The Saints’ mandatory mini camp began today, and so did the task of picking up the pieces and reassembling a team that’s been decimated by the bountygate punishments. It’s the players who play and win the games, but they have to understand and gel within the system laid out in front of them, so these precious few days of offseason work with new interim head coach Joe Vitt before training camp begins late next month are vital.

There’s one key component still missing though. His name is Drew Brees, and he’s kind of good at throwing a spiral.

Brees was given the franchise tag, but he hasn’t signed his tender, and negotiations on a long-term contract with the Saints have been slow. The two sides will agree eventually, and everyone in New Orleans seems to have the proper amount of liquid in their glasses, especially Vitt.

And if we’re to believe ESPN’s Ed Werder, the divide between Brees and Saints management isn’t massive, but it’s still there. Hey, what’s $2 million between friends?

“I’m told by a source close to the stalemate in negotiations that dialogue between Saints GM Mickey Loomis and Tom Condon, the agent for Brees, has resumed, but so far has not resulted in any substantial progress… The two sides are believed to be about $2 million-a-year apart. And I’m told that Brees is committed to his position because, at 33, he recognizes this could be the final contract of his NFL career. That there are no guarantees beyond that.”

It’s difficult to argue with that logic, but it’s also rather easy to support the Saints’ position, hence the stalemate. Frustration is building, for Brees, a fan base that’s felt enough pain, and for Vitt, one of two interim head coaches the Saints will have this year who’s under enough pressure already.

Werder is right. In Brees’ mind, he needs security, and he needs it now in what will likely be his final contract as an NFL player. He’s coming off of a season in which he broke Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yards, and he’s far more healthy than Peyton Manning, the new Broncos quarterback who just signed the most lucrative deal in league history on a per year basis that will pay him $19.2 million annually.

Brees wants Manning money, and reports earlier this offseason stated that the 33-year-old is seeking $20 million annually over five years, while the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis are stuck at about $18 million. That’s on par with Werder’s estimation of the current gap, and with the unrest since the bounty debacle and the new players and coaches in new places, the Saints have very little leverage. They need Brees now, and he knows it.

The problem, though, is the lingering caution provided by Manning himself. Although there’s some natural decay and a decline that comes with age, the truly elite quarterbacks can typically remain elite into their late 30s. But following Manning’s injury that forced him to miss a full season and it forever changed the Colts franchise, the need for caution and risk management has been heightened.

Bones become brittle, and necks become wonky. Although the gap between Brees and the Saints seems manageable and easy enough to bridge, the line has to be drawn somewhere by the Saints. The NFL is an always changing, fluid league, and even if we assume he doesn’t suffer a serious injury, it could be painful to hand Brees his $20 million paycheck five years from now.

We can’t predict with confidence what a 38-year-old Brees will look like, and neither can he.

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