Instead of replacing Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints have given QB best chance to thrive

METAIRIE, La. -- Jarvis Landry pointed across the practice field as if it was planned.

Just as the veteran receiver was telling reporters why quarterback Jameis Winston was one of the main reasons he chose to sign with the New Orleans Saints in free agency, Landry looked around and noticed Winston was the only player remaining on the field about 15 minutes after practice ended.

“Look, I don’t see nobody else out here. This guy’s the last one. That’s who he is,” said Landry, who signed with the team in May. “That’s something you want at that position and a part of your team.

“He’s a leader, man. ... Just the conversations that we had, the intent that he’s putting behind the things that he’s saying.”

Winston is heading into his eighth season. Depending on your perspective, you could argue this is a make-or-break season for the former No. 1 overall draft choice -- or his best chance yet to thrive as a starting quarterback.

True, the Saints did consider replacing Winston when they aggressively pursued a trade for now Browns Deshaun Watson, who is face 24 civil lawsuits for inappropriate behavior and sexual assault during massage sessions. But everything they’ve done since has furthered their commitment to Winston, 28, as he recovers from a torn left ACL he suffered on Oct. 31.

New Orleans signed him to a two-year deal worth $28 million plus incentives, with $21 million in guarantees. Then, instead of adding a potential long-term replacement in the draft, the Saints bolstered Winston with both wide receiver Chris Olave and left tackle Trevor Penning in Round 1 while trading away their first-round pick in the quarterback-rich 2023 draft class.

Throw in the expected return of All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas from the ankle injury that wiped out his entire 2021 season, and Winston’s top three receivers should be upgrades.

“This team that we’re building is electric, so I’m just excited about that,” said Winston, who has used the words “excited” and “grateful” countless times this offseason.

“I’m happy for the opportunity that was presented to me, and I look forward to really building on that opportunity and taking advantage of it,” said Winston, who stressed how meaningful it is for him to head into this summer without being in a daily competition for the job as he was with Taysom Hill last year.

But Winston said that’s as much about getting the regular practice reps with his teammates as it is about any sort of status symbol. While Winston said it’s meaningful for him to have a “certain type of ownership” over the leadership role he inherited from former Saints legend Drew Brees, he was quick to insist, “I’m always gonna be in a competition.”

“It is promising when you see the picks that we have and how this team is building,” Winston said. “But, you know, when I said it feels good not to be in a competition -- I’m always competing."

Winston has participated in practice throughout OTAs and minicamp, seven months after having surgery to repair his knee. He is wearing a protective brace, which he said he plans to wear throughout the season. And he is not yet participating in full-team drills while still being limited from some activities like rolling out to make a play.

But Winston is doing pretty much everything else on the field and insists he is “way” ahead of schedule.

Winston said he is happy to take things slowly and “do this the right way." But he didn’t want to miss out on spending this time around his teammates because he said that’s what he missed most during the final two months last season.

“He loves his teammates genuinely,” said running back Mark Ingram II, the latest in a long line of Saints teammates over the past two years to share that sentiment.

“He’s the man. I’m happy he’s our Q,” Ingram said. “He’s just a great dude, man -- great quarterback, great leader, super talented. I’m excited for the year he’s gonna have.

“He still has like a super chip on his shoulder. He wants to improve, he wants to get better, he wants to be the best. That’s the mindset that a lot of us have in this locker room.”

Coach Dennis Allen and longtime Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. both mentioned Winston’s infectious energy and leadership presence, something former coach Sean Payton also praised.

But obviously Carmichael’s top task will be to maximize Winston’s strengths while continuing to eliminate the turnover issues that plagued him during his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Last year was nearly a perfect balance. Winston went 5-2 as a starter while throwing 14 touchdown passes with three interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 102.8. If he keeps up those ratios, his next contract will be a blockbuster.

At the same time, however, Winston completed 59% of his passes and averaged 186 passing yards in his six complete games while the Saints relied heavily on their defense and some conservative offensive game plans.

The improvements at wide receiver and a healthier offensive line should help boost those numbers. But Winston has also acknowledged he wants to improve his “intermediate accuracy” – especially in an offense that will feature Thomas, Landry and pass-catching running back Alvin Kamara.

So far, Winston’s showing good signs on the practice field. He said it helps that he was limited to short and intermediate throws in the early stages of recovery.

“He’s worked his tail off this offseason getting ready to go and being a big part of communicating and sharing his thoughts about how he sees things, and we’re excited to get going,” Carmichael said. “He played, and he managed the game [last season], and he knew what it was gonna take to win those games. Everything wasn’t perfect – there were things that we’re all gonna grow from.

“But I thought he did a good job in his preparation, and he’s obviously a great team guy.”