Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer 43d

Saints' daunting to-do list: Replace Drew Brees, save nearly $100 million in cap costs

METAIRIE, La. -- Quarterback Drew Brees' likely retirement is the tip of the iceberg for a New Orleans Saints team that will face its most challenging offseason since Brees arrived back in 2006.

Not only will they have to identify their next quarterback, but they are also projected to be nearly $100 million over the salary cap because the league-wide cap is expected to drop dramatically after lost revenues from COVID-19 in 2020.

Sure, we know the Saints can move cap charges around with the best of them. (I counted up to $140 million in possible cap savings through restructures, extensions and releasing some players who could be deemed expendable.) But the bigger challenge for the Saints is deciding which players they want to build around.

Do they want to keep as much of the current core intact as they try to run it back for a fifth straight NFC South championship? Or do they consider more of a reboot?

Here are the four biggest questions they’ll have to answer first.

It always starts with the QB

Now the Saints will get to experience how so many other teams have been living throughout the NFL for the past 15 years. Every other decision is secondary until they identify their next quarterback.

If they were somehow able to get in the market for a superstar like Deshaun Watson, then it might be worth blowing up half the roster to fit him under the cap. Or if they liked a top-10 draft prospect enough to trade a few years worth of draft capital to move up from pick No. 28, then so be it.

The most likely option for now, however, is to stick with the candidates they have in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, while possibly looking for a prospect to develop later in the draft.

Coach Sean Payton has said numerous times he believes the Saints’ next QB is already “in the building” -- a reference to both Hill (who is under contract for one more year) and Winston (who is an unrestricted free agent).

Although Hill got the starting nod when Brees missed four games because of injury in 2020, Payton said that was largely because he had made a promise to Hill he would get such an opportunity even before the Saints signed Winston to a one-year deal last offseason. And Payton has insisted the Saints liked what they saw from Winston on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.

The Saints should be able to bring back Winston at an affordable price if the feeling is mutual -- perhaps on a deal that includes performance incentives. Winston turned 27 in January, so the idea of developing him isn’t that much different than the idea of drafting a QB prospect based on his potential upside.

As for Hill, he comes with some question marks since he is 30 years old, has struggled with fumbles and still needs to show better anticipation and decision-making when his first reads aren’t open. But he proved to a legitimate starting QB candidate during his four-game audition by throwing the ball better than many people outside of the Saints' building anticipated. And his running ability is an obvious plus.

At the very least, Hill and Winston are good enough candidates for the job that New Orleans shouldn’t have to consider other veteran “bridge” options such as Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Nick Foles, etc.

Which stars get new deals?

The 2021 list of free agents isn’t that daunting -- Winston, safety Marcus Williams, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and tight end Jared Cook are the biggest names. The Saints would love to bring back Williams, whom they believe is a special talent. And Hendrickson just had a breakout year that not even the Saints saw coming with 13.5 sacks. But their fates might be determined by how much the open market values those guys, since the Saints probably don’t have the cap flexibility to use a franchise tag.

The Saints face even bigger decisions with their 2022 free-agent class, which includes: offensive tackle Terron Armstead (due $11.75 million in salary and bonuses in 2021, with a cap cost of $16.3 million); Hill ($12.2 million in salary and bonuses, with a cap cost of $16.2 million); offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (salary and cap cost of $11.064 million); and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (salary and cap cost of $10.244 million). All four of those players will be expensive to keep. However, the Saints could lower their 2021 cap costs by signing them to extensions and back-loading the cap hits. So they probably need to decide now which of those guys they want to continue to invest in.

The Saints already decided to invest long-term in running back Alvin Kamara and linebacker Demario Davis by signing them to extensions right before the 2020 season started -- despite knowing that the team would be hamstrung by the NFL’s reduced cap number in 2021.

Any chance they trade receiver Michael Thomas?

Payton rejected this idea when it was speculated as a possibility before the trade deadline. And there has been no indication so far Thomas is seeking a trade after a difficult season that will end with ankle surgery, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

But he is the most high-profile possibility for a megadeal because he might be the most talented and expensive player on the Saints’ roster. (He is signed through 2024 on a deal that averages between $19.25 million and $20 million per year.)

And the Saints have shown a willingness to trade some high-priced stars that were in high demand in the past (including Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks) because of both the cap savings and the valuable draft assets they could get in return.

In that same vein, they could obviously consider trades with any number of their high-priced assets, including Armstead, Ramczyk, Lattimore, Kamara, Davis and defensive end Cameron Jordan, among others.

Which players could be released?

Newly-acquired linebacker Kwon Alexander is the most obvious candidate to be released or work out a pay cut after he tore his Achilles in December. Alexander was scheduled to earn $13.4 million in 2021, but only $2 million was guaranteed in the case of injury.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (due $10.2 million in salary and bonuses), receiver Emmanuel Sanders ($8 million), safety Malcolm Jenkins ($6.2 million), offensive lineman Nick Easton ($6.5 million), defensive tackle Malcom Brown ($5 million), punter Thomas Morstead ($3.5 million), running back Latavius Murray ($3.35 million), tight end Josh Hill ($2.6 million) and cornerback Patrick Robinson ($2.1 million) could also be considered for trades, releases or pay cuts in an offseason filled with difficult decisions.

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