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Sunday will be free-agent audition for Saints' Teddy Bridgewater

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Woodson sees 'underestimated' Saints defense stepping up (0:39)

Darren Woodson thinks that the Saints' defense has been underestimated this season and will show up vs. the Panthers. (0:39)

METAIRIE, La. -- Ironically, the better Teddy Bridgewater plays for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the harder it might be for them to keep him beyond this season.

The 26-year-old quarterback is already poised to be one of the most intriguing players on the NFL free-agent market next year -- especially since a thin draft class for QBs got even thinner this week when Oregon's Justin Herbert announced his decision to stay in school.

But Bridgewater could increase his market value even more if he plays well in his first significant action since the 2015 season.

The Saints, who have already locked up the NFC's No. 1 seed with a 13-2 record, have not yet announced whether Drew Brees or Bridgewater will start Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against the Carolina Panthers. But either way, Bridgewater will play extensively for the first time since he suffered a devastating knee injury with the Minnesota Vikings in the summer of 2016.

"Whatever happens Sunday I'll be excited, just thinking about the road I've had to take to just get to this point," said Bridgewater, a first-round draft pick from Louisville in 2014, who went 17-12 as a starter for the Vikings, including one playoff loss in his most recent start in January 2016. "So I'm excited. I'm excited for this team. I'm excited to be in the position we're in now."

Bridgewater's free agency will be fascinating, because he could potentially choose to join a team that needs a starter right away -- and potentially start a bidding war because of the lack of viable options at his position. Or he could consider staying in New Orleans to wait for Brees to retire. Brees, who turns 40 in January, has always said he thinks he could play at a high level until he is 45 years old, but he has also suggested he might not want to play that long.

It's hard to imagine the Saints being able to afford both of them, though, unless Bridgewater is willing to give a serious discount to his new team.

So maybe the Saints want him to thrive Sunday after all -- so he decides he never wants to leave Sean Payton's prolific offense.

"I can't predict what's in the future," Bridgewater said. "I have to control what's in front of me right now. And that's an opportunity to play this Sunday or just continuing to be a great teammate. Not looking down the road, just continuing to take it one day at a time."

Bridgewater attracted only modest interest in free agency last year, when he signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets that was worth between $6 million and $15 million based on playing time and performance.

But he enhanced his market value quite a bit during the preseason by playing well and proving he was healthy -- so much so that New Orleans traded a third-round pick to the Jets to acquire him.

At the time, the Saints acknowledged that they wanted to both shore up their backup QB position and possibly get a closer look at Bridgewater as a potential future replacement for Brees.

Bridgewater completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards in the preseason, with two touchdowns and an interception.

He has appeared in four games with the Saints this season, mostly just taking a knee to run out the clock, with one pass attempt that fell incomplete.

But when asked this week how he would be able to "turn it back on" for Week 17, Bridgewater replied, "Well, I never turned it off."

"Being in the position that I'm in, you always have to stay ready," Bridgewater said. "And that's been my mindset since I've arrived here. Your opportunity can come within a blink of an eye. Luckily, I haven't had to be rushed out there. But I always have to stay ready."

Payton had some good personal recommendations on Bridgewater from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who is a close friend of his, and from Bill Parcells, who has been a mentor to both Payton and Bridgewater.

Payton has been impressed by what he has seen from the young QB.

"He's smart, he's someone that I think picks things up quickly. He's got a live arm. He's doing well," Payton said. "He's someone that very quickly picked up our system. And you guys don't get to see it, but at practice, whether it's with the scout team, you see the arm strength and you see him make all the throws."

Bridgewater said it has been invaluable to watch Brees work every day and learn from him as a young quarterback.

And he has embraced his role with the NFC South champions, even going viral on social media with his "Bike Life" dance moves after victories.

"It's been a ton of fun, just being here in New Orleans with this team, this city, these fans, this organization. It's been one of a kind," Bridgewater said. "To come to work every day, it's a friendly environment with guys, everyone here, we're shooting basketballs, playing pingpong in our downtime. We've just got that great team camaraderie. And it's great to be a part of it."

Bridgewater said when he reflects on what it took for him to reach this point following the 2016 injury in which he dislocated his left knee, tore his ACL among multiple other ligaments and suffered other structural damage, "It just took team work. That's the best way I can put it."

"From medical staff to the strength and conditioning staff to nutritionists to the guys in the locker room," Bridgewater said. "It took a collective effort to get to this point, and I'm very excited about it."