Saints' window still open, but 2018 was their best chance

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' window to reach another Super Bowl is still open just wide enough that they might even enter the 2019 season as favorites to win the NFC.

Drew Brees is still playing well enough at age 40 to lead a championship team, despite the way his production dipped toward the end of the season. The Saints are still loaded with a collection of young, cheap stars such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Sheldon Rankins and others on their rookie contracts. And their list of unrestricted free agents is a manageable one, with about $10 million to $12 million in projected salary-cap space to start with.

But none of those things will stay true much longer.

Soon, Brees will start acting his age. Soon, the Saints will have trouble paying all of those players listed above (Thomas is heading into the final year of his deal and might flirt with $20 million per season in his next one). And the future roster will be even harder to replenish, considering the Saints don't have any draft picks in the first, third or fourth rounds this year.

That's why the No-Call was even more devastating to this Saints team than it might have been to most.

New Orleans waited nine long years to get this close to a second Super Bowl with Brees and coach Sean Payton. And everything finally fell into place in 2018 to earn the NFC's No. 1 seed -- from staying healthy enough to winning close games to catching breaks like missed kicks by other teams.

Until, of course, the Saints had the worst break of all go against them with the stunning missed pass interference call during Sunday's NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Yes, it must be noted that the Saints also missed plenty of opportunities themselves in the 26-23 overtime loss -- especially Brees' incomplete slant pass to Thomas in those final minutes of regulation and his interception thrown as he was being hit in overtime.

But that's also sort of the point. Getting to the Super Bowl is extremely difficult (for every team not named the New England Patriots) because it requires so much to go right.

The Saints might be just as talented in 2019 -- maybe even more so if they add another pass-catcher and get guys such as Rankins, left tackle Terron Armstead and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson back healthy, among others.

But Payton and Brees know better than most how hard it is for everything else to come together the way it did for most of the 2018 season.

There's also no telling how the Saints will respond emotionally after working so hard and coming so close, only to have "the rug pulled out from under you," as general manager Mickey Loomis put it this week.

The Saints showed their resilience this past season by coming back the way they did from another gut-wrenching loss in the "Minneapolis Miracle." It can't be easy to start back at square one again, but Loomis expressed confidence that they would.

"I love our team. I love the character and the guys that we have and how close they are and their resiliency and their grit as a whole," Loomis said. "I love our staff and the grit of our organization. That's what's comforting. We'll get through this."

Among the most pressing issues for the Saints this offseason:

  • Deciding whether to try to keep unrestricted free-agent quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as a backup and possible heir to Brees, even though he should get some lucrative offers and opportunities to start on the open market.

  • Deciding whether to re-sign running back Mark Ingram. It's a luxury to have two top running backs, but Ingram proved hard to replace during the first four weeks of the season.

  • Deciding whether to extend Thomas' contract a year early. It will be interesting to see if Thomas considers holding out this summer after he and his agent parted ways during the season.

  • Deciding whether they can live with Brees' salary-cap cost at $33.5 million, or if they want to push some of it into the future -- as they have done often in the past. "We'll see what happens," Loomis said. "We've kicked the can down the road a number of times, haven't we? ... [But] we've got a lot of mechanisms to maneuver the cap."

  • Deciding whether they want to free up cap space by releasing players such as safety Kurt Coleman and receiver Cameron Meredith, both of whom underachieved in 2018. However, the Saints do still like Meredith's potential if he can return to full health.

  • Acquiring at least one more reliable pass-catcher -- and maybe two, with tight end and receiver ranking among the team's top needs. It will be hard to count on someone to step in right away and make a big impact through the draft, since their first pick is No. 62. So this should be a priority in free agency.

Here's a list of the Saints' pending free agents:

2019 unrestricted free agents: QB Bridgewater, RB Ingram, DE Alex Okafor (can opt out of current deal), DT Tyeler Davison, TE Benjamin Watson (announced retirement), CB P.J. Williams, LB Craig Robertson, LB Manti Te'o, S Chris Banjo, OT Jermon Bushrod, OL Josh LeRibeus, WR Dez Bryant, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, CB Josh Robinson, OL Michael Ola, OT Derek Newton, DT Jay Bromley.

2019 restricted free agents: K Wil Lutz, WR Tommylee Lewis, CB Ken Crawley.

Key unrestricted free agents in 2020: QB Brees, WR Thomas, C Max Unger, G Andrus Peat, LB A.J. Klein, S Vonn Bell, DT David Onyemata, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Meredith, FB Zach Line.

Key unrestricted free agents in 2021: DE Cameron Jordan, RB Kamara, G Larry Warford, LB Demario Davis, S Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone.