NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints’ transition into life after quarterback Drew Brees retired has been … well … more painful than expected.
First Jameis Winston tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 8 after helping the Saints to a promising 5-2 start. Then, Trevor Siemian went 0-4 as starting quarterback, in part because of an overwhelming barrage of injuries throughout the lineup around him.
Perhaps there's still time to revive their bleak playoff hopes if they get healthy in December. But New Orleans’ long-term outlook at quarterback will be even cloudier heading into 2022 than it was when Brees retired in March.
Here is a look at the options and hurdles:
Hill might not have the best chance at this job long-term -- but he has the next chance. So the 31-year-old could theoretically take it and run with it if he exceeds expectations and leads New Orleans into the playoffs. That will be a tall order, though, especially considering the health of the Saints’ roster and the fact that Hill’s greatest asset – his running ability – could be limited by the partially torn plantar fascia in one of his feet.
Hill lost out on his first chance at the starting gig when Winston outperformed him in training camp and the preseason.
Hill, meanwhile, just signed a unique four-year contract extension that will pay him a base value of $40 million if he remains in his versatile role as a part-time QB/RB/TE/WR – and up to $95 million if he becomes the starting QB and reaches several lofty incentives.
Hill showed some potential in 2020 by going 3-1 as a starter while Brees was injured. He was better than expected as a passer, completing 71.9% of his throws during that span for 834 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also ran the ball 39 times for 209 yards and 4 scores.
However, Hill lost three fumbles and got into trouble when he held onto the ball too long when his early reads weren’t open or the pocket broke down.
Hill and coach Sean Payton both need to make better use of his skill set over the next six weeks to revive hope for his long-term QB prospects.
Winston showed his potential before the ACL injury, throwing 14 touchdown passes with three interceptions and one lost fumble -- proving he could overcome the turnover issues that derailed his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also ran for 166 yards and a score of his own. The idea Winston's best football is yet to come still has merit.
However, he completed just 59% of his passes and averaged 186 passing yards in his six complete games while working with New Orleans’ depleted group of receivers and tight ends. Dropped passes didn’t help. But if Winston returns (he will be a free agent in 2022), he will need to be more efficient on short and intermediate routes to go with his big-play ability.
It remains to be seen if both sides are interested in a reunion. Unfortunately for the 27-year-old, his knee injury will limit his value in free agency. It’s possible the Saints could sign him to a one-year, incentive-laden deal for the third straight year -- despite severe salary-cap limitations.
Trevor Siemian or Ian Book
Siemian, who turns 30 this month, has performed better than his record suggests -- starting with a victory over the Buccaneers in Week 8 after he replaced Winston in the second quarter. However, Siemian’s performance regressed a little each week. And he seems better suited to manage an established offense than rescue a flailing one. He could certainly return as a backup, but it’s hard to envision him as the top option.
Likewise, Ian Book showed promise this summer as a rookie fourth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame -- especially with his ability to move outside of the pocket. He could compete for the No. 2 role but won’t head into 2022 as the projected No. 1.
Splash acquisition of a big-name QB?
This absolutely cannot be ruled out -- even though the Saints already have about $270 million in salary-cap commitments for 2022, with the cap scheduled to max out at $208.2 million per team.
The Saints could actually convert more than $90 million in cap space into future years through their usual bookkeeping practices, even if they don’t release any players. And we have yet to see any indication that Payton or general manager Mickey Loomis is interested in a full rebuild anytime soon, since they have continued to invest heavily in re-signing current elite players.
Obviously this is a long shot, though. The Saints would have to make the highest offer, and they would have to decide it’s worth investing mega-millions at QB despite several other pressing needs – starting with the wide receivers and tight ends that any new quarterback will require. At some point the Saints need to think seriously about rebuilding a roster that includes several standouts aged 30 and older (Armstead, defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Malcolm Jenkins).
A first-round draft choice?
This would be ideal, but it’s much easier said than done. For one, most draft analysts don’t see this as a great class for quarterback talent. For another, the Saints could be picking outside of the top 10, or even the top 20, if they stay competitive down the stretch.