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The Saints have a long way to go and a short time to get there

Drew Brees’ long-awaited contract extension is the first of many steps.

Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints have finally signed Drew Brees to a contract extension –– too bad they didn’t do it when there were still quality free agents available.

The deal is relatively team-friendly: It’s a five-year extension, but only guaranteed for two seasons. The Saints will pay Brees $44.25 million through 2017, including $24.25 million in new money. It’s a nice payday for the 37-year-old Brees and lowers his cap hit from a whopping $30 million down to $17.25 million.

But since the Saints didn’t sign Brees to a new contract until Wednesday — just days before the two parties’ reported Week 1 deadline — they were financially handicapped during the offseason. And for the second consecutive year, they spent the little money they did have on ancillary offensive pieces instead of addressing one of the worst defenses in the league.

Tight end Coby Fleener will probably post career numbers alongside Brees, after agreeing to a five-year, $36 million deal with the Saints in free agency. But New Orleans already had one of the most potent offenses in the NFL last season, finishing eighth in points scored and second in yards. That money would’ve been better spent on upgrading the second-worst pass defense in the league.

With limited funds, the only notable veterans the Saints added to their defense were tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker James Laurinaitis. They spent three of their five draft picks on defensive players — including highly touted Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins — but it’s unrealistic to expect rookies to turn around this porous defense.

Even though Brees’ numbers are still awesome, the realistic window to win with him is diminishing. In order for the Saints to make the most of Brees’ final seasons, they must be one of the most aggressive and prudent front offices in the game over the next couple of years.

How much does Brees have left?

The numbers indicate that Brees isn’t close to being finished — he led the league in passing yards in four of the last five seasons, averaging 5,127 yards and 39 touchdowns per year during that time — but he battled injuries throughout the 2015 campaign.

Brees missed Week 3 with a shoulder injury after bruising his rotator cuff during the second game of the season. Though his play didn’t waver once he returned — Brees posted a 104.1 QB rating over his final 13 starts –– attention turned to his ailing foot in late December. The perennial Pro Bowler was diagnosed with torn plantar fascia Dec. 23, which he played through until the end of the season.

In isolation, those injuries aren’t a big deal. Brees has been remarkably durable during his career, playing in 15 or more games during all but one of his 15 seasons. But at 37 years old, the significance of each bruise is magnified.

Given that the Saints can void the final three years of the contract for no additional cost, it’s clear this isn’t a long-term play between the two sides. Brees can be expected to put up elite numbers for a couple of more seasons, but anything else should be considered gravy. The Saints must turn attention to their defense, which they’ve woefully ignored in recent years.

Focus on depth rather than stars

Unfortunately, teams that must win now can’t count on draft picks to make an immediate impact. That means the Saints may have no choice but to delve into the free agent market.

They know first-hand how reckless free agent spending sprees can be. Linebacker Junior Galette may be one of the worst signings in recent history, combining poor production with lousy leadership and a domestic violence charge. The Saints released him last summer on terrible terms.

Cornerback Jairus Byrd’s tenure in the Bayou State hasn’t been as colorful, but it’s been nearly as disappointing. He’s failed to live up to his six-year, $54 million contract and now holds a $10.9 million salary cap hit.

The Saints, who led the league in points allowed last season, have too many holes on defense to spend on just a couple of big-ticket names. They need to almost remake their defensive roster on the fly, which will require judicious spending and keen talent evaluation.

Instability is a reason for pessimism

While owner Tom Benson continues to be involved in a nasty lawsuit involving his daughter and her children over control of the team, general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton appear to have autonomy. Despite two straight 7-9 finishes — and only one playoff birth since his 2012 Bountygate suspension — Payton agreed to a massive five-year, $45 million extension this offseason.

It’s fine that Payton is sticking around. He remains one of the more innovative offensive minds in the game and is the winningest head coach in franchise history, leading the Saints to their only Super Bowl title in 2009. But in order for New Orleans to return to the postseason, Payton needs a worthy defensive-minded sidekick. Rob Ryan certainly didn’t fit that bill, and Dennis Allen’s resume of recent failings doesn’t suggest he is, either.

Over the last two years, Loomis has largely ignored defense to add Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Fleener. Now that he has money to spend, there’s no guarantee his philosophy will shift without anybody steering him in a different direction.

Brees remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but the Saints’ recent run of futility shows he can’t lead them back to prominence alone. Time is running out for New Orleans to right the ship.