Darrell Bevell was at the Henry Ford Museum about to buy a handmade ornament for his wife Saturday afternoon when he looked down at his phone.
There was a text message from Detroit Lions chief of staff Kevin Anderson asking the then-Lions offensive coordinator to call team president Rod Wood as soon as possible. Moments later, a dream Bevell had been chasing was fulfilled.
Wood and Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp offered him the chance to become the team’s interim head coach after they had fired Matt Patricia — a job he accepted.
“I hate the circumstances with which it happened. But it’s an opportunity and you got to take full advantage of opportunities that you’re given, however they come your way,” Bevell said Monday. “I’m jacked. I’m excited. I get a five-game audition to show what I’m capable of, but I also told them that everybody is watching them, whether it’s our team, whether it’s other teams, whether the opportunities for them to continue to play, people are watching them.
“So how are we able to react in this moment and how we’re able to bring out our best in these next five games is going to tell all.”
Bevell knows these remaining regular-season games for Detroit could determine whether he’s considered for the job full time. Bevell said Monday that Wood told him he could become a candidate for the full-time job, but even Bevell knows these “five weeks are going to be telling.”
Quarterback Matthew Stafford — who deflected questions about his own uncertain future Monday — said he knows this is an opportunity for Bevell and that “he’ll be himself as much as he possibly can.”
The 50-year-old Bevell, a former quarterback at Wisconsin, had been an offensive coordinator in Minnesota and Seattle before coming to Detroit. He had been mentioned as a potential head-coaching candidate during his time with the Seahawks.
Bevell has met with Lions players twice since being named interim coach, although not in person. The team was off this weekend following its 41-25 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Houston Texans, and then NFL-mandated COVID-19 protocols prevented them from meeting in their building Monday.
Instead, he held meetings from his home — including his first news conference as a coach from his kitchen dining area. Bevell said he still plans on calling plays for Detroit because that’s what he was initially brought in to do and he believes it’s important for the offense to have continuity. But he did hint at changes — although they might not be in the offensive or defensive schemes.
“The one thing I got to do is I got to be me,” Bevell said. “I’ve been at a lot of stops, seen a lot of different head coaches that have gone up there and there’s great things about each and every one of them, so as I was doing that you kind of try to see yourself in that role and how you would handle situations and things that are important to you and that’s what I would do. I am just going to be myself.
“I’m asking the guys to come in with a refreshed attitude ready to work, No. 1, but ready to have a good time and just let them play with their hair on fire and let them play fast, let them play free, and we’ll worry about the end result at the end. But we’re going to take it one game at a time and hopefully we’ll like what happens at the end.”
Bevell said he told the players he doesn’t care what happened in the past under Patricia — who had issues with players when he first arrived in 2018 — and that he is grateful to Patricia and Bob Quinn, who was fired as general manager Saturday, for bringing him to Detroit before last season. But throughout his almost 20-minute conversation with reporters he stressed how he wants his players to have fun.
“It’s just been a little inconsistent at times,” Bevell said. “My thing is I just wanted to be able to have a great time. It’s important to know that being able to have a good time and hard work, you know, they don’t have to be individual deals.
“I mean, you can have a great time and work hard. That’s what I told the guys and that’s what I want them to do. It’s never really been about their work. They’ve worked hard. So I’m excited to just bring that attitude for them.”
Los Angeles Chargers’ new coach Brandon Staley is the latest coaching wunderkind
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A black Range Rover pulled into the Four Seasons at 4:58 in the morning, and Brandon Staley climbed in.
The driver was Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, and he was there to pick up the rather anonymous Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach to interview to be his defensive coordinator, replacing the legendary Wade Phillips.
The interview began immediately along the 10-mile drive to the Rams’ practice facility, where Staley — who came highly recommended from McVay’s inner circle — really dove in.
“When you talk football — I’d like to think that I love football as much as anybody — you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘This guy might be sicker than I am,'” McVay said about Staley.
Staley, who turned 38 last month, loves two things most: his family and football. He and his father are cancer survivors, but he watched the disease take his mother’s life after nine years. He has taken a somewhat unconventional path to the NFL, but every stop — from playing quarterback at Dayton and Mercyhurst, to coaching at Hutchinson Community College and serving as an NFL position coach for three seasons — served a purpose in shaping him and the NFL’s best defense.
