Opinion: Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill? Life without Drew Brees will test Saints' creative mojo

Jarrett Bell

For all of the scrambling going on these days with NFL quarterbacks, it may seem a bit weird that the man who just said farewell to the NFL’s all-time leading passer seems rather content to roll with his own version of musical chairs.

Sean Payton swears that the next New Orleans Saints quarterback is already in the building in the form of Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. Or Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston. You might think in the wake of the big retirement announcement Sunday from Drew Brees that the Saints coach might put in a bid for disgruntled stars Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, but he is not giving off that vibe.

Maybe it’s the cost, because it certainly isn’t the talent. Trading for Wilson or Watson would mean blowing up the salary cap and probably a significant portion of the roster to pull it off. Then again, it’s not that Payton isn’t working with some prime talent anyway as this post-Brees quarterback quandary unfolds.

Saints coach Sean Payton has decisions to make at QB: Jameis Winston (2) or Taysom Hill?

Winston entered the NFL in 2015 as the No. 1 pick in the draft. Hill has made his mark as a Swiss Army knife-type weapon who can slice from all angles.

“I think Taysom, Jameis, the challenge for us will be the offense will move in a direction around one of those guys,” Payton, talking X’s and O’s identity, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. 

“And it’ll move to the stuff that they do well. They don’t have to be Drew. There’s still a formula relative to leading your team, finding ways to win each week. Both are tremendous leaders. They’re unselfish players who aren’t worried about their stat line and other stuff.”

Payton was measured as he spoke about the open competition that looms that he’ll surely try to manage -- so it doesn’t detonate into the type of controversy that can dominate headlines or drive a wedge into the locker room. This is new territory, given that Payton’s prolific offense with the Saints has always been Brees’ offense, and vice-versa.

But at least he knows what he’s dealing with. Especially after Winston, who joined the Saints last year on a one-year contract, opted to stay on a modest one-year, $5.5 million deal that can improve to a $14 million payout with incentives. Winston surely had options.

Just look at what happened Tuesday on the eve of the official opening of free agency. Washington struck a deal with the ultimate journeyman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 38-year-old poised to mark his 17th NFL season with his ninth different team. The chair Fitzpatrick left in Miami is now filled by ex-Colt Jacoby Brissett, who will have a better chance of beating out young Tua Tagovailoa. It certainly beats playing second fiddle to Carson Wentz, whose trade from Philadelphia and reunion with Indy coach Frank Reich becomes official today.

Chicago made a move, too, luring Andy Dalton from his Dak Prescott-backup job in Dallas for a chance to compete against Nick Foles. And Tyrod Taylor is on the go again, landing in Houston as viable insurance for the Watson saga.

Conceivably, Winston might have been in play with any of the teams that obtained quarterbacks so far this week — or some others with shaky situations. But staying put with the chance to win makes so much sense. If he wins the job, he’ll have the chance to win big, too, given the deep Saints talent pool.

How did Payton close the deal to convince Winston to return?

“I think ultimately … here’s the best thing about a one-year deal (in 2020) and it happened with Teddy Bridgewater: Man, I get a chance to kind of check you out,” Payton said. “I get a chance to evaluate you and you know what? You get a chance to do the same with me. So it’s a one-year recruiting trip.

"I looked at it like, ‘Hey, he’s going to like what he sees here.’ He’s going to like the locker room, the offseason, all the things that are important to him. He wants a chance to start, and he’s got that. And not only that, he’s already earned the respect of his teammates, same as Taysom has. He’s been in that locker room, they’ve seen him at practice. So that’s valuable information when you’re making decisions like this.”

Both Winston and Hill have something to prove about their potential to develop into elite quarterbacks. Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019 for Tampa Bay, but he also led the league with 30 interceptions … which contributed to the door opening for Tom Brady to lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl.

Hill, meanwhile, harbors concerns about turnovers, too, which include gaffes that can come as a runner. Yet questions also revolve around his consistency and accuracy. Hill completed 72.7% of his passes last season, which would rank among the league leaders over the course of a full season.

But in starting four games for an injured Brees, he had a relatively small sample size in 2020, throwing 121 passes. Payton has trumpeted Hill as a potential starting quarterback ever since he claimed him off waivers in 2017, although the explosive impact has come primarily as a runner and receiver. 

Payton acknowledged the continued development envisioned for Hill as a passer, which includes footwork and comfort in the pocket.

“Just as important is the processing — A, B, C, D — on each play,” Payton said. “One of the things that he provided is that man, you knew on any given play he was a threat to make something happen. And yet there were times on any given play he was a threat to make something happen that you weren’t happy about.

"He reminded me of early in (Tony) Romo’s career. When he went into a game, something’s going to happen. So I think ball security will be something we spend a lot of time with him on.”

This creative challenge for Payton to build an offense without Brees was imminent. And now it's here.

It hardly seems likely the Saints are destined for the type of drop-off New England suffered last year after Brady’s departure. The Patriots had their first losing season since 2000 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The Saints are better equipped to withstand losing their legend because they’ve built one of the league’s best defenses (ranked fourth for fewest yards allowed in 2020) and have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. And there are star playmakers -- running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas. It’s a credit to the deft drafting over multiple years.

Yet Payton also prepared for Brees’ departure beyond having veterans (Winston and previously Bridgewater) and a developmental project (Hill) backing up the franchise quarterback. Brees missed nine games the past two seasons due to injuries, and the Superdome roof hardly collapsed. The Saints were 8-1 in games since 2019 without Brees.

Said Payton, “The seasons of late have begun to prepare us.”

Maybe so. But the seasons ahead, without Brees and with Brady in the division, will surely put that preparation to the test.