Things are going well right now for the New Orleans Saints — that upset loss against the Falcons aside, they’re sitting at 7–2, they have arguably the most balanced roster in the league, and franchise legend Drew Brees is back under center after missing five starts with a thumb injury. Of course, New Orleans isn’t in this position without the play of backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who helped rattle off five straight wins in Brees’ absence. New Orleans is firmly in the title conversation at the midway point of the season, but there are some tough decisions coming up this offseason, and the quarterback position is at the center of it all.
Not many teams experience the luxury of rostering two proven starting-caliber quarterbacks at the same time, and when it does happen, it usually doesn’t last long — good quarterbacks don’t want to be a backup and there’s not much value for a team in committing precious resources to a guy they plan on leaving on the bench. That’s why this Brees-Bridgewater outfit is so unique, because Bridgewater has already passed up the chance to be a starter, and New Orleans does want to keep Bridgewater around on the bench for the time being. At the end of this season, however, both Brees and Bridgewater are up for new contracts, and the Saints aren’t exactly going to be flush with cap space. We’re still months away from knowing how this situation will play out, but the result could define the New Orleans Saints for years to come.
Teddy Bridgewater has gone through quite a lot to get to this point. The 32nd overall pick by Minnesota in 2014, Bridgewater posted a 17–11 regular-season record in his first two seasons while leading the Vikings to a playoff appearance and earning a pro bowl nod in 2015. Then, during training camp in 2016, his left knee quite literally fell apart on a simple drop back and playing football again seemed to be a distant concern. Bridgewater’s return to the field less than two years later was nothing short of a minor miracle mixed with extraordinary perseverance and work ethic.
After a short preseason stint with the New York Jets in 2018, where the Louisville product flashed the franchise quarterback potential he displayed a few years prior, the Saints traded for Bridgewater to sit behind Brees and potentially become his successor. Bridgewater quickly became a favorite in the New Orleans locker room and the organization continued to hold him high regard, so much so that they reward him with a 1-year/$7.25 million this past offseason, the highest salary in the league for a backup quarterback. In turn, Bridgewater proved to be a worthy investment, leading the Saints to a 5–1 record during the six-game stretch when Drew Brees was dealing with a thumb injury.
Bridgewater reportedly passed up more money and the opportunity to be the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback this past offseason to take New Orleans’ deal. As he reasoned: “You play the game to compete, and you want to be a starter, but at the same time you don’t want to rush yourself to be in any situation that could possibly lead you back to where you are today.” Sure there was some luck involved with Brees’ timely injury, which allowed Bridgewater to audition for the rest of the league surrounded by a superb supporting cast, but sticking with the better situation was undoubtedly worth the lighter paycheck. And as a result of that gamble, Bridgewater will almost certainly draw greater interest (and more money) when he hits free agency again at the end of this season. New Orleans will be first in line among suitors, but has Bridgewater played his way out of their price range?
In the six games where he has seen significant game action this season (I’m including the Week 2 matchup with the Rams where Bridgewater replaced Brees and played 86% of offensive snaps), Bridgewater played pretty well — 1370 yards to go along with 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Those numbers, prorated over a 16-game season, translate to a 3653/24/5 split. That performance doesn’t deserve any complaints, especially not when it led to a 5–1 record, but speculation from NFL officials peg Bridgewater’s open-market value in the $20–30 million per year range. Is merely solid quarterback play worth that much money? Consider the following: The Detroit Lions have gone 18–22–1 since handing Matthew Stafford $135 million over five years.
On the other hand, if you’re team with cap space next season and you feel that you’re just a decent quarterback play away from contending, are you really going to turn down the opportunity to snag a plug-and-play starter? Do the Titans think a game-managing, turnover-averse guy like Bridgewater will complement a solid defense better than Marcus Mariota or Ryan Tannehill? Would the Patriots be interested if Tom Brady really does decide to leave New England? Do the Buccaneers want to deal with another season of Jameis Winston? Bridgewater has already chosen to take less than market value to stick with a strong New Orleans team, but Brees, despite being just a few months away from his 41st birthday, is playing some of the best football of his career. The end is near for the future Hall-of-Famer, but no one could blame Bridgewater if he doesn’t have the requisite patience to be the next guy up in the Big Easy.
As for Brees, where is he at right now in terms of his mindset? Some seem to think that a six-week layoff was enough time off from the game, but how much longer does he want to keep going? Sure he’s getting up there in age, but in a little over three games of action this season, Brees has thrown 1068 yards and five touchdowns while completing 74.3% of his passes. Additionally, the 19-year veteran set career highs in completion percentage, passer rating, and game-winning drives last season en route to second-team all-pro honors from the AP. So yeah, Brees can probably keep going for a little while longer if he wants. The Saints will also do right by the best player in franchise history no matter what. All of this is to say, Drew Brees decides when Drew Brees is no longer the starting quarterback in New Orleans.
