delvin Breaux has been one of the league's best finds; the rookie class has shown promise; and cornerback Keenan Lewis should come back healthy. But there is still obviously a lot of work left for a team that has gone through five defensive coordinators in eight years.
Are front-office changes needed? I don't expect to see any major shifts in the front office, where longtime general manager Mickey Loomis remains a trusted adviser to owner Tom Benson. Loomis also oversees the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans in a rare dual role as executive vice president. If they ever decide Loomis is being spread too thin, I'd expect him to cut back on his NBA duties rather than vice-versa. But no matter who is making decisions for the Saints -- whether it's Loomis, Payton, assistant GM Jeff Ireland or new hires to come -- they need to greatly improve their batting average. Some of the Saints' biggest expenditures in recent years (Byrd, Browner, Spiller, Junior Galette, even Graham) have put them in a further bind.