METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints have become the finishing school of choice for quarterbacks in need of a career revival.
After their decision to take a flier on Teddy Bridgewater was so successful over the past two years, they are raising the stakes with a one-year deal for Jameis Winston — who could use a reboot more than any quarterback in the league.
And judging from the fact that New Orleans has less than $4 million in salary-cap space, Winston appears willing to do it at a discounted rate.
Once you get past the initial shock of picturing a Saints uniform on Winston — an NFC South opponent for the past five years — the win-win potential here is clear.
The Saints still believe strongly that Taysom Hill can become the possible heir to Drew Brees, 41, who has already agreed to join NBC Sports as a football analyst when he is done playing. They proved that by signing Hill to a two-year, $21 million deal on Sunday.
But the Saints have made it clear that they wanted another experienced backup quarterback behind Brees for the 2020 season so they can keep using Hill in his vital role as a passer/runner/receiver.
They’re certainly getting that in Winston, who was arguably the best quarterback available on the free-agent market, considering the questions about Cam Newton‘s health. As a bonus, the Saints are getting the upside of a former No. 1 overall draft pick who is just 26. Winston has thrown for 19,737 yards during his five-year career, with 121 touchdowns and 88 interceptions.
If Winston thrives in New Orleans, maybe he could become the heir to Brees. Or perhaps he’ll sign a lucrative deal with another team in free agency next year, like Bridgewater just did with the division rival Carolina Panthers — in which case the Saints will still benefit by collecting a high-end compensatory draft pick.
The upside for Winston in this deal is even more obvious.
Dan Orlovsky lists the reasons New Orleans is the best fit for James Winston to rehab his career.
In 2019, Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season. He needs to give teams a reason to focus on the league-leading 5,109 yards he threw for last season instead of the 30 interceptions and five lost fumbles. By comparison, Brees has thrown 32 interceptions in his past four seasons combined.
But even if Winston doesn’t get the chance to go 5-0 as a starter, like Bridgewater did as an injury replacement for Brees last season, he can still benefit from a year of learning from two of the NFL’s all-time greats, Brees and coach Sean Payton.
The mere fact that Winston wants to come to New Orleans — where he knows he won’t get a chance to start right away and probably had to accept less money than he might have made elsewhere — is an indication of how serious he is about improving his game.
Plus, Winston is getting a year to audition for what will almost certainly become the most desirable QB job in the league whenever Brees retires. What quarterback wouldn’t want to play for Payton on a team that just went 13-3 in back-to-back seasons, while throwing to wide receiver Michael Thomas, among others, and being protected by a strong offensive line that just reloaded with first-round draft choice Cesar Ruiz?
On the flip side, you could argue that Winston is taking a bit of a gamble by choosing such a high-profile destination. Because if he can’t make it work in a QB-friendly environment like this, then where can he?
This signing comes with plenty of question marks on the Saints’ end, too.
The first is how the Saints will be able to afford it. They need to reserve at least $2 million of that remaining cap space to sign their draft picks, and they’ll need even more if they wind up re-signing running back Alvin Kamara to a lucrative contract extension this offseason. Surely Winston’s deal will include extra automatically voiding years that help the Saints spread out the cap costs. But I wonder if they might have to consider releasing a player such as guard Larry Warford in the wake of the Ruiz pick.
The second is whether the Saints feel comfortable that Winston won’t make off-the-field headlines — and if they are willing to take the criticism that comes with signing him. Winston was suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season after an eight-month NFL investigation concluded that he engaged in detrimental conduct in March 2016 by touching an Uber driver “in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” A settlement was reached in a separate lawsuit. Winston also was investigated for sexual assault while attending Florida State; he was never charged. He and his accuser filed civil suits against one another, which were settled out of court in 2016.
And then there’s the question of how Winston will fit in the locker room. Winston and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore infamously got into a sideline confrontation in 2017 that led to Bucs receiver Mike Evans shoving Lattimore to the ground and earning a one-game suspension.
But Winston’s talent will surely be respected in New Orleans’ locker room. His former college teammate P.J. Williams already applauded the news on social media, while Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan acknowledged the upside.
— Pj Williams (@PjWilliams_26) April 26, 2020
I’ll pass on the hurrahs but Jameis is one helluva competitor with untapped potential… 33/30 w/ goat tutelage 🤯
— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) April 26, 2020
The biggest question of all, however, is whether Winston’s game can actually be “fixed.”
The turnovers and inconsistency have plagued him throughout his five-year career. He is 28-42 as a starter with a completion percentage of 61.3 and no playoff appearances.
We aren’t talking about a Bridgewater clone here. The exact opposite, in fact. Bridgewater has earned a reputation as a safe, reliable passer who avoids turnovers and relies on a high completion percentage — much like Brees himself. So this move would be a lot more controversial if the Saints were making a long-term commitment to Winston as Brees’ successor.
Instead, the Saints will have a year to truly evaluate Winston and work with him to get better. Even before he hits the practice field, they can spend these next few months breaking down the highs and lows they’ve seen while competing against him twice a year.
Does Winston have a fatal flaw? Or does he just need the right development?
There should be no better place to find out.