If it wasn’t already clear, the Brees Farewell Tour is approaching its final stretch. Michael Thomas’ impending contract extension, which is expected to be completed before the start of training camp, is proof that the Brees era is coming to a close.
Michael Thomas is an immensely talented receiver, and as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, there’s no doubt that he’s deserving of a contract that makes him one of the highest paid receivers in football. His 321 receptions over his first three seasons are the most in NFL history. He also owns a number of Saints franchise records: most receptions in a game (16), most receiving yards in a game (211), most receptions in a season (125), and most receiving yards in a season (1,405).
Extending your best players isn’t a bad idea. In fact, it’s recommended that teams retain their home-grown talents. However, the apparent willingness to extend Michael Thomas represents a drastic shift from the previous philosophy employed by the Saints. Offensive playmakers simply haven’t been paid in the Payton-Brees era, and even when they have been (Jimmy Graham), it didn’t come without conflict.
Marques Colston, the franchise leader in receiving yards, lasted from 2006 to 2015 largely in part to his willingness to take discounts. His highest total cash earnings came in 2012 when he received $11,300,000 ($10,000,000 of that came in the form of a signing bonus). Brandin Cooks, a first-round pick of the Saints in 2014, was shipped away to the New England Patriots before his rookie contract expired. Jimmy Graham, the All-Pro tight end who once tore apart opposing defenses for the Saints, was given a four-year, $40 million contract in 2014, but that contract came after intense disputes between the team and Graham’s representatives. Graham was soon shipped off to the Seattle Seahawks.
History tells us that with Brees at the helm, the Saints don’t pay offensive weapons and aren’t afraid to trade them. Maybe the team believes Thomas is the most talented of the offensive weapons they’ve had. Perhaps the team feels he’s the perfect fit for the offense. If nothing else, the apparent smoothness of the negotiations is shocking. Many fans of the team expected the two-sides to play hardball, potentially including a franchise tag standoff or two. But according to Dianna Russini of ESPN, the “Saints are comfortable making him [Thomas] the highest paid receiver in the game.”
The Saints have long made late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents relevant on the offensive side of the ball. That recipe has only been successful because of Bress’ ability to elevate the players around him.
Brees is forty-years-old and entering the final year of his contract. While he was efficient last season, his arm strength seemingly fell off after the Week 12 matchup against the Falcons. Teddy Bridgewater was acquired just before the start of last season, and the team re-signed him to a 1-year, $7,250,000 contract for the 2019 season. There seems to be some belief that Bridgewater could be the quarterback of the future once Brees walks away.
Michael Thomas is Drew Brees’ favorite target, and the two have been nothing short of dangerous since Thomas entered the league. But extending Thomas isn’t about ensuring Brees continues to have one of the best receivers in football at his disposal; Brees has never needed All-Pro receivers. It’s about making sure the pieces are in place for the next Saints quarterback to have success in an offense that will soon lose its leader.