SHREWD MOVE: Camp Reports Suggest Saints Made #1 Smartest Free Agent Signing

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

Since there aren’t any Preseason games being played this year because of the on-going COVID-19 / coronavirus health crisis, none of the NFL’s 32 teams will have game film available to adequately evaluate how well their players are currently performing during Training Camp, before the start of the 2020 NFL Season next month.

But that problem for most teams including the New Orleans Saints will begin changing tomorrow morning, when they can begin dressing out in full pads and make contact (hitting people) for the very first time.

However, early reports from the few observers allowed access to watch the Black and Gold’s first full week of Training Camp, seem to suggest that they actually made a very SHREWD MOVE this past off-season; with what might become the #1 smartest signing in 2020 Free Agency a few months ago.

That signing was made in late April, when the team signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting QB Jameis Winston, who was released by the Saints’ NFC South division rivals on the “Sun Coast” of western Florida after 5 NFL seasons.

Winston was released after the Bucs signed former 6-time Super Bowl champion and long-time former New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, who most well-respected analysts and experts covering the NFL consider to be the greatest quarterback to ever play in the League’s entire 101-year history.

And while Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians clearly didn’t appear to have any regrets by releasing Winston in favor of the now 43-year old Brady, if those early reports coming out of the Saints Training Camp do turn out to be true, then the Bucs if nothing else might be guilty of having given up on the 26-year old former Heisman Trophy winner and #1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, a little bit too soon.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

That’s because the indications emanating from the Saints Training Facility in reports by The Athletic New columnist Jeff Duncan and NewOrleans.Football writer / analyst Nick Underhill, are that Winston has been very impressive in Camp thus far.

That said, it could also be taken as a sign that the team bringing in Winston to compete for the #2 back-up QB position behind long-time Saints starting QB Drew Brees — and essentially replacing former #2 back-up Teddy Bridgewater, who left New Orleans to sign with and become the brand new starting QB for the Carolina Panthers — was an absolutely brilliant move in that it potentially could give the Saints their “franchise QB of the future” after Brees retires, which could happen after this upcoming season.

Duncan made the observation that Winston has impressed with his attitude and his incredibly-strong throwing arm, which Underhill later reported were passes that Winston was throwing a distance of 75 yards or better in the air, a distance which would only be rivaled by legendary NFL QB’s of the past with big-time throwing arms such as Bert Jones, John Elway, Dan Marino, Randall Cunningham, and Brett Favre, to name just a few.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

Underhill also noted in his exclusive report that Winston has been very proactive in trying to successfully learn as much of the Saints (and head coach Sean Payton‘s) offensive scheme as much as he possibly can, and that the former 2014 National Championship-winning QB at Florida State University is off to a good start thus far.

Word of Winston’s positive attitude should also serve as some reassurance, for a portion of die-hard Who Dat fans that were somewhat leery of the team signing him and bringing him into the Saints organization, because of the previous rumors (that were unfounded and never confirmed) of his having been a “cancer” in the Buccaneers locker room near the end of his time in Tampa.

It also confirms what those who are closest to Winston have said has been his laser-sharp focus and dedication, to becoming the very best that he can be in his life off the field, as much as he can be on it.

Now it goes without saying that Payton and his offensive coaching staff — specifically offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and QB coach Joe Lombardi — will be the ones whose respective evaluations will be vitally important in determining who will be the designated #2 back-up behind Brees out of Winston and #3 QB Taysom Hill; who besides being capable of playing the quarterback position has of course become a key “weapon” as a runner and wide receiver within the team’s diverse offensive attack.

And as mentioned above: they’ll have to do so without the game-film that would normally be made available to them with the benefit of playing the usual 4 Preseason games, that this year were unfortunately cancelled due to the current pandemic.

Nevertheless if the early reports are any indication, then the Saints just might have made the #1 smartest signing in Free Agency this past off-season — because they might have been wise enough to sign a player at the QB position who if he can improve upon the issues that have held him back in previous years — can ultimately become the starting QB for the Black and Gold well into their future after Brees is gone.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

As we’ve noted in previous articles here at Big Easy Magazine within the past few months leading up to this point, ultimately the coaching staff’s choice will come down between two main factors for them to consider.

Those factors are deciding between a phenomenal 30-year old athlete (Taysom) who can play multiple offensive roles but who’s also never started a regular season game at QB and has only completed 6 passes in his entire NFL career; versus the young man (Winston) who despite being immensely talented, last season actually threw for the most interceptions (30) in the League in the past 40 years.

Winston willingly took less money than he could have gotten in Free Agency with another team, so that he could attend “quarterback school” this season under the guidance of Payton and Brees; with the expectation that he’ll be given the chance to prove to everyone that he can improve his skills and become a starting QB once again someday, if not in NOLA then elsewhere with another NFL team.

Now the question that will be prominently asked over the next few weeks leading up to the season will be which one of them can prove himself worthy of earning the #2 back-up role this season, and likely also gain the “inside track” at becoming the permanent starter in 2021.