Since McVay’s arrival in L.A. four years ago, the Rams’ identity has been tied to his high-scoring offense. But this season is different. And that difference began during a 12-hour marathon interview McVay and Staley admit flew by and could have lasted longer.
Staley pored over his plans for the Rams’ defense, utilizing the blueprint he created at John Carroll University, a Division III school in Ohio where he served as defensive coordinator for the Blue Streaks four seasons earlier and developed a top-ranked unit.
Staley brought up Frank Pines, an undersized lineman for the Blue Streaks who he called a force of nature who could play anywhere along the defensive front.
Pines’ role would be filled by Aaron Donald, the Rams’ two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Then there was Jovon Dawson, an athletic defensive back who could play safety, corner and nickel, a skill set so grand an entire defense could be built around him.
Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey would be Dawson’s All-Pro equivalent.
“They’re not household names to the NFL,” Staley says, “but they’re household names to me.”
Staley knows it sounds like a stretch, walking into his only formal interview for an NFL coordinator position and bringing up D-III players — guys who paid to play in college, that no one ever heard of.
Even his former players got a good laugh when they found out their names were mentioned.
“I couldn’t hold Jalen Ramsey’s jockstrap!” said Dawson, who is 25 and works for a family business.
“That’s just crazy that he said that,” said Pines, 27, now a territory manager for US Foods. “It’s kind of weird to be compared to the best defensive player in the NFL.”
But to Staley, the analogy played perfect.
“The biggest point was that we were going to take advantage of our personnel,” he said. “I was able to articulate that clear vision because I had done it before.”
Now Staley, whose defense can stifle any quarterback, create turnovers and consistently score, is heading across town to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.
“He’s a great coach, one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had,” Ramsey said. “I feel like he’s a genius.”
‘Smooth like chocolate milk’
John Carroll was undefeated in 2013 and preparing for a big, early November game against a physical Heidelberg University team that had blown them out a year before.
The tension in the room felt palpable, and Staley — the typically serious and focused first-year coordinator — knew the moment called for a different approach.
“He looks at us,” Pines recalled, “and says, ‘You know what song really pumps me up?'”
A smooth melody filled the room, the song “Royals” by Lorde playing, and the rather stiff Staley began to groove.
“He’s like, ‘This is how you gotta be, baby! Smooth like chocolate milk!'” Pines said, chuckling. “It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”
“That was absolutely the moment where I always look to like, where did the John Carroll defense change?” said Chris Rizzo, another former Blue Streak. “It was that moment in that room.”
With an enrollment of 3,600 students, John Carroll is a relatively unknown small Catholic university 23 miles east of Cleveland. But it has become an NFL factory, producing Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio and Rams outside linebackers coach Chris Shula, among others.
At John Carroll, Staley grew a reputation for loving onion rings with hot wings, guzzling coffee and spinning his wedding band around his ring finger when his mind went into overdrive.
He demanded a lot from players, but they respected it. In his first season, he installed a defense that served players’ strengths and turned a cellar-dwelling unit into a top-ranked defense among 250 Division III teams. In Staley’s final season in 2016, the Blue Streaks were crowned conference champions.
Former John Carroll head coach Tom Arth, who is now head coach at Akron, knew within moments of meeting Staley that he would hire him. Staley was coming off a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, preceded by a two-year stay at Hutchinson Community College, where he was defensive coordinator.
“Within the first minute of his starting to talk some football, I just knew he was different,” Arth said. “There’s no other candidates after you meet Brandon.”
Staley encompassed everything Arth wanted: passion, combined with an ability to communicate, teach and quickly earn trust. Plus as a former college quarterback, Staley sees the game from an all-22 perspective, with a deep knowledge for how each side of the ball works.
“Brandon is the same monster with two different heads,” Rizzo said. “He’s got his coaching head and then he’s got his personality, his person head.”
Staley understood how to reach every player, which meant finding ways to relate and communicate with each individual, a trait that caused Dawson to smile this year when he heard Ramsey echo the same sentiment to reporters.
“That’s one of the special things he does,” Dawson said. “I was a super emotional player, I didn’t enjoy being talked to aggressively, so would always pull me to the side. … [Other guys] had to be yelled at because that’s the only way they took coaching.”
Former Blue Streak Brody Zangaro recalled Staley telling players who missed assignments that he would put them on waivers.
“There are no waivers in Division III football,” Zangaro laughed. “This is sort of a testament to him knowing that he would be in the NFL.”
