Saints need to plan ahead for Michael Thomas' monster deal

Brees understands Payton's frustration with blown call (0:53)

Drew Brees doesn't have any problem with Sean Payton's reaction to the Saints' tough loss in the NFC Championship Game. (0:53)

METAIRIE, La. -- Michael Thomas has another year left on his contract. But the star receiver’s next deal might be the most important financial decision the New Orleans Saints need to weigh this offseason.

Even if Thomas doesn’t hold out this summer and the Saints don’t extend his contract until next year, they need to save room for a monster deal in 2020.

Thomas’ next contract could be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. Even if the Saints use the franchise tag on him next year, that could cost around $18 million (with all of it counting against the salary cap). As such, the Saints need to practice some disciplined spending when free agency kicks off in two weeks.

They have about $10 million to $12 million in salary-cap space right now. They’ll need to be careful about pushing too many salary-cap costs into the future, as they have done in the recent past.

The good news is the Saints don’t have many glaring holes to fill, and they don’t have many expensive free agents who need to be re-signed. As I’ve written in recent weeks, their two biggest financial decisions will be whether to re-sign backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (a long shot) and running back Mark Ingram (more of a 50-50 proposition).

New Orleans’ top priority should be to add at least one more reliable pass-catcher at tight end or slot receiver. The team will also need to either re-sign veteran defensive end Alex Okafor or pay for a decent replacement.

As for Thomas, it’s hard to predict when he’ll get his next deal. It remains unclear if Thomas will push for a contract extension this year or consider a holdout, which would thrust this issue onto the front burner.

Thomas recently hired a new agent -- Andrew Kessler of Athletes First -- after his surprise split with agent David Mulugheta last year. Mulugheta, also of Athletes First, terminated the relationship, citing a difference of opinions.

The Saints’ history doesn’t offer too much guidance on how they will approach Thomas’ contract timing. Among their most high-profile free agents in recent years, they allowed Drew Brees’ contract to play out fully in both 2012 and 2018, and they allowed tight end Jimmy Graham’s contract to play out fully in 2014. They used the franchise tag on Brees in 2012 and Graham in 2014 before working out long-term extensions with them.

However, New Orleans signed defensive end Cameron Jordan and left tackle Terron Armstead to lucrative extensions a year before their deals were up in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

One thing the Saints haven’t done in recent history is spend big on skill-position players. They traded Graham one year into his four-year, $40 million contract in 2015. They traded receiver Brandin Cooks with essentially two years left on his rookie contract in 2017. In both cases, they expressed confidence that their offense could keep thriving with cheaper talent and the resources could be better used on defense and the offensive line.

In this case, however, it’s hard to imagine the Saints considering Thomas expendable. The physical, 6-foot-3, 212-pounder, who turns 26 next week, has been much more of a “go-to guy” than anyone in the Brees-Sean Payton era, with franchise records of 125 catches and 1,405 yards last season.

Thomas' 321 career receptions are the most in NFL history by a player in the first three years of his career. He has 3,787 career receiving yards and 23 touchdowns since being drafted in the second round out of Ohio State, plus another 31 catches for 423 yards and three TDs in four career playoff games.

Not only has Thomas established himself as one of the NFL’s elite, with two Pro Bowl appearances and a first-team All-Pro nod this past season, but the Saints also don’t have great depth at the position.

Veteran No. 2 receiver Ted Ginn Jr. turns 34 in April. Cameron Meredith’s past two seasons have been plagued by a knee injury. Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood showed promise as rookies but need more development. None of them had more than 28 catches last season.

With Thomas’ deal, it seems like a matter not of if, but of when and how much.

New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. raised the bar last year with an extension worth between $18 million and $19 million per season. Thomas or the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones could raise it to $20 million, if not more, this year or next.

The Saints will likely pony up for another skill-position player when Alvin Kamara becomes a free agent in 2021. And by the way, Brees, center Max Unger and guard Andrus Peat are also scheduled to be free agents in 2020, followed by Kamara, Jordan, guard Larry Warford, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Marcus Williams in 2021.

The math doesn’t figure to get any easier anytime soon.