Who might replace Drew Brees as New Orleans Saints' starting quarterback? Answer may not be simple

Nate Davis

Drew Brees wouldn't admit his 20-season NFL career had come to a close Sunday night, saying he was going to process the just-completed 2020 season before providing a final determination.

“I'm going to give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things just like I did last year and make a decision,” he said.

But judging from the reports swirling about his imminent retirement, combined with what was certainly the worst of his 18 career playoff games – Brees threw three interceptions for the first time in postseason to go along with a playoff-worst 134 yards and 38.1 passer rating – and it seems painfully apparent that the New Orleans Saints will have a new starting quarterback in 2021. 

The question: Who?

Last month, Saints coach Sean Payton told NFL Media that, "I feel like our next quarterback is in the building."

That would suggest the outcome most would expect, that either backup Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will replace Brees, the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards (80,358).

Yet what seems like a fairly straightforward line of succession could meander.

Both QB Jameis Winston, seated, and Taysom Hill (7) played extensively in relief of Saints starter Drew Brees (9) this season.

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The Saints have gone 8-1 over the past two years when injuries sidelined Brees. This season, it was Hill who started four times in Brees' absence, finally getting extensive experience under center after being the Swiss Army knife component of this offense for so long.

Hill was credited with three wins while completing nearly 73% of his passes for 928 yards, four TDs and a 98.8 QB rating. From an efficiency standpoint, he was nearly Brees-esque. However no one will mistake them for clones. Hill has yet to approach Brees' passing volume, averaging a shade more than 200 yards per start – almost 100 fewer than Brees' average during his 15 seasons in New Orleans.

And yet the 6-2, 221-pound Hill is a bull with the ball in his hands, his rough-and-tumble open-field runs – whether as a quarterback, fullback, tight end or receiver – adding a dimension Brees never did. Hill has a combined 181 touches as a runner or receiver in his four-year career compared to 134 pass attempts.

The BYU product will be 31 before the 2021 season kicks off, is only under contract for one more year and invites significant punishment due to the physical style that also makes him so effective. Hill's thigh was heavily wrapped late in the season, and a lingering knee injury prevented him from suiting up Sunday against the Buccaneers.

Winston did play against Tampa Bay, and his only throw was a 56-yard touchdown to Tre'Quan Smith. Winston only saw significant action once this season, the Week 10 contest against San Francisco when Brees was waylaid by injured ribs, and completed six of 10 passes for 60 yards.

Winston, who came to New Orleans in 2020 after five seasons with the Bucs, signed to serve a bit of an apprenticeship under Payton. Like the 6-foot Brees, Winston is a pocket passer – if one, at 6-4, who should see the field much better. But though Winston is used to hoisting the ball at a Brees-y clip, leading the league with 5,109 yards in 2019, he's never been sufficiently careful with it, committing 111 turnovers in 72 games with Tampa Bay.

The skill set of the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft more closely resembles Brees, but only Payton knows how much decision-making progress Winston has made while holding a clipboard for a year. Winston's one-year, $1.1 million deal is also expiring. 

Which brings up another issue. 

According to Over The Cap, the Saints must slice nearly $100 million from their salary cap – nearly twice as much as any other team – before the new league year begins in March. Brees would make $25 million if he plays, but even his departure won't prevent significant cost cutting. Hill is set to make about $12 million, a bargain for a starting quarterback. Winston won't command $30 million on the open market, but GM Mickey Loomis would presumably need to offer a significant raise to re-sign him.

The Saints will pick 28th in the draft, not a spot where franchise passers tend to fall. New Orleans would be hard pressed to pursue a mid-tier replacement like Andy Dalton or Cam Newton, much less make a play for, say, purportedly unhappy Texans star Deshaun Watson. Even scenarios entailing the acquisition of Detroit's Matthew Stafford, Philadelphia's Carson Wentz or the Jets' Sam Darnold seem highly problematic from a resourcing perspective.

Which brings you back to Hill and Winston. Maybe the Saints anoint one. Maybe they figure out how to retain both and try a more pronounced hybrid approach than the Brees-Hill model. Or maybe a veteran-laden team goes in a completely new direction in a bid to continue winning with an otherwise enviable core of talent.

But one thing is virtually certain: The 2021 Saints are bound to look quite different ... whether or not their next QB is on the premises.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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