Brees contract just part of Saints' complicated free-agency picture

by | CBSSports.com
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Jahri Evans (73) got his big money; now Brees and Carl Nicks (77) await their deals. (US Presswire)  
Jahri Evans (73) got his big money; now Brees and Carl Nicks (77) await their deals. (US Presswire)  

Saints wide receiver Lance Moore and I shared the same thoughts when chatting shortly after the 2011 season as to what would happen if Drew Brees didn't return to the team next season after Brees' contract expires March 13.

Fans. Torches. Protests. Chaos. Anarchy.

A Brees exit from the Saints would make the previous departure of a New Orleans superstar -- Chris Paul a couple of months ago -- come off more like the departure of the middle sister from the 1990s TV series Family Matters: gone and forgotten like he never existed. That's how much Brees means to the Saints organization and to the city of New Orleans.

Forget Peyton Manning and forget Reggie White. Brees would be the most highly coveted free agent in NFL history. Something tells me the Daniel Snyder Redskins money truck would be on standby, while Rex Ryan and the other New York team wouldn't wait to meet Brees in a random diner to sort out a contract like they did with Darrelle Revis.

Brees wants no part of free agency and I don't think he can spell it out any clearer. Brees has said all the right things publicly and has preached how he feels a long-term contract will wrapped up before the start of free agency. It's more like he's imploring that he be signed before free agency.

Then there was an ESPN report earlier this week that Tom Condon, Brees' agent, was baffled at the slow pace of contract talks. Then an unnamed Saints player told CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman that Brees may feel more than baffled about how long a deal is taking and that Brees is telling teammates that his frustrations are rising.

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So will there be any scenario where Brees touches the free market and/or jettisons New Orleans for greener pastures? Absolutely, positively, unequivocally no chance that happens.

"I'd probably be out of a job if he wasn't [back with the Saints], right? I'd be stunned," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said at the Senior Bowl. "We have a franchise tag option. I think we're right back to the fundamental proposition that Drew wants to be with the New Orleans Saints and we want him to be with the New Orleans Saints."

Hanging onto Brees whether through the franchise tag, which would give him somewhere between $14 million and $15 million for 2012, or through a long-term contract, which will likely be one of the richest contracts in NFL history, may be the easiest part of the Saints' offseason bookkeeping issues.

"Hopefully the rest of it is just math and I was pretty good in math in my day and Drew is probably pretty good -- in fact, I know he's really good at math too," Loomis said.

Math is the real reason Brees and Loomis will strive for a deal before free agency. It's not the math the two sides will etch on scratch paper for Brees' deal. It's what the Saints can do with the rest of the peso pie that should, and likely will, be a driving force to complete a contract as soon as possible.

Don't pay attention too much to Feb. 20, which is when the franchise tag period opens. And March 13 -- when free agency opens -- won't be the key date in Brees negotiations either. Pay attention to March 5. It's the last day a team can franchise tag a player.

It's all about timing.

If Brees and the Saints can't hammer out a long-term deal by March 5, the Saints will be forced to tag Brees. This scenario may hurt the Saints worse than fully opening the wallet for Brees as the team has more free-agent contracts to negotiate other than Brees as vital pieces like guard Carl Nicks and wide receiver Marques Colston are set to become unrestricted free agents.

The Saints can't afford to lose either Nicks or Colston. The problem is that they may not be able to afford those two either if they hit the open market. You can't franchise both Nicks and Colston, but you can't franchise either Nicks or Colston if you don't finalize a Brees deal before March 5.

Brees recognized what many around the Saints organization fear could happen this offseason, and what many around the league will relish if it occurs: "Is it realistic to think we can keep absolutely everybody? I don't know how realistic that is because every year on a team there's turnover and I think that's just the business we're in."

That's danger zone.

Names like Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson and Stevie Johnson will make for a flooded market of free-agent wide receivers. All will likely command big contracts or receive franchise tags. You can bet Colston will receive just as much interest as all of these players and he'll be looking for No. 1 receiver money. Brees and Colston have been one of the most prolific combos in the NFL since 2006 and this is THE contract for Colston to set him up seemingly for the rest of his life.

Now it's highly possible Colston won't be as productive in another system and with another quarterback considering Brees is one of the league's elite passers. Add to it that Moore received a five-year, $20 million contract last offseason and Colston's production could be worth twice that amount. Yet Colston's contract situation won't even be the most lucrative the Saints will have to dole out other than Brees.

Nicks could easily be considered a top-five 2012 free agent at any position. Nicks is widely considered one of, if not the best guard in the NFL. He's one of the main reasons Brees stayed upright throughout the most potent passing season in history along with a vastly improved Saints running game.

His teammate, Jahri Evans, may be the main reason the Saints can't afford to keep Nicks. The Saints signed Evans to the richest contract for a guard ever with a deal maxing out at $56 million. Teams will be lined up to pay Nicks more than Evans.

Can the Saints logistically be one of them? Nicks may not think so considering how he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune during Super Bowl week that it has been disheartening that the Saints didn't talk about a contract extension at all during the 2011 season and that he doesn't see how the team can afford him, Brees, Colston and cornerback Tracy Porter.

The tone in the locker room three days after the season when players were asked if Brees would remain with the Saints compared to when players were asked if Nicks would stay in New Orleans was pretty different.

Take tackle Jermon Bushrod, for example. He boasted how much he felt Brees wasn't going anywhere. When I asked about his good buddy Nicks? Not as much.

"I don't really know how that's going to shake out," Bushrod said. "At the end of the day, I'm going to be excited for him. He's going to be fine whether he's here or with another team."

Pretty telling.

Not to mention I'm sure new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would appreciate some help via free agency or through a trade on his side of the football, which could push Nicks to find his deserved payday elsewhere.

The only logical way I can see the Saints hanging onto all three major offensive free agents would be to sign Brees early before being subjected to the franchise tag, tag Nicks and worry about him next year and lock up Colston at the expense of other needs.

If the Saints lose Nicks, Colston or both, all the money Brees receives from his gigantic deal could feel rather hollow as the Saints would take a major hit as they enter the 2012 season as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

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