What losing quarterback Jameis Winston means for New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- The torn ACL in Jameis Winston’s left knee will sideline him for the remainder of the season. It's bad news for a quarterback who was working to revive his career and the New Orleans Saints.

Winston earned the QB1 job this summer because he gave the Saints the best chance to win. And their passing game was already a big concern because of their lack of proven depth at wide receiver and tight end.

However, the Saints (5-2) aren’t sunk -- as they showed in their improbable 36-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

Even though they lost Drew Brees to retirement and Winston to injury in 2021, they still have decent quarterback depth with Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and rookie fourth-round draft pick Ian Book -- good enough that coach Sean Payton insisted Monday he doesn’t plan to look outside of the building for help.

More importantly, the quarterback position has essentially become a supporting role for the Saints, who rely heavily on their defense, offensive line and run game.

Here are some quick thoughts on the burning questions that now surround the Saints:

The case for Taysom Hill

This one’s pretty obvious, considering Hill was 3-1 as a replacement for Brees last season and finished runner-up to Winston in an open competition for the job over the summer.

Unfortunately, Hill has been sidelined since Week 5 with a concussion. But assuming he returns to practice in the next week or two, he's the most likely long-term option for New Orleans.

Of course, Hill is far from perfect, which is why he lost out to Winston heading into the season. He is a 31-year-old multi-position player with four career quarterback starts under his belt -- and those four starts came with mixed results last season. He completed an impressive 71.9% of his passes during that stretch. But he struggled once he got past his first and second reads, throwing two interceptions and losing three fumbles.

Hill had a good rapport with Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who will hopefully come back soon from the ankle injury that has sidelined him all season. But he never mastered the check-down pass to running back Alvin Kamara (which is essential for any Saints QB).

Still, that experience should help both Hill and Payton if they try the experiment again. If they can master a formula in which Hill relies more on his stellar running ability to get him out of trouble once those first and second reads aren’t there, he should have even more success.

The case for Trevor Siemian

This one’s pretty obvious, too, after the 29-year-old journeyman stepped in for Winston on Sunday with the game tied at 7 and helped lead New Orleans to a win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Bucs.

Overall, Siemian is 13-12 in his career as a starter, but it has been a while since he went 13-11 with the Denver Broncos from 2015 to 2017 and 0-1 with the New York Jets in 2018.

“He played with poise and made good decisions. It’s what you want someone to do that’s coming into the game, really, without a lot of work, and I thought he handled the situation well,” said Payton, who compared Siemian’s calm, even demeanor to another veteran he used to coach, Ty Detmer.

If Hill isn’t healthy enough to start this week, Siemian could get another chance to make an even stronger impression.

And as a bonus, if Siemian is quarterback, the Saints could continue to use Hill in his versatile role as a RB/WR/TE in an offense starved for playmakers.

However, Payton made it clear this summer he wouldn’t use that as a deciding factor between Hill and Winston. If he thinks Hill would be the more effective quarterback, he’ll get the job.

Any chance of Brees or a wild card?

The idea of Brees riding in on a white horse falls into the “never say never” category -- especially if the Saints run into more injury trouble down the road. But for now, there has been no indication it’s being considered, and Brees shot down the suggestion Sunday night in his role as an NBC analyst.

Meanwhile, Payton rejected the idea of bringing in someone from the outside Monday, saying multiple times he is satisfied with his current QB room.

Are the Saints still playoff contenders?

Absolutely.

The task is decidedly more difficult now, but the Saints were 5-0 in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater as the starter and 3-1 with Hill, and they are a combined 5-2 this season with Winston and Siemian. Plus they were 9-3 last season with Brees as their starter, even though he wasn’t playing anywhere near his peak form and later admitted he was fully healthy for one game.

The point is, this is no longer a team that lives and dies by quarterback play alone. The Saints rank 31st in the NFL in pass attempts per game and completion percentage this season. They need to get better in those areas, for sure. But they will remain competitive because they have one of the league’s best coaching staffs, defenses, offensive lines and running back combos (Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram II).

What does this mean for Winston?

Unfortunately, the 27-year-old is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. It’s hard to imagine the Saints or another team making a stronger commitment to him in terms of money or contract length coming off a torn ACL.

However, Winston helped to enhance his reputation during his seven-game stint as New Orleans’ starter and should remain a candidate to retain the job in 2022, considering the Saints won’t have a premium draft choice or much salary-cap space.

Winston wasn’t perfect, with a completion percentage of 59% and an average of 178.4 passing yards in the five games he finished. But he answered the biggest question -- whether he could cut down on the turnovers that plagued his career at Tampa Bay -- while still providing a big-play threat.

Winston finished with 14 touchdown passes, three interceptions and one lost fumble, with the highest passer rating of his career at 102.8.