How much should Drew Brees make?

With the season over for the Saints, the hot topic in New Orleans suddenly has become the contract situation of quarterback Drew Brees.

His contract expired the moment the Saints lost to San Francisco on Saturday. Technically, he can become a free agent in March. But it’s pretty much a certainty the Saints will re-sign him. If Brees somehow was to leave the Saints, it would be one of the biggest crimes in sports history.

Besides, I don’t think Brees wants to leave New Orleans and the Saints don’t want to lose him. So why wasn’t a deal worked out long ago? Well, there were ongoing talks throughout much of the season, but Brees tabled them later in the year because he didn’t want distractions.

On one level, a new deal for Brees will be very complicated because it’s going to involve a lot of money and have major implications on the team’s salary-cap status for the duration of the contract. On another level, it’s not all that complicated.

Let’s be real honest, Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and deserves to be paid like it. There’s an easy way to get a general feel for what his new deal should be like. That’s to take a look at the contracts of the league’s highest-paid quarterbacks.

I’ll share contract details of the three highest-paid quarterbacks with you for the sake of comparison. Let’s run down the contracts of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. When it comes to average money per year, they are the three best-paid quarterbacks in the league.

You can argue Brees is better than Brady or Manning. At very least, he’s in their ballpark. I don’t think you can quite say the same about Vick, but his contract might mark a good line of demarcation after the truly elite quarterbacks.

Going by average money per year, Brady is tied for the NFL lead. He averages $18 million per season on a contract extension that was signed in 2010. When Brady signed that deal, he got a $16 million signing bonus. His salary-cap figure for 2012 is $15.2 million. His cap figure escalates to $18.2 million for 2013 and 2014.

Manning signed a new deal in July, before anyone realized he’d miss the entire 2011 season with a neck injury. Manning’s deal also averages $18 million per year. He received a $20 million signing bonus in July. The popular report is that Manning has a $28 million option bonus in March, which is only partly true, when it comes to structure. If the Colts, elect not to pick up the option, Manning gets the full $28 million right away. If the Colts keep Manning, the option bonus is deferred over several points through 2015. Manning’s slated cap figure for 2012 is $17 million. It jumps to $18 million in 2013, $18 million in 2014, $19 million in 2015 and $20 million in 2016.

Vick renegotiated his contract in August and it averages $16.667 million per year. Vick’s bonus money wasn’t as big as Brady’s or Manning’s. He got a $7 million signing bonus, plus a $3 million roster bonus for 2011. But Vick also has an additional $5 million in roster bonuses for later in the contract. His cap figures are scheduled to be $13.9 million in 2012, $16.9 million in 2013 and 2014, $17.9 million in 2015 and $20 million in 2016.

Bottom line: Brees should get more than Vick and something similar to what Brady and Manning got. The structure is open to creativity. But I think it’s safe to say Brees can expect to average somewhere around $18 million per season and the Saints can count on his yearly cap figure starting off somewhere around $15 million.