Drew Brees has retired. Taysom Hill has become a one-man money-laundering front. Jameis Winston is entering his second year in Sean Payton’s quarterback friendzone. The New Orleans Saints, Super Bowl contenders for the last four years thanks in large part to Brees, are suddenly in unfamiliar territory.
General manager Mickey Loomis invented a whole new branch of macroeconomics to get the 2021 Saints under the salary cap. He even retained much of the team’s veteran core. But without Brees, things could get ugly this year.
Here’s a survival guide to help Saints fans temper their expectations and brace for what life will be like without a Hall of Fame quarterback for the first time in 15 years.
Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discuss the 2021 Saints
Pro Football Network’s Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discussed the Saints quarterback dilemma in Wednesday’s edition of PFN Draft Insiders.
Trey Wingo: On the same day that we were announcing Drew Brees’ retirement, they come to terms on a new contract extension for Taysom Hill. So even when Drew Brees is retiring, he’s pushed down the lineup for some Taysom Hill love. Which sounds about how the last couple of season have gone in New Orleans anyway!
Tony Pauline: It’s almost an unhealthy attraction with Taysom Hill for this organization — he’s a gadget quarterback. He’s not a true passer; he’s not a three-down guy. Jameis Winston has the physical skills but he just never turned the corner from being a thrower to being a passer. Platooning quarterbacks has never worked in the past. Payton said there’s going to be an open competition. It could be mayhem.
Trey Wingo: I remember when the Dallas Cowboys in the 70’s would platoon Roger Staubach and Craig Morton every other series. They went 4-3, and then they said, ‘this has to stop.’” They settled on Staubach, and they went on to win Super Bowl VI.
So do you think there’s a quarterback that Sean Payton and the Saints are targeting in the draft at all?
Tony Pauline: They’re not gonna get one in Round 1. The problem started a year ago when they passed up Jordan Love with the 24th selection and decided to take Cesar Ruiz, the offensive lineman from Michigan, who was a nice addition but wasn’t a necessity. Jordan Love would have been in the perfect situation — sit him a year behind Drew Brees, you start him moving forward.
Wingo and Pauline also discussed the future implications of Hill’s unique contract and many other topics, including the New England Patriots’ free-agent spending spree and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quest to keep their Super Bowl nucleus intact.
New Orleans Saints 2021 Best-Case Scenario
The Saints went 8-1 in games that Brees did not start in 2019 and 2020: 3-1 with Hill at quarterback last year and 5-0 under Teddy Bridgewater the previous year.
The Saints offense did not completely fall apart under either quarterback. Michael Thomas, for example, caught 30 passes for 343 yards in the Hill starts and 42 passes for 551 yards and 3 touchdowns in Bridgewater’s five 2019 starts. And contrary to the snark you may have heard from Taysom Bashers (guilty), the Saints didn’t run the 1957 Naval Academy offense with Hill — he threw 37 and 38 passes in his last two starts, completing over 70 percent of them.
The Saints defense ranked 2nd in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Many of their top defensive performers, including edge rushers Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport and cornerback Marcus Williams, will be back next year. So will most of an offensive line which ranked fourth in Adjusted Line Yards last season according to Football Outsiders.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Hill and/or Winston, aided by Thomas and Alvin Kamara and bulwarked by a veteran offensive line and defense, game-manage their way to double-digit wins and a playoff berth.
There’s also a chance that a rebooted Winston enjoys a juiced-up version of Ryan Tannehill’s Tennessee Titans renaissance. And heck, maybe Hill really is the next Steve Young, but mere mortals like us simply cannot perceive his excellence the way Payton can.
Unfortunately, the chances of all of those things working out in the Saints’ favor are rather slim.
New Orleans Saints 2021 Worst-Case Scenario
Let’s start by reminding everyone that we are talking about a 30-year-old trick-play specialist and a guy who threw 30 interceptions in 2019, then could not wrest the #2 job away from that 30-year-old trick-play specialist.
Yes, Hill did more than run the Wildcat last year. Sometimes he took a seven-step drop behind a six-man offensive line and waited for Thomas to get open. Peyton’s pet project ran paint-by-numbers game plans in 2020. That’s fine for beating the Atlanta Falcons or the Denver Broncos scout team, but it’s not a 16-game plan for success.
As for Winston, former top prospects may get better in our minds when they spend a full year on the bench, but they rarely get better on the field. Jameis Winston has thrown 2,559 NFL passes. He didn’t learn how to avoid turnovers by watching Brees throw screens to Kamara.
The Saints offense also lost wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill as cap casualties.
Sanders (who signed with the Buffalo Bills) finished second to Kamara with 61 receptions last year. Cook led the Saints with 7 receiving touchdowns. (Thomas, you will recall, was hurt much of the year). Sanders and Cook appear to be absorbable losses. But the Saints have struggled to draft and develop secondary weapons over the last few seasons. Young veterans Tre’Quan Smith and Adam Trautman will be thrust into significant offensive roles that neither has demonstrated any readiness for.
What about that Super Bowl-caliber defense? It’s true that the biggest names like Jordan, Davenport, Williams, and Malcolm Jenkins will return. But Janoris Jenkins, Malcolm Brown, Sheldon Rankins, Kwon Alexander, and Trey Hendrickson are among those who will not return. The Saints were forced to heave the middle class of their defense into caldera of the cap volcano. And there’s little money and not enough draft picks to load up on replacements.
The Saints have just enough veteran talent scattered around the roster to do what the New England Patriots did last year — hover around .500 and lose a bunch of close, low-scoring games. (Hill is Cam Newton for the Pat Boone demographic in this scenario; Jameis Winston is Jarret Stidham, the proof of the franchise’s brilliance which turns out to be vaporware). Ultimately, that would be worse than a collapse that prompts a full rebuild.
At some point, the Saints must shed salaries, draft blue-chip prospects and get serious about replacing Brees. Putting that off until 2023 or so will help no one.
What New Orleans Saints fans should root for in 2021
It’s corny to suggest that a team’s fans should hope for the team to “tank.” That said, a seven-win season won’t accomplish anything or satisfy anyone. Even a Chicago Bears-style running-and-defense Wild Card cameo would just be delaying the inevitable. So here’s what Saints fans should be rooting for in the weeks and months to come.
Clarity at quarterback
Maybe Jameis Winston throws for 5,000 yards and cuts down on his interceptions by about 75%. Maybe Hill … eh, whatever. Or maybe the whole situation goes splat. Either extreme is better than the middle ground: Hill looking like a pesky Ryan Fitzpatrick type, or Winston looking like Winston. That would lead to a 2022 offseason of fake contracts with voidable years and wishes at quarterback instead of plans.
Some A-plus draft grades
The Saints select 28th in April’s draft, but at least they picked up a pair of compensatory third-round draft picks. They won’t be able to select Brees’ true successor, but they can land help at wide receiver and replacements for some of the departing free agents mentioned earlier.
A new direction
Our “Best Case Scenario” talked about how the New Orleans Saints remained competitive without Brees in the past. The Bridgewater and Hill stints were just holding patterns, however, not a viable model for moving forward.
There’s a risk that the next year (or two or three) of Saints football become little more than a coda to the Brees era, with Thomas-Kamara-Jordan types playing out the string and waiting for free agency as this era rolls to a stop. Ideally, the 2021 Saints should instead be the start of something new — a new “face of the franchise,” identity, style of play, and new headlines.
Because if the biggest headline the Saints make this year is “Taysom Hill Signs $140 Million Extension Which is Totally Bogus,” then the team’s plan moving forward speaks for itself.
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