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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL Wild Card Playoff game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

It only took three quarters for Drew Brees to silence his critics.

There were whispers and speculation that his arm was deteriorating. He wasn't the same in 2016, the critics said. One even used the term "dead arm." But on his 18th attempt of the season, in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, he reached back and connected with Tommylee Lewis for a gain of 53 down the right sideline.

The ball flew straight, had a little bit of air under it, and traveled with velocity 40 yards through the air. The Saints quarterback still had it. Maybe it wasn't the same as his heyday, back when Brees had easy range about seven or eight yards further down the field, but there were times when that was still there, too.

He hit on a pass that traveled 47 yards through the air against the Chicago Bears, but the ball was a little underthrown and the receiver had to come back to it to make the play. That wasn’t the sign of a rapidly weakening arm; it was one who was trying to stretch the natural limits imposed on him.

That isn't to say that you can't see some weathering after years and years of accumulated mileage.There were times when Brees threw some deeper passes that looked a little flat or underthrown.

He's now 39. That's going to happen. Those moments will be easier to spot and more plentiful in coming years. But it is far from a problem. The deep ball is still a weapon in New Orleans. The quarterback hit on 30 passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air, which put him only behind Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady, both of whom connected on 31 such passes.

Brees' season was as good and as efficient as any other season he’s had. His completion percentage of 72 is the best mark by anyone in league history. And his 4,334 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions got the job done. He was the perfect player for the system New Orleans ran last season.

What’s next?

The big question is if Brees will be here or not. His contract is set to void on March 14, which could make him a free agent next month. But everyone involved in the situation -- Brees, general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton -- have said a deal will get done.

Everyone has spoken so confidently about the situation it feels like putting pen to paper is more of a formality than something that should be viewed with caution. So, until the narrative changes, the assumption is that Brees will be back for another season.

Nothing about Brees’ season suggested that it’s time – or will soon be time – to replace him. This offense has evolved into something that should allow him to age gracefully within its confines, and could even extend his career since he is no longer being asked to put the organization on his shoulders.

New Orleans should continue looking for the next quarterback, but that’s more about Brees being 39 than the way he’s playing. You have to assume that he’ll begin fading sooner than later, though it's hard to know when and how the dropoff will arrive.

Brees and Tom Brady are the first player to reach this checkpoint in the current era, one in which quarterbacks are now protected and do not take the same kind of hits as their predecessors. They’ll be the ones to set the expectations for everyone who reaches this point next.

Burning issues

New Orleans needs to figure out what it is going to do with the backup spot. Chase Daniel’s contract is expiring, and he could cost a little more than he did last season. The offset language in his previous contract with the Philadelphia Eagles allowed the Saints to sign him for $900,000. He could want more money in his next deal.

The other variable in this is Taysom Hill. It sounds like New Orleans thinks he has a bright future, but the Saints do not give a lot of reps to the third quarterback during practices. So, it would be a surprise if the Saints move forward with him entrenched as the No. 2 quarterback without being able to evaluate him for a summer.

Bounce back

Before the start of last season, we pointed out that Brees threw seven interceptions against Cover 3 last season. The conclusion then was that it was some type of outlier and it would correct itself this season. Brees proved that by connecting on 67.6 percent of his attempts against the coverage with four touchdowns and one interception, according to Sports Info Solutions.

In fact, Brees diced up everything last season. He posted a 104.3 passer rating against Cover 1, 90.6 rating against Cover 2 (both man and zone), 106.1 against Cover 3 and 94.9 against quarters.

Three of his interceptions came against quarters (49 attempts), which was the highest mark of any coverage. He threw one interception against it in 2016 (41 attempts).

Overblown stat

It was often pointed out that Brees posted a 63.9 passer rating when under pressure last season. The stat, compiled by Pro Football Focus, paints a grim picture.

Perhaps this is another little piece of evidence proving Brees has lost something, but it seems more likely that his rating dropping was more circumstancial than anything.

Here is how Brees did under pressure compared to 2016:

2017: 56-for-103, 707 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, 63.9 rating

2016: 84-for-144, 926 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions, 77.5 rating

Brees' completion percentage stayed about the same. The difference is the touchdowns, and that can be explained away on film and through circumstance. The sample size is too small to think there’s anything alarming happening unless this trend continues in 2018.

Draft priority

It again depends on Brees. If he sticks around, this would be more of a want than a need. In this scenario, New Orleans should play the board and be willing to draft a quarterback in any spot if it believes that guy is good enough to be the next starter, but it wouldn't need to make it a priority.

If Brees goes, the conversation changes. At that point, the team will need to start looking at free agents and perhaps consider making a move up the board to nab a quarterback.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​