Solving how to pay stellar 2017 draft class part of Saints' cost of success

Payton: Brees still has more football left in him (2:01)

Sean Payton shuts down all talk of Drew Brees accepting a job to become a football analyst, saying he expects Brees to return to the Saints in 2020. (2:01)

METAIRIE, La. -- No one should feel sorry for the New Orleans Saints, who have won more regular-season games than any team in the NFL in the past three years and who just had a whopping 14 players named to either the Pro Bowl or an Associated Press All-Pro team.

But when your roster is that loaded, the financial math gets a lot more advanced.

“There’s challenges when you’re not successful, and there’s challenges when you are successful,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said, putting it perfectly last week before smiling and adding, “I prefer the latter.”

The Saints are about to face one of their biggest challenges yet because of their remarkable 2017 draft class -- which was one of the best in NFL history.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara became the first duo to sweep the NFL’s defensive and offensive rookie of the year awards in 50 years, and both have been selected to two Pro Bowls in three years.

Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a first-team All-Pro this season and a second-teamer last year. Safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone became instant starters. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson has become a valuable backup.

But the bills are about to come due.

Everyone in that class is now eligible for a contract extension for the first time after three years of service, which could lead to some possible holdouts in the offseason and possible megabucks extensions in the near future.

We just saw the same scenario play out last summer with the Saints’ stellar second-round pick from 2016, Michael Thomas. The wide receiver was three years into his career when he held out at the start of training camp and wound up signing a five-year extension worth $19.25 million per year, plus incentives.

None of the Saints’ fourth-year pros has announced plans to hold out yet. But it seems inevitable -- especially with Kamara, who is heading into the final year of his contract as a third-round pick (he is due a supremely discounted $977,500 in 2020).

Lattimore and Ramczyk are both under team control for two more years because they were first-round picks. The Saints will undoubtedly exercise their fifth-year options on both players this spring.

Lattimore is due to make $2.56 million in salary and bonuses this year, and his fifth-year option for 2021 should be worth somewhere between $9 million and $10 million (the exact figures have not been determined yet). Ramczyk is due $1.68 million this year, and his option should be worth between $10.5 million and $11 million.

Still, both players could also push for long-term extensions this summer instead, as both have a strong case to be among the highest-paid players in the NFL at their respective positions. That could mean more than $15 million per year for each of them.

Kamara’s value is harder to determine because he plays such a unique role as a runner and receiver -- and because he only plays about two-thirds of the Saints’ offensive snaps. But his production is impossible to ignore -- he has averaged nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage in each of his three seasons with exactly 81 catches per year. And he scored a whopping 32 touchdowns in his first two seasons before a surprising dip to six TDs in 2019.

Plus, the entire running back market is about to be reset around the NFL, with the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler, James Conner, Chris Carson and Marlon Mack due for extensions in the near future.

Perhaps Kamara won’t surpass the $15 million per year that Ezekiel Elliott just earned in his recent extension. But his value could be in the ballpark of the deal that Le'Veon Bell signed for more than $13 million per year as a free agent in 2019.

So here’s the ultimate question: Can the Saints afford all of them?

The short answer is yes. The Saints are already slammed up against the projected salary cap of about $200 million in 2020. But they have proved for several years that they are willing to manipulate the cap by pushing costs into the future to keep their core players (and even add a few key pieces in free agency).

In the short term, New Orleans' quarterback situation complicates things even further. Both Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this year, while Taysom Hill is scheduled to be a restricted free agent.

In a perfect world, the Saints would like to keep all three. But we are still waiting to find out if the 41-year-old Brees plans to come back for a 20th season and whether another team will poach Bridgewater on the open market.

Regardless, Brees will retire eventually. And though the Saints will get hit with a $21.3 million “dead money” cap hit if that happens this year, they will eventually be paying less for the QB position than they have in recent years.

The Saints won’t simply offer blank checks to all of their star players, though. They have let a couple of key players such as guard Carl Nicks and running back Mark Ingram walk in free agency when they believed the price tag was too high compared to the value. And they have traded away star players such as tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Darren Sproles for the same reason.

“There’s always a limit,” Loomis said. “We have limitations. It’s not hard and fixed, because we have some maneuverability, but we definitely have limitations.”

But when asked if this finally feels like the first year where the Saints have decided that they simply can’t afford to keep everybody, Loomis said, “We haven’t made any of those decisions yet.”

A “good challenge” definitely awaits.