Does signing Derek Carr make the New Orleans Saints a contender?

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints started 2023 free agency by addressing their biggest need with an agreement to sign former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

The anticipated signing marks one of the biggest moves for Saints coach Dennis Allen going into Year 2 and reunites him with the quarterback he drafted while with the Raiders organization in 2014. Here’s what the move means for the Saints and their offense, and how it could be the first domino of several likely to come, including what the team does with quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Why did the Saints make this move?

The offense has struggled to find its footing since quarterback Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season. The Saints plummeted from a top-five scoring offense in 2020 to 19th in the past two years. The Saints haven’t been able to find the long-term answer in Winston, Taysom Hill or Andy Dalton, and they probably weren’t going to find it with the 29th pick of the draft in April. The Saints clearly saw an opportunity to get one of the top quarterbacks on the market and Carr’s familiarity with Allen helps. Now that the Saints have a quarterback, they can focus on adding other offensive players in the draft.

Carr has always said positive things about Allen, who drafted him and coached him before he was fired as head coach of the Raiders four games into the 2014 season.

“[Allen] and I have a great relationship still to this day,” Carr said prior to the Saints’ game against the Raiders last season. “And I still talk to him and things like that — obviously not this week and all those things, but we’ve always kept in contact, we’ve always been close. I love him, I loved having him.” — Katherine Terrell

What does this move mean for Jameis Winston?

This likely signals the end of Winston’s time with the Saints. The organization has made it clear he’s second fiddle more than once — playing Hill over Winston in 2020 when Brees was hurt, going after Deshaun Watson before re-signing Winston last offseason and ultimately sticking with Dalton during the season. Winston is due $12.8 million in base salary in 2023, and $5.8 million becomes guaranteed March 19. It’s more likely that Winston would want to pursue a starting job with another organization than take a pay cut to be Carr’s backup. If Winston leaves, the Saints might try to re-sign Dalton as a backup. — Terrell

Does this move make the Saints the NFC South favorites?

The NFC South was a battle of mediocrity last season, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ultimately winning the division at 8-9. With quarterback Tom Brady retiring in Tampa, it appears the division is there for the taking for the Saints. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are trying to sort out their quarterback situations and the Panthers also have a new head coach. If the defense can play like it did for most of the second half of last season, the Saints could become the team that fans had become accustomed to from 2017 to 2020. — Terrell

Why did the Raiders decide to move on from Carr?

Carr had said he would “probably” retire rather than play for a team other than the Raiders, but the writing was on the wall when general manager Dave Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels benched him for the final two games of the season to ensure he didn’t get hurt.

If Carr had gotten injured on the Raiders’ watch, Las Vegas would have been on the hook for $40 million-plus for 2023, and after such an uneven prove-it season it was simply time. And Carr wanted to go out on his own terms. He has traditionally struggled in his first year in a new offensive system, and 2022 was no exception. His 60.8 completion percentage was his lowest since his rookie season.

His 14 interceptions last season were tied for a career high, and his 3,522 passing yards were the third-lowest of his nine-year career. Remember, the Saints got a firsthand look at Carr’s struggles last season, when he failed to cross the 50-yard line at the Superdome and threw for 101 yards in completing 15 of 26 passes with an interception.

Sure, Carr holds virtually every career passing record in Raiders franchise history — 35,222 passing yards, 217 TD passes, 33 game-winning drives — but he also frustrated the team with so many checkdowns and fourth-down throwaway passes, along with 36 career lost fumbles. He was also 63-79 as a starter with just two winning seasons and no playoff wins. — Paul Gutierrez

How does signing Carr early help with free agency?

The Saints will likely backload Carr’s reported four-year deal. New Orleans entered every offseason for the past decade up against the salary cap but made it work by giving players deals with low first-year salary-cap hits that often jumped significantly in the second and third years. The Saints then work around this by restructuring the contract at that point, often by converting the player’s base salary or built-in roster bonus into a signing bonus to spread out the cap hit to coincide with the league’s yearly salary-cap bump. This is the strategy they’ll take with Carr to be able to stay competitive in 2023.

But considering the Saints already had to shed a lot of cap space to sign free agents, Carr will be the biggest of what will likely be another value signing class similar to 2022, when they signed safeties Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu and wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Landry was injured for a large portion of the season, but perhaps the addition of Carr will entice a similar signing, as the Saints need to add receivers. The big question, of course, remains whether Thomas stays or goes after the Saints reworked his contract in January for what looked like a potential parting of ways. — Terrell

Where do the Saints stand in terms of the cap?

The Saints still need to shed about $18 million to get under the salary cap after starting the offseason more than $50 million over the anticipated 2023 limit. The Saints have already restructured multiple players’ contracts, with more to come, and could still make bigger moves, such as releasing Winston. The Saints have yet to touch the contracts of Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, Andrus Peat and Alvin Kamara. — Terrell

How does this move affect the rest of the QB market?

Carr’s reported $150 million contract with the Saints posts a big number for the rest of the quarterback market (though details on the deal structure will show the full picture). This is a good marker for Geno Smith, who is negotiating with the Seattle Seahawks. Questions persisted about the strength of Carr’s market, but it appears to have been plenty strong. That also helps Jimmy Garoppolo, who was considered the Saints’ backup plan and might be for the Jets, too, should New York fail to land Aaron Rodgers. The Jets remain focused on Rodgers, but his $58.3 million guarantee in 2023 is still an issue for interested teams. — Jeremy Fowler

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