‘He’s about ball’
Jalen Ramsey isn’t easily won over, so when the All-Pro cornerback offers praise, it means something.
“The way he’s opened up the defense and built it around A.D. as it should be — it’s all things that you would think common sense,” Ramsey said, “but the way that he does it is extraordinary.”
Staley kept the base 3-4 defense installed by Phillips, but added elements he learned under Broncos coach Vic Fangio as well as wrinkles of his own style. His goal is to create one-on-one matchups in the run game and two-on-one matchups in the passing game. He does it by utilizing the individual strengths of his players.
“When Brandon came in, there was a clear-cut vision for all of our players and how he saw the ability to accentuate their skill sets,” McVay said.
A season after finishing ninth in defensive efficiency, the Rams have jumped to the top in multiple defensive categories. They rank first in defensive efficiency, yards allowed per game (281.9) and points allowed per game (18.5), and are tied for first in the NFL with four defensive touchdowns.
But perhaps most important to Staley is the production of players not named Donald or Ramsey, who always are expected to produce at a high level.
“When I came here I really wanted to establish that we were a team defense,” said Staley, who remodeled the defense without OTAs or a traditional preseason. “I think that’s what we got done.”
Staley revived the career of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose production in Chicago stalled in four seasons but took on new life in L.A. with 10.5 sacks. Alongside Ramsey — who allowed an average of 23.9 receiving yards per game as the nearest defender, former undrafted free agents Troy Hill and Darious Williams have produced standout performances. Hill has an NFL-best three defensive touchdowns, and Williams intercepted a team-high four passes.
“The dude’s a genius,” Williams said.
“He’s always studying,” Johnson said about Staley. “He’ll shoot me a text at a random time of the day about something not even important — just about football, something that he saw.”
Donald has turned in another performance worthy of earning him a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 13.5 sacks, while defensive lineman Michael Brockers had five — his most since 2013 — and former undrafted free agent Morgan Fox had a career-best six. Sebastian Joseph-Day also grew into a significant contributor up front.
“We’re playing consistent football in his defense,” Donald said.
And, like he did at John Carroll, Staley is still fidgeting with his wedding band when the wheels are turning and connecting with players in a season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, when meaningful connections can be difficult to make.
“I told him the first time we were on the Zoom call, he had me fired up, ready to go,” Brockers said. “I wanted to put my helmet on, on the Zoom call, because he had me so fired up.”
“He’s about ball,” Ramsey said, “but at the same time he’s a player’s coach.”
Staley is the owner of the “Salty Dog Café,” Johnson said, and you become an official salty dog when you “trick out” (another of Staley’s go-to catchphrases) — disguise a coverage to create an opportunity for another defensive player whom the offense wouldn’t expect to be a factor in the play.
However, he hasn’t tried his former go-to line at John Carroll, play “smooth like chocolate milk,” because — well — this is the NFL. “Pro players are tough,” Staley said, smiling. “It’s hard to impress them.”
“He cracks a couple jokes here and there,” Donald said. “But he definitely brings a lot of excitement and a lot of passion with him.”
Head coach in waiting
Fangio’s phone rang recently with a unique request.
“I had a call from a potential head coach for next season,” Fangio said. “Asked me if I have any more Brandon Staleys to come be his defensive coordinator.”
After three seasons at John Carroll, including a one-year hiatus as defensive coordinator at James Madison, Fangio plucked Staley to join his defensive staff with the Chicago Bears. The defensive guru wanted a coach he could groom to take over outside linebackers — a group that would soon include Khalil Mack — and Staley came highly recommended.
“I asked a lot of questions,” Staley said about his three seasons under Fangio, one with the Bears and two in Denver, where he worked with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. “And he provided me a lot of answers.”
Said Fangio: “He’s a football savant in that he loves the game, the historical aspect of the game. He loves to research it and wanted to be up on all the new things.”
Now, after only one season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Staley is earning the opportunity to become a head coach.
“This is the Sean McVay of defense,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who coached three seasons with Staley between Chicago and Denver. “This is that young, bright mind that sees it all, that can communicate with people.”
The progression to becoming an NFL head coach is one former players have seen coming.
Last year, Chubb signed a jersey for Staley at the request of Staley’s wife, Amy, who was gathering memorabilia to build her husband a long-dreamed-about man cave.
Along with his signature, Chubb wrote: “Can’t wait to see you become a head coach one day.”
