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NFC South Q&A: Has the window closed for Drew Brees and Sean Payton?

Today's question: Expectations for the New Orleans Saints haven’t been this low coming into the season since Sean Payton and Drew Brees first arrived in 2006. After back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the Saints ranked 27th in ESPN’s most recent Power Rankings. And Vegas is betting they’ll plummet even further. New Orleans’ over-under win total is 6.5, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook -- the fourth lowest in the NFL and the lowest in the NFC South. But what about the teams who know the Saints best? I asked ESPN NFC South reporters Vaughn McClure, David Newton and Jenna Laine if they think the window has closed on the Payton-Brees era.

Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: I think Brees and Payton have a couple more years left together, but the Saints' offense hasn’t looked the same since they got rid of Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas and Lance Moore, who was an absolute Bucs killer. And now Marques Colston is gone, too. That offense was so tough to defend because of how quickly No. 9 got the ball out, the way he spread it around and his chemistry with those receivers. Now it’s all youth and Brees has to make stars out of those young guys.

Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: It’s hard for me to ever count out Brees. I’ve watched him pick apart defenses since he was a standout at Purdue. Defenders I’ve spoken with over the years have always stressed pressuring Brees up the middle into his face, being that he’s a shorter quarterback. Despite all that, Brees seems to find a way. Last year against the Falcons, he completed 62 of 81 passes for 635 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 106.8 passer rating. You think the Falcons believe the window has closed? Not a chance. And Brees teaming with Payton means the Saints always are capable of engineering points. Will they win the NFC South? Probably not, with Carolina ticked and focused coming off a Super Bowl loss. But I wouldn’t rule the Saints out completely, although they need to fix a defense that surrendered a league-worst 29.8 points and 413.4 yards per game last season.

David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: Call me crazy, which I’m sure some will, but yes. This doesn’t mean Brees isn’t a really good quarterback anymore. He almost single-handedly beat the Panthers last season in New Orleans when Carolina was 12-0. But at 37, he’s become a financial liability with his $30 million hit on the salary cap. His salary has kept the Saints from bringing in players to adequately shore up one of the worst defenses in the league. Heck, they re-signed Roman Harper after the Panthers opted not to re-sign the 33-year-old strong safety because they considered him on the down side of his career. Harper immediately went to work with the first team. This isn’t the path to success. Payton still is a very good football coach, but too much has gone bad since he was suspended for the 2012 season because of the bounty scandal. Sometimes change has to be made for the sake of change.