No matter how you feel about the Saints and their 2020 season, the reality is that they didn't live up to the expectations they placed on themselves. Yes, it was undoubtedly a strong regular season campaign, as New Orleans won their fourth straight NFC South title. Unfortunately. they came up short in the postseason, falling to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, they're faced with a ton of questions in the offseason that will quickly pass by. We start a multi-part series with perhaps the most important one going into the new league year.
Who will be the quarterback for the Saints in 2021?
We already looked at the team and their future options at the end of January. There's going to be more fallout from roster cuts and potential trades ahead of March 17, but we do know that several big names have already been dealt: Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, and Jared Goff. There's still uncertainty with the final salary cap figure, but we know that it's going to be no less than $180 million. While that still leaves the Saints with work to do, their situation is not as horrible as everyone made it out to be in the first place.
For New Orleans, the first big domino to fall is the future of Drew Brees. His anticipated retirement announcement hasn't happened yet. The Saints did renegotiate his contract to save $24 million in space, which was a pretty good indication that 'the end' was here. However, we still wait. Jameis Winston is a pending free agent, which leaves the team with Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian as their quarterback room going into 2021. Also worth noting is that Joe Lombardi, who had two separate stints with the team and has been known for his work as quarterbacks coach, got promoted to be the Chargers offensive coordinator and work with Justin Herbert.
The NFL got to see a small sample size from Taysom Hill in four games, and it was obviously a mixed bag. You can't really count the game against the Broncos due to the unorthodox nature of how things went. Sean Payton said it himself that the team had to change up their game plan based on how everything unraveled. Hill had some good moments, but the common issues were timing, read progression, and ball security.
Here's a few schools of thought on where things could go for the Saints in a very short few weeks.
Worst-case scenario: New Orleans loses Jameis Winston to free agency, Drew Brees retires, and Taysom Hill doesn't progress from last season as the team's starter. Again, Hill certainly has some strong qualities, but really has to improve on the field in multiple categories. For that reason, it'd be hard to project New Orleans anything higher than a Wild Card team.
Best-case scenario: Mickey Loomis somehow finds a way to trade for one of the 'pie in the sky' assets floating around like Deshaun Watson. The amount of draft capital and players that will have to be dealt would be exponential. However, someone like Watson could come in and definitively keep the Saints in the Super Bowl contender category.
The curve ball: New Orleans drafts a quarterback at 28th overall and keeps Hill on the roster. Alabama's Mac Jones has been a popular named paired to mock draft overload season, but the reality is Payton has only drafted three quarterbacks in his tenure. It's not impossible, but that would be something to monitor depending on how things play out. Not having Brees or Lombardi around raises some questions on how a rookie quarterback would develop in New Orleans.
The likely scenario: Drew Brees retires, while Jameis Winston gets re-signed to compete with Taysom Hill in a very entertaining training camp battle. Winston would get my early vote to win out, and New Orleans would be able to at least threaten to win the division again and make a playoff run.
We missed out on seeing a real training camp quarterback battle between Winston and Hill last season due to COVID-19, and not having preseason action also left a lot to the imagination. The biggest question boils down to how much a new contract for Winston would cost the team. That's something we also looked at and projected. What sounds about right is a deal within the $5-10 million range that has heavy incentives attached to it that Winston could very easily pick up.
No matter what does happen, we have to keep in mind and assume that Sean Payton knows best on what to do for his team.