“It was just the energy he brought to the meetings, how he approached it,” Chubb said. “You could just tell the aura he had about himself. One of the best dudes I know personally.”
Since 2012, five coaches have made the jump to head coach after their first season as an NFL defensive coordinator, including Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who is 28-19 over three seasons, and Steve Wilks, who was fired after a single 3-13 season with the Cardinals in 2018.
Staley’s NFL resume might be short — one season as coordinator, three as outside linebackers coach — but it doesn’t feel that way to him.
“I felt like I was having this double education,” Staley said. “I was coaching in college, but I felt like I was coaching the pros at the same time because I was studying.”
“Selfishly, I would love to have Coach Staley for obviously the rest of this year and next year and my career here,” Ramsey said. “But, I mean, he would be a great head coach, and there’s a lot of teams in the league right now who could use him.”
ESPN’s Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.
Pondering retirement again, Drew Brees has ‘no regrets’ about coming back this season
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees was still on the Superdome field nearly two hours after what was probably his final game in the New Orleans Saints’ historic home building.
Brees, who is widely expected to retire after 20 seasons, did not officially announce his intentions after a disappointing 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs. But he made sure to soak it all in.
Brees and his wife Brittany spent time playing with their four children — some football and some gymnastics. He also spent time chatting with longtime friend and rival Tom Brady. After the two all-time great quarterbacks shared a hug, Brady even threw a pass to one of Brees’ kids before moving on to the NFC Championship Game.
Brees, who turned 42 on Friday, was hoping to reach his fourth NFC title game and his second Super Bowl this year. Instead, threw three interceptions in a playoff game for the first time in his career while Tampa Bay rallied back from a 20-13 deficit in the third quarter.
“I’m gonna give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things, just like I did last year and make a decision,” Brees said when asked directly if he just played his final game.
He said Sunday’s performance or the way the season ended would have no bearing on his decision. But when asked what would weigh into the decision, Brees said, “I’ll keep that to myself right now.”
Brees did add, however, that he had no regrets about coming back this year after he nearly retired after last season.
“I would never regret it. Never,” said Brees, who missed four games in November and December because of a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs — but still helped the Saints earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record before their disappointing finish.
“No complaints. No regrets. Man, I’ve always tried to play this game with a great respect and a great reverence for it. And I appreciate all that this game has given to me,” said Brees, who led the Saints to their only Super Bowl win in franchise history in 2009 and holds the NFL record for career passing yards. “There are obviously so many incredible memories, so many incredible relationships that have come as a result of playing this game. And, man, you find out so much about yourself and you have to fight through so much when you play this game.
“And I’d say this season, I probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to in any other season in my career — from injury to all the COVID stuff to just crazy circumstances. And it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”
Saints coach Sean Payton also said he couldn’t speak for Brees and didn’t want to spend time reflecting on his future Hall of Fame career just yet.
“Oh listen, I think that’s probably for another press conference,” Payton said. “That would take up all of my time on your question tonight. Obviously, he’s been tremendous for this team, this city, I could go on and on. But let’s wait and answer that at the right time.”
Other teammates, from veteran linebacker Demario Davis to young receiver Tre’Quan Smith, both used the exact same word when asked what Brees has meant to them — “everything.”
Unfortunately, if this was Brees’ final game, he didn’t get the kind of career send-off that fellow all-time greats like John Elway or Peyton Manning got. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
Brees completed 19 of 34 passes for just 134 yards with one touchdown on a night when he struggled to get the ball downfield even more than usual. The Saints’ biggest passing play came when backup Jameis Winston threw a 56-yard TD pass on a trick-play flea-flicker that the Saints stole from the Chicago Bears a week earlier.
And Brees failed to connect even once with top receiver Michael Thomas on four targets. Brees’ first interception in the second quarter came when the Saints were leading 6-3 and he underthrew Thomas. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting pounced in front of it and nearly returned it for a touchdown.
Brees then threw another pick in the fourth quarter when the Saints were trailing 23-20 and linebacker Devin White undercut Alvin Kamara down the middle of the field. The third interception came on a tipped pass when the Saints were trailing 30-20 with less than five minutes remaining.
Tight end Jared Cook also lost a critical fumble in the third quarter when the Saints were leading 20-13 and had just crossed midfield.
“I’d say it’s pretty uncharacteristic because we preach playing ‘winning football.’ And you turn the ball over four times, that’s not ‘winning football’ — especially in the playoffs, especially against a team like that,” said Brees, who blamed himself for the interceptions.
