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Quietly, Drew Brees moves toward free agency

Drew Brees signed a one-year extension with the Saints, but stated that he wouldn't sign another short-term extension.

Healthy franchise quarterbacks don’t hit the open market. Next year, two of them could.

In addition to Washington’s Kirk Cousins (who threw for more than 4,900 yards last season), Saints quarterback Drew Brees could be available to the highest bidder and/or the best chance to pursue another Super Bowl.

Last year, as Brees was entering the final year of his contract, he signed a one-year extension. Which now puts him in the same place he was a year ago -- one season removed from free agency. This time around, however, there is no discussion about an extension.

“Listen, so I signed a one-year extension, so that was this year and then next year,” Brees said in January. “And so I plan on playing that out and just allowing things to take form and take shape here for next year and putting forth my absolute best effort to help us win a division championship and then a world championship. And then, again, just one year at a time, and that’s not a lack of commitment or anything like that. It’s just, I just want to focus on what’s right in front of me.”

Later in the month of January, G.M. Mickey Loomis said the team is fine with that approach.

Here’s where that approach is leading. Given the presence of a no-trade clause and a commitment not to tag Brees in 2018, he has one year under contract with the Saints. After that, who knows what will happen?

What if this year is the year that ultimately becomes Sean Payton’s final year with the Saints? (Surely, there will be a “Sunday splash” report at some point this year to that effect.) If Payton leaves for a team that needs a quarterback (and most teams that fire their head coaches do), could Brees follow?

Whether Brees stays in New Orleans or not, $18 million will count against the team’s salary cap in 2018 in his name. The cap charge from a new deal would only add to that. Which means that, if he has for example a cap charge of $20 million in 2018, the Saints would have $38 million assigned to Brees next year.

The broader question becomes whether Brees will still be regarded as a franchise quarterback after the 2017 season, when he’ll be closing in on his 39th birthday. But at a time when folks marvel at the ability of Tom Brady to thrive on the brink of 40, few seem to notice that Brees continues to be as good as ever.

In 2016, Brees had his latest 5,000-yard passing season. He’s done it five times; the rest of the NFL, since its inception, has produced a total of four.

Chances are that there will be plenty of interest in Brees come March, in New Orleans and elsewhere. Chances are that he’ll also end up getting paid a lot of money in his final NFL season before turning 40.