Saints 2021 Preview, Part 2: The quarterbacks
The New Orleans Saints are beginning their most significant transition in 15 years.
Drew Brees has retired and a dozen other key players from last year’s team are gone for a variety of reasons.
As the start of the 2021 training camp looms in late July, the four-time defending NFC South champion Saints are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Sean Payton is still one of the longest-tenured and most-successful coaches in the league.
But things are changing as New Orleans ventures into the post-Brees era.
Crescent City Sports takes a comprehensive look at this transition in this series as a build-up to the start of training camp.
Who will succeed Drew Brees?
Will it be Jameis Winston?
Or Taysom Hill?
That storyline will dominate the New Orleans Saints’ preparation for the 2021 season. It will provide the backdrop against which training camp and preseason games will unfold until coach Sean Payton names his starting quarterback for the Sept. 12 season opener against Green Bay in the Superdome.
Winston has the edge in terms of NFL playing experience and productivity, but he had that when Brees was sidelined by injury for four games last season and Payton chose to start Hill.
Payton chose well as the Saints went 3-1 in those games.
But this decision is different. This is not choosing a fill-in for a small part of a season, it’s choosing the leader of the team for an entire season – and perhaps longer.
“You pay attention to just what you see without any predisposed thoughts,” Payton said of the impending preseason competition.
Though the replacement of the most prolific passer in NFL history will be unavoidably one of the biggest attention-getting items in the league this summer, this really has nothing to do with Brees.
The Saints aren’t replacing the 2006 Brees or the 2008 Brees or the 2009 Super Bowl MVP Brees or the 2011 Brees or the 2012 Brees or the 2013 Brees or even the 2017 Brees.
They are choosing the successor to the 2019-2020 Brees, who missed nine games in his last two seasons due to injury. They won eight of those games, five with Teddy Bridgewater starting in 2019 and three of four with Hill starting in 2020.
The Saints were significantly less dependent on Brees in the last two seasons than they were earlier in his career, even though he continued to play at a mostly high level when healthy.
Winston isn’t Brees, nor is Hill. Neither needs to be Brees of any vintage.
Whoever starts needs to be the best version of themselves that they can be to lead and complement a cast of players on a team capable of extending its streak of four consecutive NFC South titles even without Brees.
“I think you’re going to look at everything,” offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said of the competition, “not only how they’re performing on the field, how they’re absorbing the offense, the communication at the huddle and line of scrimmage, how are they performing in critical situations whether it’s two-minute drill, third down, red zone.”
Payton’s offense, which Brees orchestrated since 2006, will be tailored to fit Brees’ successor.
“We’ve always tried to look closely at the strengths of our players, what they do well and we’ll build a little bit around that player accordingly,” Payton said. “And that’s something that we did when Drew first arrived here, and we would do with either these two players.”
Winston, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2015, started for five seasons in Tampa Bay before signing with the Saints as a free agent before last season.
“One year not playing has just made me even hungrier to get back at the helm and lead a team,” Winston said.
In his last season as a starter in 2019 his productivity was remarkable – 5,109 yards and 33 touchdown passes – but marred by 30 interceptions. That was typical of Winston’s Buccaneers career as he threw 121 touchdown passes and 88 interceptions.
The Saints and Winston are hopeful that his improved eye sight resulting from LASIK surgery he had last offseason can make him a more accurate passer, but improved decision-making likely would be a more important factor in reducing the interceptions.
Winston said one of the most important things he has learned as an NFL quarterback is “being able to say no.”
“Everybody can get back there and throw the ball,” Winston said, “but being able to make the decisions that ‘we cannot do this’ goes into if you are going to be a great quarterback or average.”
Winston, like Hill, credited Brees for showing him “how to be a complete pro, how to come to work every day, what the purpose and what the initiative is (each day).”
“We don’t want to be making decisions just for a (potential) great result,” Winston said. “You want to be making the right decision period. That is what (Brees) taught me.”
Either Winston or Hill will be a greater threat on deep passes than was Brees, who played at 41 years of age last season.
Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith said Winston has told him, “When I’ve got the ball whatever you do, don’t stop running. He’s definitely looking to stretch the offense.”
Hill’s running ability triggered the addition of run-pass options to the Saints offense for his periodic moments replacing Brees during the last four seasons.
Payton chose to use Hill, who also has myriad offensive and special-teams roles, as a starting quarterback last season similar to the way he used him as a change-of-pace while backing up Brees.
“I look at the last four games that I was playing last season and we did some things differently,” Hill said. “Some things were taken out of the offense, some things were added, but the core is all the same.
“The emphasis this year is (I’ve) never really been able to tailor all my workouts and everything to just being a quarterback where I’ve structured things differently just knowing and feeling like I won’t have to take on as much as I did last year.”
Ideally the Saints will name a starter in August, allowing a few weeks for the team to focus on adjusting to one or the other. But the priority is not making a quick decision, it’s making the best decision.
“I think the decision will be made when it needs to be made,” tackle Ryan Ramczyk said, “and we’ll roll with whatever it is.”
See each part of the feature series leading up to Saints Training Camp here.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…