“Well, a couple of them I probably shouldn’t have thrown and maybe forced it in there. And we were probably just a little off on the overall execution,” Brees said. “But at the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to was those turnovers.”
What now for Drew Brees and the Saints? NFL experts debate their title window, future at quarterback
It’s going to be a fascinating offseason for the Saints, who face a major salary-cap crunch and have several free agents to try to re-sign. And then there’s the quarterback question: Will 42-year-old quarterback Drew Brees return for another year? Brees threw three interceptions in the loss to Tampa Bay.
We asked our panel of ESPN NFL experts to weigh in on the Saints’ quarterback future, where they stand in the NFC in 2021 (and beyond) and how they could approach free agency in March:
If this is it for Drew Brees‘ NFL career, what will you remember most about him?
Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: He was the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. I started covering the Saints before Brees arrived — when the team was 3-13 and the city had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He immediately helped revive both, and 15 years later, he and Sean Payton have forever changed the image of Saints football.
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: He was the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever seen. Ball placement, timing, rhythm. Brees was a master of processing opposing defenses — and delivering the ball with precise location.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Brees showed that smaller quarterbacks can win from the pocket, setting a blueprint for today’s NFL. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa and others can pay homage to Brees, who broke stereotypes by dominating at 6-foot flat.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: That the Dolphins didn’t sign him and the Saints did in 2006. Talk about seminal moments or decisions in sports history. Imagine what would have happened if Miami cleared him on his physical and he signed there instead of in New Orleans. Would he and Payton ever have found each other? Would some other quarterback have delivered the Saints their Super Bowl title and become the all-time sports icon of the New Orleans community? Would Nick Saban have succeeded as the Dolphins coach and never gone to Alabama???
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: I’ll remember now that many people — including some with medical degrees — thought the productive portion of his career was over after the 2005 season. He had injured his rotator cuff and dislocated his right (throwing) shoulder and didn’t find much interest on the free-agent market. Becoming a Hall of Fame player, one who didn’t miss a start because of injury until 14 seasons later, was an incredible physical accomplishment after that injury.
Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front office insider: How he resurrected his career after leaving the Chargers. He went from a disappointment in San Diego to a Hall of Famer, which is extremely rare for a quarterback on his second team.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: I don’t know if it’s what I’ll most remember, but I certainly won’t forget the ripple effect of the failed physical in Miami. It’s hard not to think about how much of the NFL and college football landscape hinged on that call. How many Super Bowl championships would he and Saban have brought to South Florida? How many national championships would another coach have won in Tuscaloosa?
Field Yates, NFL analyst: How he was one of the influential figures to help rebuild New Orleans after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Brees will be inextricably linked with the city he has made home in perpetuity. New Orleans loves its Saints, and football means more than can be quantified in that city and region. During its toughest time, football provided a glimmer of hope to look forward to. Brees, Payton, many Saints and the organization at large helped New Orleans in an everlasting way.
If Brees retires, should the Saints start Taysom Hill or look elsewhere in 2021?
Triplett: They should keep exploring better long-term options, via the draft or further developing Jameis Winston, who is a free agent. They could make the playoffs with Hill if he improves his decision-making, however. He was a decent thrower in his four-game audition this season; if anything, Hill and Payton should have relied even more on his scrambling ability.
Bowen: Re-sign Winston — with the anticipation he will open the season as the starting quarterback. While Hill brings unique traits to Payton’s system and can still be used in a specific role, I see Winston as the best option here to produce in the Saints’ passing game.
Fowler: Roll with Hill, whose $16.2 million cap hit creates a moment of truth for New Orleans. Give him the keys or cut him loose. Hill went 3-1 as a starter this season, and the Saints can bank on Payton improving Hill’s decision-making and pocket presence. In a difficult year for the salary cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, splurging on a free-agent quarterback doesn’t seem sensible. Hill is imperfect, but the Saints can win with him for one year. I believe this was the plan all along. And Winston might fare better in free agency after the Saints refused to play him.
Graziano: Look elsewhere, but I’m a Hill doubter — at least in terms of whether a team can build long-term success around a quarterback of his skill set. Plus, he is going to be 31 when next season starts. If I’m the Saints, I look at every option.
Seifert: Generally speaking, Payton has earned the benefit of the doubt on quarterback decisions. He certainly viewed Hill as his best short-term option this season; and given the landscape of available options on the free-agent market, Hill might well be the best one-year option for 2021, as well. The question would be whether the Saints can or want to go through an entire season with the type of run-based offense for which Hill is best suited.
