How the Saints approach 2020 with no quarterbacks under contract

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints had the NFL’s most loaded quarterback room in 2019, with Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill. But none of them is under contract for 2020, with Brees and Bridgewater both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and Hill a restricted free agent.

In a perfect world, the Saints would bring back the trio, which is entirely possible. But Brees turns 41 next week and has not yet committed to coming back for a 20th season. Bridgewater, 27, should be in higher demand around the league after going 5-0 as a starter this season. Hill, 29, will probably cost more than $3 million -- perhaps more than $4.5 million if the Saints tag him at the highest level.

As a result, the finances will be a big factor for a team that is already against the salary cap.

“I like the ‘perfect world’ scenario, and yet we don’t live in one,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in his postseason wrap-up news conference on Tuesday, pointing out that he and general manager Mickey Loomis will spend a lot of time meeting about all of their roster decisions in the coming weeks.

Here is a look at what lies ahead for the most important position on the roster.

Will Brees be back?

Brees was mum on his future plans after Sunday's loss. We have reached the “never say never” stretch of his career, given that he has talked openly in recent years about taking it “one year at a time” and treating every season like it could be his last. That said, I would be surprised to see Brees walk away after he just had the best passer rating of his career (116.3) and played so well down the stretch (15 TD passes, zero interceptions in December).

Yes, he struggled in the Saints’ playoff loss to Minnesota, throwing for 208 yards and a touchdown with one interception and his only lost fumble of the season. But that would make it even more surprising to see him end his career on such a sour note.

Likewise, I would be surprised to see the Saints push Brees out the door after he played so well this season. Of course, an argument could be made that they don’t want to lose an “heir apparent” such as Bridgewater in free agency. But the same argument could have been made last season, when Brees struggled down the stretch, and the Saints stayed committed to Brees then.

“I can’t speak for Drew as to his wants," Payton said Tuesday. "I think he wants to play more. And I think that, shoot, we saw him play at a high level.

"You know, we’ll discuss every player on the roster, himself included. But I don’t anticipate this grandiose meeting or phone call anytime soon.”

Two things the Saints don’t have to worry about are Brees threatening to leave for another team or demanding a long-term commitment. He could have done that when he was a free agent two years ago, but he refused to even talk to other teams during the legal-tampering window in 2018. He wound up signing a team-friendly, two-year deal worth $50 million, with $27 million guaranteed.

Maybe this time a similar deal looks like two years, $60 million, with $30 million guaranteed, given that QB prices have continued to skyrocket. Regardless, if Brees wants to stay and the Saints want to keep him, they’ll get a bit of a hometown discount.

Will Bridgewater find a match?

Bridgewater should be in higher demand this year, after his hometown Miami Dolphins were the only team to offer him a starting opportunity in free agency last year.

But the former first-round draft pick will be extremely picky now that the Saints have proven a good fit. Not only did Bridgewater go 5-0 as a starter, but he is also beloved in the locker room and the community. The feeling is mutual.

“Being back in the South, being in this culture and this city -- a city that’s gone through a lot, and me as a person, I’ve gone through a lot as well -- I feel like my personality, my foundation, it sits well with this city. I’ve been able to mesh well with this team, with this city,” Bridgewater told NOLA.com last week.

It will likely take a special situation to pry him away. That would mean a good team that isn’t poised to draft a quarterback (in other words, not the Cincinnati Bengals).

The Dolphins could be a consideration again, after coach Brian Flores started to turn them around this season, but that's only if they convince Bridgewater that they want to build around him and use their three first-round draft picks at other positions.

If Bridgewater stays, the price tag will likely go up from the $7.25 million plus incentives that he made in 2019.

Do Saints see Hill as heir apparent?

Hill is another wild card in all of this, given that Payton has repeatedly suggested that Hill could develop into a starting NFL quarterback. Payton even compared the supremely athletic quarterback/receiver/running back/tight end/special-teams monster to Hall of Famer Steve Young in the preseason.

The 6-foot-2, 221-pounder was at his best during Sunday's playoff loss, completing a 50-yard pass, catching a 20-yard TD pass and running the ball four times for 50 yards. If the Saints ever make the decision to fully commit to him at quarterback, it isn't hard to envision something similar to what the Buffalo Bills are doing with Josh Allen.

Even if the Saints don’t see that as the long-term plan, they will want to keep Hill around in his current role. As a restricted free agent, they will have to make him a one-year qualifying offer to maintain the rights to match any deal he might sign elsewhere. They’ll need to pay at least $4.5 million if they want to tag him at the highest compensation level, which would require another team to give up a first-round draft pick if the Saints let him go. It would cost at least $3.2 million to tag him at a second-round compensation level. The exact dollar amounts have not yet been set.

Can the Saints afford all of them?

The short answer is yes because the Saints have proven time and again that they are willing to manipulate the salary cap by pushing costs into future years. For instance, Brees has a total of $21.3 million in “dead money” scheduled to count against this year's cap, even if he retires.

But it’s getting harder and harder for the Saints to afford their loaded, Super Bowl-caliber roster. Last year, they signed receiver Michael Thomas and defensive end Cameron Jordan to contract extensions worth nearly $20 million per year. Running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk are still on their rookie deals, but they could hold out and demand lucrative extensions as early as this summer.

The Saints also need to decide whether to keep newly added cornerback Janoris Jenkins at $11.25 million and whether to retain free agents including guard Andrus Peat, safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple, defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker A.J. Klein and receiver Ted Ginn Jr., among others.

Is the draft a possibility?

Always. The Saints have studied all of the top quarterback prospects carefully for several years now, and they have been ready to pounce if they ever found the right fit. They were poised to take Patrick Mahomes with the 11th pick in 2017 before the Kansas City Chiefs jumped ahead of them.

But they don't have great ammunition. The Saints don't pick until 24th in Round 1, and they don't have a second-round pick this year.