Quarterback Drew Brees retired after 20 NFL seasons, including 15 record-breaking years with the New Orleans Saints.
Brees’ place among the NFL's all-time greats should never be under debate, but his former team now faces its own debate with his departure.
For the first time since 2005, there will be a quarterback not named Drew Brees to open the season for New Orleans.
Coach Sean Payton has stated that the job will be an open competition between 30-year-old Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, 27, who was the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay.
Hill is entering his fourth NFL season, all with New Orleans, after being a training camp cut by Green Bay as an undrafted rookie from BYU in 2017.
Hill has made a name for himself as a jack-of-all-trades player. He gives defenses nightmares with his versatility and ability to excel from multiple positions.
Winston is going into his seventh NFL season. He completed over 61% of his attempts during his first five years in Tampa Bay, averaging over 260 yards per contest with 121 touchdown passes, but also throwing 88 interceptions
Brees missed four games in 2020 with a serious rib and lung injury. When he went down, Payton surprisingly turned to Hill over the more experienced Winston to start.
Hill went 3-1 in Brees' absence. He completed over 71% of his throws as a starter, averaging 209 yards per outing with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
New Orleans re-signed Winston this offseason, inking the former Heisman Trophy winner to a one-year deal. Both Winston and Hill could be unrestricted free agents after the season, making this quarterback competition even more interesting.
The Saints also spent a fourth-round draft choice on Notre Dame QB Ian Book, who may be groomed as a future starter.
All eyes will be on the Saints quarterback position when training camp officially begins on July 27. It would benefit the team if either Winston or Hill would take control of the position and settle the debate early.
Here are 5 reasons I believe that Jameis Winston will be the New Orleans quarterback to open the 2021 season.
Winston has started 70 games in his NFL career, Hill just 4. He has played his entire career in the NFC South, where he has thrown 45 of his career touchdowns. Winston's experience gives him a calmer pocket presence and allows him to go through his reads decisively.
Payton's decision to start Hill last year was, in part, because of Hill's three-year knowledge of the offensive system.
Winston was in his first year with the Saints and didn't have the benefit of offseason workouts or preseason games because of COVID-19 concerns to learn the system.
Winston has now had a full regular season and complete offseason to digest the New Orleans playbook. Combined with his experience as a starter against NFL defenses, he has a clear edge over Taysom Hill in this category.
Much has been made of Winston's tendency to turn the ball over and questionable decision-making. He must prove he can take care of the football and efficiently, but he’s always shown the ability to be a productive passer.
Winston last saw extensive action in 2019 with the Buccaneers. He led the NFL with 5,109 yards passing, the eighth-highest total in league history, while his 33 touchdown passes were second in the league. He’s led the league's top passing offense twice, in 2018 and 2019, while finishing 4th in 2017.
Unfortunately, Winston also led the league with 30 interceptions in 2019, the seventh most in league history. While concerns about his turnovers are valid, Winston never had a consistent running game to provide balance or decent pass protection in front of him.
He’ll have both those luxuries in New Orleans. The Saints have one of the NFL's most balanced offensive attacks and possess the league's most dynamic running back in Alvin Kamara.
They've also protected their quarterbacks with dominant offensive lines, annually surrendering among the fewest sacks in the league.
Winston has been a productive passer with far less talent around him than he’ll have with the Saints. He’s often flashed the potential that made the Buccaneers select him first overall. He’ll now need to prove he can be consistent and avoid costly turnovers.
3. ALVIN KAMARA
As mentioned, the Saints have the most dynamic running back in the NFL today. Alvin Kamara had a career-high 932 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in 2020. He’s also caught at least 81 passes in each of his four seasons, including a career-best 83 receptions last year.
In the four games with Taysom Hill as a starter last year, Kamara was not nearly as effective. He still scored three touchdowns but averaged less than 60 yards rushing.
Even worse, Kamara's elite abilities as a receiver were invisible with Hill behind center. He was targeted just six times in Hill's first three starts, catching 3 passes for a paltry 7 yards.
Alvin Kamara is one of the factors that makes the New Orleans offense special. His versatility, open field skills, and ability to be an effective receiver from out of the backfield or split wide is a matchup advantage for the Saints' offense.
Winston has never had a running back of Kamara's skill but still used his backs as effective check-down options with Tampa Bay. The next New Orleans quarterback must be able to take advantage of Kamara all over the field, something Winston has proven more capable of doing.
2. TAYSOM HILL
Over the last three seasons, Taysom Hill has been a valuable, versatile weapon for this offense.
He’s a physical runner with excellent instincts, capable of pushing forward for extra yardage between the tackles or pulling away from defenders with outstanding speed in the open field.
Hill has greatly improved as a receiver. He was a valuable asset as a receiver in 2019, when he caught 21 passes for 259 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s inexperienced as a route runner but has shown good natural instincts as a receiver, along with being a lethal weapon as a runner.
Hill's ability to threaten a defense from multiple positions takes a valuable weapon away from the offense if he's the starting quarterback.
Simply put, Hill is more valuable for the Saints in a ‘‘Swiss army knife'' role for the offense. Even in that role, he would still be used as a situational quarterback and would be dangerous on gadget plays.
1. SEAN PAYTON
The New Orleans coach is one of the finest offensive minds in NFL history. Payton devises his offense to take advantage of what his players do best and will tailor his playbook to best suit either Hill or Winston.
But let’s be honest: Sean Payton likes to throw the football. He wants to threaten defenses both vertically and sideline-to-sideline. The New Orleans offensive line allows the team to maintain balance, but the Brees-Payton combination was what sent shivers of fear throughout the league.
Payton attacks defenses with several different alignments and combinations of receivers. He has the league's best wideout in Michael Thomas at his disposal, along with Kamara and some developing young receivers.
Whether Hill or Winston is the quarterback, both have big arms capable of stretching the field. It's something that the declining Brees failed to consistently do in his last two seasons, opening up a yet another threat against defenses.
Payton did a fabulous job at simplifying the playbook for Taysom Hill in 2020. Ultimately, the New Orleans starting quarterback will have to be a player who can run a complex passing attack to suit what Payton wants to do.
As long as he can avoid turnovers, Jameis Winston is a proven productive passer, and one that has the capability of engineering an intricate Sean Payton offense.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.