Tannenbaum: Stick with Hill, who went 3-1 as a starter this season. Ball security was an issue — he fumbled in every game and lost three — but he’d have time to fix those issues. If the Saints decide to roll with Hill for a year, his contract could give the team salary-cap relief, as his $16.2 million cap hit is the 17th-highest cap hit for a quarterback next season. They’d surely have to spend more for another starter.
Walder: I would look elsewhere … on their own roster. At least to start, Winston is about as good of a stopgap as a team is going to find. I was surprised the Saints went to Hill when Brees was injured earlier this season; but even still, I’m not sure Hill’s performance — he recorded a 41 Total QBR — gives me reason to think he is a better option than Winston going forward. Even in his 30-pick season in 2019, Winston recorded a 56 QBR.
Yates: They should consider a comparable situation to the Winston contract this season. There are going to be quarterbacks available at a discounted price again this offseason, as for the second straight year I expect more supply than demand. For example, veteran quarterbacks who are on the fringe of being locked-in starters this year could include: Winston, Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton and Mitchell Trubisky, plus a host of others who might be available via trade. Not all of them are going to get the contract they want, and some will look for the right fit. New Orleans is a desirable place to play.
The Saints have major cap issues heading into the offseason. Has their title window closed?
Triplett: No. They definitely missed their best shots. They can’t expect to find another quarterback like Brees in his prime or another draft haul like the one they landed in 2017. But part of the reason for their cap crisis is because they’re so loaded with high-priced talent — still enough to remain a legit playoff contender.
Bowen: No, but they will have to retool the roster given their cap issues. New Orleans will have to be aggressive — and smart — in free agency, while continuing to draft impact players with scheme-specific traits.
Fowler: No, because they’ve drafted so well in recent years. They have arguably the league’s most talented roster overall. They can’t replicate Brees’ mastery of the offense, but his age was starting to show, and this is a chance for Payton to tweak his offense in a fun and refreshing way.
Graziano: No. There are too many great players still on the team for their window to close. Whether they remain a title contender in 2021 will depend on what they do at quarterback. But whoever the quarterback is, he will have a team around him that is talented enough to contend.
Seifert: No. I don’t think it is completely shut after seeing them go 8-1 with Brees out of the lineup in the past two seasons. The Saints will need to make some roster changes this offseason to manage their cap, but the real question on the current window is whether Brees is back. If you subscribe to the notion that elite-level quarterback play is a mandatory ingredient for winning the Super Bowl, I don’t see the Saints winning one with Hill or Winston behind center.
Tannenbaum: No, but they’re going to have win differently. New Orleans has a good defense (top five in the league in yards and scoring), and if it can stick to a game plan leveraging running back Alvin Kamara and not get into shootouts, it can still compete next season and beyond.
Walder: If Brees is back, no. If Brees retires, yes. This is a talented roster outside of the quarterback position, but the Saints would have been a long shot, at best, had Brees been out for the season. Given how far they currently sit in the red in 2021 — OverTheCap.com estimates they are $95 million over the cap, though there is $13.5 million in cap savings available if Brees is not back — I have to imagine the non-QB part of the roster will not be this strong going forward.
Yates: I want to address the cap situation first: The Saints unquestionably have a knot to untangle this offseason, made larger than they forecast because of the impact COVID-19 will have on the 2021 cap. But this is a team that has long been creative, resourceful and willing to push cap charges forward to make the present year work. So, while I’ll concede this is the largest challenge yet for Mickey Loomis and his front office, they’ll work through it. As far as the title window — no, even if Brees retires. He is an all-time great. But the Saints enjoyed an offense catalyzed by a dynamic running game this season. And I just saw Payton coach up an offense without Brees for four games (and not his old self upon return) and without Michael Thomas for much of the season that still put up 30.1 points per game. I’m betting on the infrastructure here.
Who is the free agent the Saints absolutely have to bring back?
Triplett: Winston. The good news for the Saints is that they already locked up the two most important names on this list before the season (Kamara and linebacker Demario Davis), because their finances are too tight to consider anyone else “must-keep.” Safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Trey Hendrickson should cost the most, but Winston might be the top priority if they consider him a potential starter.
