Saints arms race: Winston vs Hill in bid to succeed Brees

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) and quarterback Taysom Hill (7) take snaps during NFL football training camp in Metairie, Friday, July 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

METAIRIE, La. – Even as Jameis Winston insists he's going to make better decisions with the football, the potential successor to Drew Brees in New Orleans doesn't want to give the impression he's going to shy away from aggressive, downfield throws.

There's “no check-down mentality,” Winston asserted after training camp practice at Saints headquarters on Saturday. “It’s: Take what they give you. That’s one thing our coaches preach. ... We want to be able to move through those progressions quickly and be able to get the ball completed.”

Unlike the past 15 seasons, when Brees was shattering franchise and NFL passing records, the Saints do not have a clear-cut starting quarterback heading into the season. It will be either Taysom Hill, who went 3-1 as a fill-in starter when Brees was injured last season, or Winston, a 2015 top overall draft choice who passed for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns with Tampa Bay in 2019, but also was intercepted an NFL-high 30 times.

After being unceremoniously let go by the Bucs when they saw an opportunity to acquire Tom Brady, Winston approached his 2020 campaign as an apprenticeship under Brees and coach Sean Payton, who designs a Saints offense that has been among the most prolific in the NFL the past 15 years.

When Brees retired, Winston signed for at least one more season with New Orleans, giving him an opportunity to compete with Hill.

"You can’t put a price on having an opportunity to be an NFL (starting) quarterback,” Winston said. “I think it’s one of the most desired positions in all of sports.”

This is a nuanced competition in that Winston and Hill are different stylistically. Payton isn't necessarily judging how they execute the same plays. Rather, he's trying to discern whose style will give the club the best chance to win. Winston has well-documented arm talent. Hill is a dual-threat quarterback who — even when Brees was healthy — was regularly subbed in for designed option runs.

Payton said his offense will “evolve and take on a little bit of a new life of its own based on who’s playing quarterback.”

Hill rushed for 457 yards and eight TDs last season, when he also completed 73% of his passes for 928 yards and four TDs vs. two interceptions.

While Payton won’t rule out something akin to a platoon system, that's not his preference.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s important to have a stable leader in there at that position,” he said.

Payton has been alternating which quarterback takes first-team snaps in camp. Hill did the first two practices. Winston did during the third on Saturday. Both have had highlights in 11-on-11 drills: Winston found Deonte Harris with a deep, anticipatory pass that went for a touchdown during the first day; Hill connected with Marquez Callaway on a back-shoulder throw down the right sideline Saturday.

"They’ve put a ton of time in, both of them," Payton said. “And they’ve been fantastic working together. So it will kind of take care of itself, I think."

Hill said he changed his offseason training routine — placing greater emphasis on some muscle groups, and less on others — in an effort to produce a more typical quarterback physique. The Saints previously sought to take advantage of Hill's combination of size, speed and strength by using him in physical roles such as on special teams or as a tight end.

But since last season ended, Hill said he wanted to “lean out” and come into camp lighter. He has worked harder on strengthening the back side of his shoulders, which he said helps with throwing, as opposed to the front of his shoulders, which he used to apply force on opponents.

“Throughout my career here, I was always trying to find that balance of being strong enough to do what I was going to be asked to do, but still be able to throw a ball,” Hill said. “So there was definitely a transition.”

But Hill said reshaping his body more like that of a prototypical quarterback doesn't mean he'll stop trying to make plays with his legs.

“It’s a difficult balance sometimes as a dual-threat quarterback. ... But I try to stay true to my reads,” he said. "And the great thing is, if there’s nothing there, then I can make something happen” by running.


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