And then there were four.
Four Saints who arrived in New Orleans in 2006. Four Saints who never left, forming the core of an offense that has been steadily spectacular, ranking near the top of the NFL in every season since. Four Saints who have been able to combine very different careers into a decade together.
Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief remain together, the remaining members of Sean Payton’s first season in New Orleans and something of a remarkable quartet, given the ever-changing landscape of NFL rosters.
Few players make it to a decade with the same team. Four players doing it together is even more of a rarity.
“Ten is a big number,” Brees said. “That is pretty awesome.”
Now, with the season finale looming and the Saints facing tough financial decisions again this offseason, the possibility exists that Sunday’s game at Atlanta will be the last time all four will be together on the roster — a possibility made a little bit less poignant by the fact that Colston will miss the game with a chest injury.
Questions surround all four as New Orleans continues to remake its roster. Brees, who has been brilliant again in his 15th season, carries a $30 million salary-cap hit into the final year of his deal this offseason, prompting speculation that the Saints could trade the future Hall of Famer.
Brees laughed off that possibility earlier this week, but New Orleans likely will do something to lessen the cap hit, potentially extending the quarterback’s contract.
“I find it pretty funny,” Brees said. “I think I have been traded to no less than four other teams. There were talks throughout the offseason; obviously there have been a few mentioned during this season. I’m sure there will be a few more in the month of January. I chuckle and wonder where they come from.”
Evans, who will count $8.2 million against the salary cap next season, already has reworked his deal once. But after a tough 2014 marred by injury, Evans has bounced back this season, returning to form at right guard despite undergoing a knee scope that forced him to miss three games and an ankle injury that cost him two. New Orleans would save only $1.1 million by making a move on Evans.
The six-time Pro Bowl pick expects to be back with Brees next season.
“Me and Coach Payton talked this offseason,” Evans said. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere. ... And if I do, I won’t be out of a job for long.”
Colston, Brees’ favorite receiver for so long, had to take his own pay cut last offseason to remain in New Orleans, and the Saints have unearthed a new core at the receiver position with the emergence of Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, who could become the first Saints tandem to post 1,000-yard campaigns in the same season Sunday. (Snead needs 51 yards.) With Brandon Coleman also waiting in the wings, Colston, who will finish this season with 45 catches, 520 yards and four touchdowns, is still a productive No. 3 receiver, but the Saints could decide to move on for salary-cap reasons.
“His influence is felt even if he is not the one that is necessarily catching the ball,” Brees said. “He has been a big impact on the offense and those guys.”
Strief’s situation is a little different. New Orleans drafted Andrus Peat with the No. 13 pick of the 2015 draft and, after starting seven games, he might be ready to move into the right tackle spot next season. If that happens, Strief would be content to remain in New Orleans as a backup, provided the sides can work something out financially.
Whatever happens, Strief plans to finish his career in New Orleans.
“I think, no matter what, at this point in your career, you start saying every one of those games could be your last game. That’s the reality of it,” Strief said. “You kind of move on and you keep working, and you go into the offseason and heal up, and then they tell you you’re either coming back or you’re not. For me, at this point, I’m fine no matter what. I’m proud of being around as long as I have.”
Given the uncertain nature of the team’s offseason decisions — and in a season when most of the national speculation has focused on Payton and Brees, even though both have said they see themselves returning — there won’t be any obvious sendoff for the core four, particularly because there’s still a chance they could be back for their 11th season together.
Brees, Colston, Evans and Strief all have expressed confidence in where the Saints are headed as they try to reload and make another run. Figuring out if all four will still be around is a question that will be answered in the offseason.
“You never know what the future holds,” Brees said. “I think you just try to value these times as much as you can because, at some point, it comes to an end. It does for everybody. (We’ll) just value every second of it while we can.”
Saints fans would be smart to do the same.