Bowen: Williams. I would let Hendrickson test free agency, with Williams as my top priority. Williams has the range, ball skills and traits to play an impact role in Dennis Allen’s defense.
Fowler: Williams. Hendrickson likely has priced himself out of New Orleans. Williams is dynamic in space with 13 interceptions and 30 pass deflections in his four-year career, and he isn’t a marquee name yet, so maybe a competitive offer from New Orleans in early March will secure his services.
Graziano: Winston, assuming Brees is gone and that the Saints are telling the truth about how much they liked having Winston there this season. We all know the downside, but Winston just turned 27 and is one year removed from a 5,000-yard passing season. If nothing else, they have to keep him in the mix.
Drew Brees throws a lofty pass to Tre’Quan Smith who is able to reel in the catch for a 16-yard touchdown with a defender right on his back.
Seifert: Hendrickson. He is going to be expensive after recording 13.5 sacks in a contract year. But one of the secrets of the Saints’ long-term success has been to pay the important people and then figure out the rest. They know Hendrickson better than anyone, but it would seem pretty important to retain a 26-year-old who is capable of that kind of pass-rush production — even if it’s via the franchise tag.
Tannenbaum: Williams would be the highest priority for me. After that there is a drop-off. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins would be next, though he didn’t have a standout season. Tight end Jared Cook will be 34 at the start of next season, and his best years are behind him.
Walder: Winston, if Brees retires. If he doesn’t, I don’t think the Saints can afford to be thinking that they must bring back any of their free agents given their cap situation. Hendrickson is a nice player, but his sack total far outpaced his pass rush win rate, so I’d be wary about paying for his career year.
Yates: Hendrickson. There’s a good case for Williams too, especially as their price tags will be quite different, but the answer is the player who has become one of the league’s best pass-rushers and done so through incredible development. Hendrickson and Cam Jordan (who is already incredible) help each other in a way that makes the combo borderline unstoppable. Hendrickson is not just explosive off the edge; he is a tone-setter with his old-school style of play.
Outside of solving the quarterback conundrum, what should be the Saints’ biggest offseason priority?
Triplett: The 2022 free-agent list is even more daunting than that of 2021, as cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk should each cost a small fortune. But the Saints need to decide now which ones they plan to keep long term, because they could actually lower their 2021 cap hits by extending them.
Bowen: With the assumption that Winston is back to compete with Hill next season, I would add a viable No. 2 wide receiver opposite of Thomas. I’d look for a wideout with the traits to attack — and stretch — the middle of the field.
Fowler: Deciding which key players they can live without. The Saints face a salary-cap reckoning with a $98 million deficit that they can’t escape with a few simple contract restructures. They’ve got nearly 10 veterans (non-rookie deals) with cap hits above $10 million. Parting with established players such as Armstead or cornerback Janoris Jenkins must at least be considerations.
Graziano: Extensions for Lattimore and Ramczyk. The bill on that awesome 2017 draft is coming due, as this year’s Kamara extension showed, and they have Williams and Hendrickson to worry about in free agency right away. The Saints will retool rather than rebuild, but it’s important for them to identify their long-term building blocks and get some cost certainty on them as they make their plans.
Seifert: Figuring out their long-term plan in the secondary. Malcolm Jenkins is 33. Janoris Jenkins is 32. Williams is a pending free agent, and Lattimore is entering the final year of his contract. How many more years can they get from Jenkins and Jenkins? Who will they re-sign? Who will they move on from, and who will replace them?
Tannenbaum: Fixing the Saints’ cap situation is going to be a priority, but it isn’t that difficult when you see that they can move a few contracts around and extend players. They’ll have to move on from Brees, take their salary-cap medicine in 2021 and have a fresh start in 2022.
Walder: If Brees retires, they have to at least consider a rebuild year because the cap situation is dire. They would clear as much money off their cap as possible by not only letting all their free agents walk (earning 2022 compensatory picks along the way) but also by trading veterans like Jordan, Armstead and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to earn draft capital as well. Even someone like Ramczyk could be made available if the compensation were high enough.
Yates: Reinforcing the pass-catcher group. With Cook headed to free agency, the team should see a notable boost from 2020 rookie Adam Trautman, who is already established as a really useful blocker with pass-catching promise. The Saints plucked Sanders in free agency last year, but the team could stand to bulk up the insurance behind Thomas even more this year. We saw the Saints find a way this year with a group of assorted pass-catchers, but it’s an area where a bit more investment could go a long way.
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