Offseason programs kicking off

Most of the NFC South gets back to work Monday, but not the division’s best player.

Barring a sudden turn in contract talks that didn’t appear to be heating up recently, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is not expected to be in Metairie, La., as his teammates begin their offseason program. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers also begin their offseason programs Monday.

The three teams will begin with conditioning and meetings, but the Saints begin their offseason program with perhaps the most intrigue ever surrounding an offseason program. Coach Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension Monday, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt takes over. But Payton won’t be the only leader missing for the Saints.

Brees has been hit with the franchise tag, and has not signed his tender. Brees has said throughout the offseason that he was optimistic a long-term contract would be agreed to, but that hasn’t happened. Brees could take part in the offseason workout if he signs a waiver, but franchise players almost never do that.

As much as it would appear to hurt the Saints that they’re opening the offseason program without their leader, it’s mostly just a symbolic thing. The Saints won’t hit the practice field for a couple of weeks. It’s a virtual certainty that Brees, who always has taken good care of himself, will work on conditioning on his own.

Brees’ absence isn’t that big a deal right now. But it would be in the best interest of the Saints and Brees to get a contract done before the team holds its minicamp. The exact date for that hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely to be in mid-May.

Speaking of minicamps, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin one on Tuesday. The Bucs got to start their offseason program two weeks earlier than the other NFC South teams because they had a coaching change. New coach Greg Schiano will get his first real on-field look at his team in a minicamp that starts Tuesday and continues through Thursday.