Hill, who was a starting QB in college at BYU (Brigham Young University), has become one of the team’s most popular players of all-time, thanks to his elite-caliber athleticism that has allowed him to fill multiple roles within the team’s high-powered offensive attack including wide receiver and tight end. Additionally, he’s also considered one of the very best special teams performers in the entire NFL, specifically in punt and kickoff coverage.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

Nevertheless, there have been many questions regarding Hill’s ability to become a full-time starter at the QB position; and many of his biggest critics have openly wondered aloud as to whether or not he is deserving of that critically-important role.

While that debate will continually be argued back and forth between Taysom’s loyal fans and his biggest critics, it was Payton himself in an interview a couple of months back (prior to the initial ‘spike’ of the pandemic), who very confidently expressed his belief that Hill is more than capable of doing so.

But in spite of Payton’s assessment, some well-respected NFL observers and analysts have openly questioned just how effectively Taysom can actually become as a full-time starting NFL QB in the classical sense, particularly as a pure “pocket passer” that drops back 20-plus times a game and can efficiently make throws downfield.

While Hill undoubtedly is capable of playing QB and operating the Saints offense, it’s his dynamic running ability that makes him the dangerous “weapon” in the Saints offense that he has become; but yet it’s because of that very same trait, that a few analysts have mentioned previously that it would require Payton to dramatically alter or “reshape” the team’s offensive scheme.

Conversely in Winston’s particular case, the prevailing notion is that if he can prove that he can become a much more efficient passer and significantly reduce the amount of mistakes and rectify the poor decision-making that seemingly has derailed his once-promising NFL career, he could be EXACTLY the player at the QB position that the Saints need to eventually replace Brees.

The one factor that could work in Winston’s favor is that if he is able to fully absorb all of the knowledge that he’s now getting from Payton and Brees, he potentially could thrive in the Saints big-play offense in the future someday down the line.

It’s an offense that includes superstar and dual-threat RB Alvin Kamara, All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, newly-signed veteran free agent WR Emmanuel Sanders, outstanding veteran TE Jared Cook, and now possibly even recently-drafted and brand-new rookie TE Adam Trautman.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original Photo by Jonathan Dyer)

For now however, the Saints will have a 41-year old QB as their starter for this year in Brees (who is still in phenomenal physical shape and playing at a high level despite his age), and also not just one but now TWO veteran players at the position in both Hill and Winston; both of whom still have a whole lot to prove if either one of them are truly worthy and well-deserving of becoming the next starting “franchise” QB after Brees is gone.

One thing is evident: in due time, if the Buccaneers FAIL to win the Super Bowl while they have Brady as the starter, they could eventually end up REGRETTING having allowed Winston to leave Tampa Bay.

Brady’s arrival in Tampa Bay has transformed and re-shaped the entire attitude and outlook of the Buccaneers organization, the same franchise that hasn’t won a NFL playoff game in 17 years. Brady has played in an incredible total of 9 Super Bowls, winning 6 of those championships in 20 seasons with New England.

And believe this much: anything less than winning Super Bowl LV (55) in February at their very own home stadium (Raymond James Stadium in Tampa where the Super Bowl will be played in a few months from now), would be a humongous disappointment for the Bucs and their overly-excited fan base.

Prior to Brady’s arrival, it was hoped that with Arians’ guidance, Winston could take full advantage of his “cannon”-like strong right-passing arm, and put up huge numbers while slinging the ball far downfield to elite-caliber wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

While Winston did in fact put up some big-time stats (he led the NFL in passing yardage (5,109) last season and became the NFL’s all-time leader in career passing yards by the age of 26), he still was viewed by many League observers as a QB that made too many poor decisions and at times demonstrated a lack of knowledge for the scheme he was responsible for operating.

But the reports of the past few days are very encouraging, because it clearly demonstrates that Winston is 100% completely dedicated into changing the negative views — and what he believes has been a false narrative which has given many the impression that he is a “bust” — since entering the League over five years ago.

It would also make Winston’s signing a very shrewd move by the Saints front office and Payton in particular, if he has “one-upped” Arians by being able to ultimately develop Winston into an eventual superstar-caliber NFL QB.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original Photo by Butch Dill)

Many analysts were under the impression initially that Payton just wanted a veteran back-up on the roster who could come in and fill the back-up role once formerly held by Bridgewater, but now it could be more than a realistic thought that the Saints head coach actually has a much bigger vision for Winston (as in becoming the Saints’ next “franchise” QB); if he’s able to show the young QB phenom how to keep his on-field mistakes limited to a minimum.

Winston’s pure athletic talent and skill-set are (and have always been) indisputable. He’s LITERALLY in every sense of the word, the perfect physical representation or the “prototype” player that you could ever want to become the starting QB of your favorite NFL team.

It’s his decision-making that held him back — but the tutelage of Payton and Brees can help change all of that — and based on the early word that we’ve gotten so far from Training Camp within the past few days, that very well is what seems to have already been happening out in suburban Metairie over the past week.

The signing of Jameis Winston by the Black and Gold might just have been the #1 smartest signing in all of 2020 NFL Free Agency this past off-season.

Perhaps the Saints were a bit wiser than 31 other teams — including the one team that let him go — in what possibly could go down in history as having been one very SHREWD MOVE….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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