Why the New Orleans Saints are still playoff contenders after re-signing QB Jameis Winston

METAIRIE, La. – Jameis Winston makes as much sense for the New Orleans Saints now as he did two weeks ago.

And he still makes New Orleans a legitimate playoff contender in 2022.

Obviously the Saints can’t hide from the fact that they thought quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was instead treaded to the Cleveland Browns, would be a major upgrade, because they went overboard in their efforts to tie the franchise’s present, future and image to the quarterback last week. However, the Saints have always insisted they hold Winston in high regard.

And yes, both things can be true -- which the Saints demonstrated by making a real commitment to Winston with a two-year, $28 million contract that includes $21 million guaranteed.

That’s not just a placeholder deal. Sure, the Saints might still wind up drafting a quarterback in the next year or two because they recognize how important that position is to their long-term future. But they don’t have to force a pick on a quarterback because Winston is still just 28 years old and could potentially become a long-term solution himself.

More importantly, the Saints re-signed Winston because they are in win-now mode. They have repeatedly made it clear they don’t plan to rebuild under new coach Dennis Allen, despite their salary-cap limitations. They proved that by going after Watson. They proved it again Monday.

Although quarterbacks have been changing teams at a dizzying pace throughout the NFL in recent weeks, Winston arguably offers the best combination of upside and affordable price.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner went 5-2 as New Orleans’ starter last season before tearing his ACL in Week 8. Had he not gotten hurt, the Saints would have had an excellent chance to make the playoffs -- and re-signing Winston probably would have been a no-brainer.

Instead, they finished 9-8 and narrowly missed the playoffs on a wild final week of the season while setting an NFL record with 58 different starters used in a season because of injuries and COVID-19 issues.

Winston wasn’t perfect in his first year as New Orleans’ starter (he averaged just 186 passing yards in his six complete games and completed just 59% of his passes). But he proved he could overcome the turnovers that derailed his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by throwing 14 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. He flashed his big-play ability with four completions of 49-plus yards. His passer rating of 102.8 was a career high.

And he did all that with perhaps the NFL’s most anemic collection of pass-catchers while All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas missed the entire season because of an ankle injury.

This year, Thomas is expected back healthy. And it would be shocking if the Saints don’t add more pass-catching help through free agency and the draft.

The Saints will have to overcome some new holes in other places -- starting with Sean Payton’s decision to step away from coaching. They also lost free safety Marcus Williams to the Baltimore Ravens in free agency (replacing him with former New York Jets safety Marcus Maye). And there is a good chance they will lose three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead, who entered this offseason as ESPN’s No. 1 ranked free agent.

Despite losing Payton, Winston still will be working with the same offensive coordinator (Pete Carmichael Jr.) and quarterbacks coach (Ronald Curry), and the Saints still have one of the NFL’s best defenses.

They still have an enviable collection of elite players (Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore among them). They can’t help but have better luck with injuries than last season.

And they now have more salary-cap space and draft capital to work with after paying a fraction of the price for Winston that they would have for Watson. They won’t use up the entire $30 million worth of cap space they carved out for a potential Watson trade, but they should be able to pick their spots and add a couple of more value signings.

All of those factors should add up to a realistic run at the NFC South title or a wild-card spot -- even though Tom Brady decided to come back to the rival Buccaneers.