The Saints have strongly hinted the 2020 NFL season will be their last with Drew Brees. Beyond Sean Payton’s Freudian slip last month about the potential finality with Brees this year, their actions have spoken louder than their coach’s words.
Over a month after Teddy Bridgewater left for the NFC South rival Panthers in free agency, the Saints stayed in the division for his replacement, making a one-year deal official with Jameis Winston on Tuesday night.
That came two days after the team gave returning quarterback Taysom Hill a lucrative two-year contract extension — a reported $21 million with $16 million guaranteed — through 2021. Two days before that, the Saints traded back into the seventh round to take Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens, an athletic run-heavy quarterback in college who compares favorably to Hill.
Winston, 26, wasn’t considered for a starting job anywhere after leading the league in interceptions (30) with the Buccaneers in 2019, despite his pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick in 2015. In an interview with fellow former Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward on Instagram Live, Winston compared joining Brees, Hill, Payton and the rest of the Saints offensive coaching staff to getting a “Harvard education in quarterback school.”
Winston also accepted it was the best opportunity to reboot his career as a backup. “It was no better position than to be in the same room with someone that I’ve really looked up to, someone that I admired since I’ve been playing this game in Drew Brees,” he told Ward.
Winston and Hill are very different types of quarterback. Winston also threw for 5,109 passing yards and 33 touchdowns last season, both career highs. In the past two seasons with the Saints behind Brees, Hill has completed only 6 of 13 passing attempts for 119 yards and no touchdowns, while rushing and receiving for a combined 590 yards and nine scores.
Per ESPN’s Field Yates, Winston is earning a base salary of only $1.1 million with a maximum of $3.4 million with incentives. If one follows the money, that would suggest Hill, once a pet project of Payton, has a much better chance to straight-up replace Brees than Winston does.
Here’s weighing those two options against each other, and also exploring the third one with a quarterback not on the roster:
The case for Jameis Winston
The biggest thing for Winston as “he goes back to school” is to absorb Brees’ efficiency expertise. Brees finished last season with a passing touchdown percentage of 7.1, his highest in nine years. At the same time, his interception percentage was 1.1, as excellent as ever. Consider that Winston did have a career-best touchdown percentage of 5.3 last season, though it did come with a career-worst interception percentage of 4.8.
Winston had a roller coaster first season in Bruce Arians’ aggressive “no risk-it, no biscuit” passing offense. He was unafraid to rip the ball downfield with elite wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But those many big plays were dragged down by bigger mistakes when Winston couldn’t rein it in. Conversely, the Saints are a more effective rushing offense. They are more calculated in throwing the ball downfield, knowing they can carve up teams with Brees working the short-to-intermediate passing game with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.
Among Dirk Koetter and Todd Monken, Arians and Byron Leftwich, there was a sense to try to take advantage of Winston’s big arm. With Payton and Pete Carmichael Jr., he has the braintrust to build on his strengths and reduce his weaknesses.
The Saints are also a more versatile big-play offense with Kamara, Thomas and tight end Jared Cook. They added to that ability by signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and drafting tight end Adam Trautman for beyond 2020. Winston has a chance to prove to the Saints he can tap more into his elite potential, and he’ll get all the offensive line and skill help he needs behind Brees.
Should the Saints want to keep up their traditional passing game prowess they had with Brees, Winston can prove to be a higher-upside study than Bridgewater, who aced his time in New Orleans to parlay it into a starting job with Carolina. Should Winston learn well, he’s the best option for New Orleans to have a seamless transition at the most important position.
The case for Taysom Hill
The only way that Hill makes sense in replacing Brees is if the Saints are truly reshaping their offense, much like the Ravens did to play off the running ability of Lamar Jackson. Hill has shown nothing in his small flashes as a passer to suggest he can drop back 25-plus times a game and be anything close to Brees.
Hill has been a valuable gadget player — the Saints have picked good spots for him at running back, tight end and wide receiver — from some home-run plays to strong red-zone finishes. The Saints would benefit from following through a possible “load management” plan with Brees, pushing Hill into more true quarterback situations.
For now, based on Hill’s skill set, it would be more an option-like, rushing-heavy attack with Hill, Kamara and Latavius Murray, playing off an offensive line that will stay strong with rookie first-rounder Cesar Ruiz in place to replace pending free agent Pro Bowl right guard Larry Warford next year.
The difference between Hill and Jackson is that the latter has proved to be a lot more accomplished passer — it’s really not even close now — who can push the ball deep. Until it’s seen otherwise, Hill’s struggles with accuracy would mean more of a horizontal attack than a vertical one.
If Hill can show the arm to go with his off-the-charts athleticism, there’s no doubt the Saints will be OK with him changing their long-time offensive pace from Brees. But at this moment, Winston’s pure passing deserves more appeal than Hill’s pure running.
The case for drafting or signing Brees’ replacement
Winston, although sneakily mobile when needed, won’t be giving the Saints a sudden dual-threat departure. Hill is a major work in progress to give the Saints’ enough passing pop. So despite the flyer on Winston and the heavier reinvestment in Hill, there’s a fair chance the Saints will need to find Brees’ successor in a rookie (more likely) or another veteran (less likely) in 2021.
The Saints, after winning their third consecutive division title at 13-3 last season, would need to drop off very badly to have any shot at Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields next April. That’s not happening. Their watchlist for later in the first round, however, should include names such as Georgia’s Jamie Newman, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello. They each have qualities that could be developed well to take over for Brees.
As for free agency, assuming the Cowboys lock up Dak Prescott to a long-term deal, the Saints’ best 2021 options are Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett and Tyrod Taylor. That route has no appeal, as Winston is younger than all of them and can be kept, if things go well for him in 2020, for cheaper in New Orleans.
The Saints are about to enjoy a fruitful 15th season with Brees as their starting quarterback. But as he tries to get to that elusive second Super Bowl one more time, what’s going on behind him in Winston and Hill this season will be just as critical to determine how they can keep winning without him.