Indianapolis – The New Orleans Saints hope to have quarterback Drew Brees under contract by the beginning of the NFL's new league year, on March 18.
The two sides already have expressed their mutual interest – the Saints said they wanted the soon-to-be free agent back, and the 41-year-old future Hall of Famer said he only intended to play for New Orleans if he returned for a 20th season. So all that remains is the work to be done in producing a new contractual agreement.
"We certainly want to have that done before the league year begins," Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis said Thursday from the NFL Combine. "Whether that's first or not (in terms of signing free agents), I don't think that matters. But we definitely have a goal of having that done before the league year begins."
Getting Brees under contract would check a substantial item off the wants, needs and musts list the team compiles each offseason.
"Some of them – let's say you have a player, Drew Brees, and you don't know if he's returning or not," Coach Sean Payton said. "Whenever you enter the end of a season, if a player's a free agent, even though he was on your team, you remove him off your depth chart so you can examine where your depth chart is with the current players on your roster signed.
"So when you take (defensive tackle) David Onyemata off, and then when you take a Drew Brees off, then a (quarterback) Teddy Bridgewater off – sometimes your musts are players like Drew Brees or David Onyemata, or the equivalent. So you have to do that exercise with your own roster removed that are free agents.
"So that can be a little daunting at first, but it really narrows your focus as to the places you need to fill. So where do you do that? You do that either signing your own players, signing other free agents and then of course, through the draft."
This year, however, there exists the complication – perhaps minor, perhaps major – of NFL owners and players engaged in negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement. There remains one year remaining on the previous 10-year agreement; the two sides are attempting to agree to another 10-year deal.
If a new deal were to be agreed upon, it would change financial parameters for each team. If not, teams would operate in free agency under the terms they've operated under for the previous nine years.
And free agent players may be hesitant to sign before the new proposal has been accepted or rejected. Several prominent players have expressed dissatisfaction with the potential terms of the new agreement, while other players have deemed the agreement acceptable.
The Saints, and every other team, will know how to approach free agency financially once the possible deal has been approved or rejected.
"It doesn't affect any part of the process that we'd be in right now," Loomis said. "Obviously, it's going to impact where we are and what we are able to do this year in terms of contracts. It remains to be seen what the impact on our salary cap is going to be if there's any deal. We're going to get some education (Friday) on some of that if it does pass.
"Yes, it's going to have an impact. I just don't know what that impact is going to be yet."
"I think everyone's paying attention to that," Payton said. "There are a handful of things it can impact. Obviously, the amount of money you're working with, which would be the (salary) cap. And then, there are a few nuances that will possibly change if an agreement is reached. So all of us will adjust very quickly if that happens and if it doesn't, we'll stay the course."
It is helpful, Loomis said, that there already is an understanding of the terms of a possible new CBA. That has allowed the Saints to move forward with two plans – one for if the current deal remains as is, another if the current proposed deal takes its place.
"I can't tell you that that's concrete, but we have a pretty clear understanding of what we can and can't do in either scenario," Loomis said.
"There's not much negotiations going on at this point because we're right before free agency. So if you're a free agent player, you want to know what's out there. There's not a lot of deals that get done in this period right before free agency begins (also March 18). So we'll know – I hope we'll know – before free agency begins exactly what we're going to have available. I'm sure we'll know."
Then, the Saints will go about the business of attempting to secure their desired targets in free agency.
"There's two elements to it," Payton said. "Obviously, you'd love to have all of these guys back. And then, at what cost? Because sometimes, a player may have to go into free agency and actually see how the other 31 teams value him to get a price.
"There's certain players that the player himself and the club themselves may not fully understand what the number is going to be, and so the market can quickly settle or create a price. But it's not an exact science and it's something you spend a lot of time on."