That decision to stick around for at least another season is still up in the air as far as anyone can tell. Brees has not been as outspoken nor as insecure about his age as some of his peers. At the same time, Brees is known to be a quietly fierce competitor who’s still hungry for another ring. Would hoisting up the Lombardi trophy this February be the curtain call he’s looking for? Is he planning on calling it quits regardless of whether or not he wins the last game of the season? No one except Brees can say at this point.
Meanwhile, I cannot see a scenario where he leaves the Saints for another organization, so I’m taking that option off the table — it’s either New Orleans or retire at the end of this season. If he does stick around, any contract will probably be a one- or two-year pact that includes a voidable year so that the Saints can continue to delay a significant cap hit (more on that in a bit). Brees has already taken a few hometown discounts to help with the cap situation, would he be inclined to take another one to close out his career to make room for Teddy? Just how much is he willing to leave on the table for the sake of the organization that he’s been with for 14 years?
This is where things get tough for New Orleans. There hasn’t been chatter out of Bridgewater’s camp if he’s still willing to take another discount, this time a major one, to wait in the wings until Brees calls it a career. But even if Brees does hang up the cleats, keeping Bridgewater around is a tricky proposition.
New Orleans’ salary cap situation, more specifically their management of the cap, was a subject of frequent discussion several years ago when the Saints lived in “salary cap hell.” While the situation isn’t quite as bleak now (a home run draft class in 2017 helped out a lot), an unavoidable and growing issue awaits.
The Saints have been kicking a significant chunk of dead money (salary a team has committed to paying that has not been charged against the salary cap) on Brees’ contract down the road through frequent restructures. Bridgewater’s contract comes with some dead money on it as well, and between the two of them, the Saints are on the hook for an extra $25.3 million next year. They can keep putting off that problem through further extensions, but that figure will only increase the more they do it, and when Brees eventually retires, it comes time to pay the piper. So, it will be difficult to make room for both Brees and Bridgewater while filling out the rest of the roster, but depending on how much Brees is willing to leave on the table, it would be only marginally easier pay Bridgewater if Brees retires this offseason.
And even if Bridgewater is willing to take a pay cut until Brees retires, could Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis stomach both the dead money and a big contract for Bridgewater with looming extensions for Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and Alvin Kamara, among others? The initial plan was to stay as competitive as possible while Brees was suiting up and then start fresh afterward while dealing with the salary repercussions. Bridgewater’s presence changes the organization’s thinking, but their past cap management might not give them another option.
The alternative, of course, is that Saints end up finding a signal caller they like in the draft. Spending a season or two sitting behind a guy like Brees while learning from a head coach like Sean Payton is about as ideal of a grooming period that a young passer could get, and having a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal is a great recipe for success in today’s league. The Saints will most likely be drafting toward the end of each round, but Loomis has not been shy about mortgaging the future to get the guy he wants. Besides, there are plenty of quality quarterbacks who have slipped outside of the first 20 picks, just ask Teddy Bridgewater.
There is a risk that comes with the unknown of a rookie, but it’s hard to say if there is enough finagling and re-structuring to make a non-rookie option work in the post-Brees era while still retaining all the high-level talent elsewhere that makes this team a title contender. Beyond Brees, there are six starters from this season that are due for new contracts this offseason. Some of those guys will be playing for new teams next year even if the Saints let Bridgewater walk, but bringing back the six-year vet could very well wipe out a quarter of the starting rotation from this season, with potentially more to follow.
All these signs would all seem to indicate that Bridgewater is out of Nola after this season, but those with an ear to the ground in this situation are saying otherwise — ESPN’s New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett recently predicted that the Saints hang onto both Brees and Bridgewater, while Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report pegged the Saints as having the best odds to retain Bridgewater’s services next season (albeit at just a 43.5% chance). If that is what Loomis wants, then there is certainly a path to making that route work if both quarterbacks do end up taking less than market value.
As for whether or not they should commit somewhere in the vicinity of 20–25% of the salary cap toward two guys who play the same position, well, remember that the Saints put up three consecutive 7–9 seasons between 2014 and 2016 despite Brees averaging 5117 passing yards and 35 touchdowns a year over that span. Such is life under salary cap hell — even the best coaching and quarterback play can’t overcome a lack of talent among 52 other spots. On the flip side, a complete roster can make even a decent quarterback look like a pro bowler. So maybe the Saints will ask some hard, honest questions of themselves before becoming the first team to ever guarantee eight-figure salaries to two quarterbacks. Right now though, there are title aspirations to focus on. And in true Mickey Loomis fashion, he’ll put off those tough questions for as long as possible.