METAIRIE, La. -- Jameis Winston didn’t get a blockbuster deal Monday when he agreed to re-sign with the New Orleans Saints (one year, up to $12 million with incentives, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter).
But he has a blockbuster opportunity to become Drew Brees’ heir in New Orleans, surrounded by one of the NFL’s most talented rosters and being tutored by one of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds in Sean Payton.
Winston, who just turned 27 in January, will still have to beat out Taysom Hill for the job this summer. But the events of the past two days have now solidified those two contenders as the front-runners for the Saints’ starting QB gig in 2021.
First, Brees announced his retirement as expected. Then the Saints re-signed Winston after they spent last year getting to know each other on a one-year trial basis.
Of course, the Saints could consider a splash move like trading a truckload of draft picks for the Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson -- if he actually becomes available. Or moving up 20-plus spots in the NFL draft to get their hands on a top-five QB prospect. The position is important enough to weigh all scenarios.
But Winston and Hill are the most realistic and affordable options. More importantly, the Saints have given every indication they believe both have the potential to grow into playoff-caliber starters.
Here’s a closer look at the post-Brees landscape in New Orleans:
The case for Winston
Coach Sean Payton made it clear the Saints wanted Winston back in free agency, after he spent one year in the building as a backup last season. Not only was Payton enamored with Winston’s “tremendous arm talent” (which he showed off with a 56-yard touchdown pass on a trick play in New Orleans’ playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but Payton also called Winston “fantastic as a leader.”
Of course, there are some well-known shortcomings with Winston’s game, including accuracy issues and a turnover epidemic. But he was the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft for a reason; he led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019; and he just turned 27 in January. He also has made strides toward improving his game, including LASIK eye surgery, improved diet and fitness -- and the humble decision to come to New Orleans to learn under Payton and Brees for a year.
Winston is no sure thing, but he probably has as much potential as anyone the Saints could acquire in this year’s draft. He would have to win the job against Hill in training camp. But the fact that Winston is younger than the 30-year-old Hill, with a higher ceiling -- and Hill could continue to be used in his versatile role as a runner/receiver -- could give Winston an edge.
What’s the deal with Hill’s restructured contract?
Pay no attention to the numbers behind the curtain!
Hill restructured his contract on Sunday to include four automatically voiding years at an astounding rate of $140 million, a source told Schefter. But that was strictly for salary-cap purposes, and Hill didn’t actually get any new money or years added to his current deal.
Those years will automatically void at the end of this season -- a practice that has become more common around the NFL this year because of the league’s reduced salary cap.
Typically, such automatically voiding salaries aren’t reported since they will never actually be paid out. And they are often heavily inflated because of a league rule that does not allow players to renegotiate higher salaries within 12 months of a previous renegotiation.
Hill will still earn the exact same total of $12.159 million in salary and bonuses this year that he was already scheduled to receive. But he converted $9.689 million of his salary into a signing bonus -- which allows teams to spread the cap charges over multiple years.
So now, Hill’s salary-cap cost will drop from $16.159 million to $8.410 million in 2021. And the remaining $7.749 million will count in “dead money” against the 2022 cap after Hill’s contract voids -- unless a real extension is completed by next year.
The Saints have made similar moves with several contracts this year to get under the salary cap, since they started the offseason nearly $100 million over the cap.
The case for Hill
Hill neither secured nor lost his grip on the long-term job when he went 3-1 as a starter last season while Brees was injured.
Hill was better than most outsiders expected as a passer, completing 71.9% of his throws for 834 yards, four TDs and two interceptions in those four starts. But he needs to improve his anticipation and decision-making once he gets past his first or second read. And he definitely needs to improve his ball security after fumbling 10 times and losing five of them in 2020. Most of his trouble came when he held onto the ball too long in the pocket -- a surprise, considering his outstanding rushing ability.
All of those things could improve with more experience, though, especially since he hadn’t played regular snaps at quarterback since he was a senior at BYU in 2016. And both Payton and Hill could do a much better job of exploiting Hill’s legs by either designing more run plays or encouraging him to scramble sooner. The only drawback to that approach would be injury risk, since Hill seems to relish contact rather than sliding or running out of bounds.
Trade for a superstar?
Wilson’s agent has identified the Saints as a preferred destination if he gets traded, so if Wilson wants to come to New Orleans, the Saints (and New Orleans’ mayor) would welcome him with open arms. And they would make an aggressive offer, despite the fact they were still about $60 million over the projected salary cap as of Tuesday. The same goes for Deshaun Watson, if he becomes available via trade. If the Saints have to trade or release some of their current starters, they'll do it to acquire an elite quarterback.
There are two problems, however. One is that neither the Seattle Seahawks nor the Houston Texans are openly shopping Wilson and Watson at this point, so it seems highly unlikely a deal could come together before the start of free agency. The bigger hurdle is the Saints can’t offer a premium draft choice or a young developmental QB in return.
Other quarterbacks could become available on the trade market, depending on how the game of musical chairs plays out around the league -- potentially including Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota, Sam Darnold or Tua Tagovailoa. The Saints obviously like Bridgewater after he spent two years in New Orleans, and they liked Garoppolo when he was coming out in the draft. But Bridgewater is due $39 million over the next two years, while Garoppolo is due more than $50 million over the next two years.
What about the draft?
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay had quarterbacks going at Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 9 in his latest mock. The price would be exorbitant for the Saints to move up from No. 28 -- even if someone like Alabama’s Mac Jones or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance falls a little farther than expected.
If the Saints decide to go the draft-and-develop route, one name ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. suggested as a possibility is Jamie Newman -- who started 16 games at Wake Forest from 2018 to 2019, then opted out of last season over coronavirus concerns after transferring to Georgia.
“Here’s a kid who showed a lot of talent and promise,” Kiper said. “Had he played at Georgia, he might have been a first- or second-round pick. Now you’re getting him in the third or fourth round, possibly.”