A healthy Jameis Winston makes the Saints a playoff team

Jameis Winston is a bit of a meme on social media. However, 2021 showed he has more than enough to make the Saints a playoff team.

Jameis Winston had the New Orleans Saints 4-2 while producing the sixth-highest dropback EPA per play in the eight games he started in 2021. Winston and the Saints accomplished that despite fielding Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty, and Tre’Quan Smith as their top receiving weapons.

Winston makes New Orleans a playoff team if he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, the former first-overall pick hasn’t necessarily been a beacon of health throughout his career in the NFL and is coming off an ACL tear in 2021. He’s already injured his foot and missed two weeks of practice during training camp.

But when healthy, and if the Saints take a… better… approach to the offense in 2022, Winston could extrapolate what looked to be a career year before his injury last season. Michael Thomas, Chris Olave, and Jarvis Landry reimagined the receiving room this offseason, making Winston even more efficient at a higher volume.

Taking the training wheels off Jameis Winston

Winston is a meme. The workout videos posted on social media are hilariously awkward, and he’s the only QB in NFL history to join the 30-30 club, throwing 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in 2019.

But since then, Winston improved his vision throw LASIK surgery and moved on from Bruce Arians’ high-flying downfield passing attack for the Saints’ version of offense fresh off the Drew Brees era. However, Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael tweaked things a bit to fit a different vision last season.

That included just a 37% first-down passing rate, which ranked 31st in the NFL through Winston’s six healthy weeks. Although New Orleans was known as a pass-first attack, in 2020, with Brees, that number was still in the bottom third at 48%. When New Orleans faced 2nd-and-6 or further, they passed at the 30th-best rate (52%). The Saints wanted to run the ball and take as much off Winston’s plate as possible.

If the Saints offense wants to get the running game back on track (23rd in Winston’s six fully-healthy games), they must trust Winston to sling the pill. Last season, he showed why they should.

Winston is the same animal but a different beast

Winston’s days of averaging nearly two interceptions a game are over. If he had qualified, Winston’s 1.9% INT rate would have ranked 11th in the NFL. His days of losing second-level linebackers and defensive backs in zone coverage are done. For the most part, the silly interceptions are a thing of the past for Winston.

But that doesn’t mean he’s turned into a West Coast zone-beating processor who lives less than 10 yards downfield, either. Winston’s big-time throw percentage was the highest it has ever been last season.

So, what changed so much?

Jameis Winston’s paralysis by analysis

Winston was noticeably cautious with the ball in 2021. He had the lowest turnover-worthy play percentage of his career last season, and much of it was due to his own leeriness toward pulling the trigger.

Winston spent much less time anticipating throwing windows, taking a more “see it, throw it” approach. He was particularly careful over the middle of the field but also held on to the ball longer on average than he had previously in his career.

Winston hasn’t ever been particularly adept over the middle of the field. More often than not, unless he saw a clean look against man coverage, he avoided that area of the field. Winston prefers working outside of the hash marks and would rather attack a cornerback’s leverage on the vertical plane than deal with the “trash” of defenders over the middle.

Avoiding the area almost entirely means he won’t miss a weakside linebacker sliding across the field to jump a crossing route in zone coverage.

First-overall arm talent

Winston’s arm has never been in question.

The above throw is from the far hash to the opposite sideline at 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. Winston is best when there is as little visual noise as possible, and this static country Cover 4 look gives him little to worry about. The seam route occupies the strongside safety. The linebacker only has about seven yards of depth when Winston begins to load, and the cornerback is in a half-turn with his hips facing inside.

It’s a read that any high-level high school QB recruit should be able to make, but a throw that only about a quarter of NFL-level talent consistently attempts successfully.

Dismantling man coverage

And being careful with the football doesn’t mean Winston can’t wow audiences with a needle thread every once in a while.

Winston is best when working downfield in the intermediate and deep levels of the field. Remember, the less visual noise, the better. Winston gets Cover 1 here, with five Giants defenders rushing him. A clear strength of Winston’s was his ability against man coverage, which makes sense given his strengths and weaknesses as a passer.

Here, he gets a 1-on-1 matchup he likes, and the safety gets stuck on the opposite hash, leaving a window for Winston to attack. From there, Winston makes sure not to lead the receiver into danger, throwing the pass just a shade behind and high on the receiver, so he can elevate and shield his body away from the closing safety.

There is no disguise with man coverage. There are no tricks. Winston could be more decisive against man coverage getting off reads and finding his outlets before the protection breaks down. That is true for Winston against both man and zone coverages.

However, Winston has shown to create when the protection does break down.

Winston is a pocket QB who can create

Part of Winston’s narrative surrounds the goofy-looking workout routines he goes through. But one thing we frequently see as he has water balloons hurled at him or pool noodles banging away at his hands are pocket-movement drills.

Winston isn’t really a mobile QB, but he’s light enough on his feet to pick up yards on the ground against man coverage when the rush doesn’t remain disciplined. He also uses what mobility he has to extend plays while keeping his eyes downfield.

One would expect Winston to keep his eyes downfield while on the move, as no one would mistake him for Lamar Jackson on the field. Being a statue in the pocket won’t play in the NFL anymore. Nobody who finds success in the modern league can do so without being able to manipulate the pocket and extend plays.

Many of the movement drills we see Winston do can be seen on film as he avoids pressure. He’s not as flexible and smooth as others, so it tends to look a bit more awkward. But you can see the drills manifested on the field as he avoids Kenny Clark’s rush in the above video.

Winston doesn’t have to be elite

The Saints are in a particularly good situation. New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is now the head coach, which puts more on his plate. However, Allen’s defenses have consistently performed at a level no other unit has over the past five seasons.

New Orleans has built their defense uniquely. They employ big, strong edge defenders with athletic interior defenders that create pressure. They also have intelligent defensive backs that are always in the right place at the right time. And while they lost Marcus Williams, they’ve added Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu for 2022.

New Orleans also holds a relatively easy strength of schedule this season. They rank just 18th according to Las Vegas win totals. With the upgrades at receiver and a defense that should remain outstanding this season, New Orleans should be in the thick of the NFC Wild Card race come January.

But Winston must find a way to stay healthy.

Winston may not have the dropback EPA outcomes he found last season, but the added weaponry should help not just the passing attack but the rushing attack as well. Last season, New Orleans struggled to get the running game going because defenses knew there wasn’t much offensive firepower.

If the left side of the offensive line can simply survive, this should be a well-rounded enough team that Winston could play at league average and make the playoffs in an underwhelming NFC. And last season, without that weaponry, he was better than that.

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