After taking two months to weigh his options, Drew Brees picked the expected one Sunday, announcing his retirement from the NFL after 20 mostly stellar seasons.
The next question: Who will the New Orleans Saints’ starting quarterback be in 2021?
Head coach Sean Payton told NFL Media late last season that, “I feel like our next quarterback is in the building.”
That would suggest the outcome most would expect, that either backup Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will replace Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (80,358).
Yet what seems like a fairly straightforward line of succession could meander.
The Saints have gone 8-1 over the past two years when injuries sidelined Brees. In 2020, it was Hill who started four times in Brees’ absence, finally getting extensive experience under center after being the Swiss Army knife component of this offense for so long.
Hill was credited with three wins while completing nearly 73% of his passes last season for 928 yards, four TDs and a 98.8 QB rating. From an efficiency standpoint, he was nearly Brees-esque. However, no one will mistake them for clones. Hill has yet to approach Brees’ passing volume, averaging a shade more than 200 yards per start – almost 100 fewer than Brees’ average during his 15 seasons in New Orleans.
And yet the 6-2, 221-pound Hill is a bull with the ball in his hands, his rough-and-tumble open-field runs – whether as a quarterback, fullback, tight end or receiver – adding a dimension Brees never did. Hill has a combined 181 touches as a runner or receiver in his four-year career compared to 134 pass attempts.
The BYU product will be 31 in August and invites significant punishment due to the physical style that also makes him so effective. Hill’s thigh was heavily wrapped late in the season, and a knee injury prevented him from suiting up in the team’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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Winston did play in that postseason game against Tampa Bay, his only throw a 56-yard touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith. Otherwise, Winston saw significant action just once in 2020, the Week 10 contest against San Francisco when Brees was waylaid by injured ribs, and completed six of 10 passes for 60 yards.
Winston, who came to New Orleans last year after five seasons with the Bucs, signed to serve a bit of an apprenticeship under Payton. Like the 6-foot Brees, Winston is a pocket passer – if one, at 6-4, who should see the field much better. But though he’s used to hoisting the ball at a Brees-y clip, leading the league with 5,109 yards in 2019, he’s never been sufficiently careful with it, committing 111 turnovers in 72 games with Tampa Bay.
The skill set of the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft more closely resembles Brees – and offseason buzz has suggested he’s the frontrunner to take over – but only Payton knows how much decision-making progress Winston has made while holding a clipboard. Winston’s one-year, $1.1 million deal is also expiring.
Which brings up another issue.
Though the Saints have shed more than $80 million in 2021 financial commitments in recent weeks, according to Over The Cap, they’re still $17.2 million overspent on this year’s $182.5 million salary cap ceiling. Hill provided additional relief Sunday, signing a four-year, $140 million extension (with voidable years), per ESPN. Winston won’t command $30 million on the open market, but GM Mickey Loomis would presumably need to offer a significant raise to re-sign him.
The Saints will pick 28th in the draft, not a spot where franchise passers tend to fall. New Orleans would be hard pressed to pursue a mid-tier replacement like Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick, much less make a play for, say, purportedly unhappy stars Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans star or Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. Even scenarios entailing the acquisition of the Jets’ Sam Darnold or Panthers’ Teddy Bridgewater, a former Saint, seem highly problematic.
Which brings you back to Hill and Winston.
Maybe the Saints anoint one. Maybe they figure out how to retain both and try a more pronounced hybrid approach than the Brees-Hill model. Or maybe a veteran-laden team goes in a completely new direction in a bid to continue winning with an otherwise enviable core of talent.
But one thing is now certain: The 2021 Saints are going to look quite different … whether or not their next QB is on the premises.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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