METAIRIE, La. -- If you came here to find out which quarterback has “won” or “lost” the New Orleans Saints' starting job through two weeks of training camp, I’ve got bad news.
Jameis Winston has arguably had the higher highs with three or four standout practice sessions. But neither he nor Taysom Hill has been jaw-droppingly good or bad -- with a total of just three interceptions apiece in 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 drills.
So I took coach Sean Payton at his word when he told ESPN’s Dan Graziano on Wednesday that he wants to see two or maybe all three preseason games before reaching any conclusions.
“I’d like to see these guys operate, both of them, in all three of these games,” Payton said. “Certainly by the end of the preseason games and possibly maybe before that -- a week prior to the last game [we’ll reach a decision]. But I haven’t sat down as a staff and said, ‘This is the date.’
“Hopefully it’s something we begin to see a little more clarity on. Both of these guys are working their tail off, they’re both well-respected by their teammates, they’re really, really good leaders. And that’s a good thing.”
This wide-open battle certainly adds more intrigue than usual to New Orleans’ preseason opener Saturday at the Baltimore Ravens. Here are some of the things that have stood out with both contenders:
More solid than spectacular: This has probably been the most surprising element of the competition, since Winston and Hill both have a history of being risk-reward propositions. But so far, both have performed more like game managers than thrill riders.
That’s mostly good news. Obviously the biggest storyline with Winston is whether he can curtail the turnovers that derailed his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And ball security and decision-making have also been underrated concerns with Hill after he had some fumbling issues when plays broke down during his four-game stint as the Saints’ starter last year.
Payton even joked early in camp about how he told both quarterbacks, “Every time you guys check a ball down to the running back, you’ll get an article written.”
Well, if that was the case, those articles would be getting awfully repetitive. Because Winston and Hill are peppering the running backs with targets, with plenty of checkdown passes and shorter throws to receivers and tight ends mixed in.
Again, that’s mostly positive. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. have praised Winston and Hill for their decision-making, their footwork and how they’re getting through their progressions.
But it also wouldn’t hurt to see a few more home runs mixed in -- like the beautiful deep ball Winston finally connected on with receiver Deonte Harris on Wednesday or Hill’s touchdown strike to tight end Juwan Johnson to cap a two-minute drive Tuesday.
Winston’s big arm: It’s the first thing you notice about the former No. 1 draft pick. Winston can absolutely fling it.
Unfortunately, the deep ball is a low-percentage throw, which is part of the reason he is a 61.4% passer for his career. And he has missed on a handful of them in practice over the past week. But he has also connected on a few, and he seems to have developed a particular rapport with the speedy Harris after they spent this summer working out together. That’s an element the Saints' offense hasn’t had in recent years, and it could give Winston the edge if he shows a good savviness for when to take his shots.
One other thing Winston has going for him is his infectious personality, which teammates have talked about since he first arrived last summer. He had a hilarious moment last week when he got stuck trying to run through the running backs’ tackling gauntlet -- and he had an even funnier response.
Winston was discussing how he grades his work during practice, and @JeffDuncan_ asked how would he grade himself going through the Gaunlet:— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 6, 2021
"Listen, the first time I went through that gauntlet, I blew it up." 🤣 pic.twitter.com/saecbJ0Wbv
“Man, I am grateful to be out here and have an opportunity,” said Winston, who has shown a lot of humility while embracing his second chance. “I'm grateful to talk to you guys, right? I have embraced this process. I have been through the thick and thin as a quarterback in this league, man. I am never taking a day again for granted.”
Hill’s not-so-secret weapon: Hill also has home run ability -- with his legs. And in fairness to the dual threat, we haven’t seen much of his special running ability yet, because he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit during practice.
“When I'm at a practice, there [are] situations where I would have run in a game. But I want to work on stepping up, getting the ball out, working through my progression and everything else,” explained Hill, who said his approach will be different in the preseason games. “I’m going to treat it just like a game.”
I’m eager to see how Hill balances his passing and running ability in the preseason, because I thought he should have used his legs even more than he did when he went 3-1 as Drew Brees’ injury replacement in 2020.
Hill was even better at throwing the ball than most people expected, completing 72% of his passes. But he got into trouble when plays broke down and he stayed in the pocket too long.
Carmichael said one of the coaching points after those games was, “Hey, you’re still Taysom Hill. You still have that ability to get out of the pocket and make plays with your legs or your arm. So don’t let that disappear.”
Tie goes to Winston, but Hill the safety net? Throughout this summer, my instinct has been to consider Winston a slight front-runner. Winston is younger (27, while Hill turns 31 this month) and arguably has higher upside, and if Winston is the starter, Hill can continue to be used in his versatile RB/TE/WR role.
However, we know how much the Saints value and trust Hill after they started him in the middle of a playoff chase last season. So they won’t hesitate to use Hill if they don’t see enough development from Winston.
Also, Hill is still evolving in his first true audition to be a starting NFL quarterback. His performance last year was more of a floor than a ceiling.
“This is the most reps I’ve ever had here in New Orleans,” said Hill, who also lost some weight and changed his exercise routine a bit this offseason to focus solely on being a quarterback. “And I think every day my comfort level of getting out, seeing things and making quick decisions just gets better and better.”