With a stacked WR corps, New Orleans Saints QB Jameis Winston learning to adapt

METAIRIE, La – The New Orleans Saints quarterbacks had a routine this summer.

They would take turns targeting the middle of three small separate squares taped into a net. Sometimes they’d work the same drill with a hoop instead, moving around from various distances on the field with the intent on getting the football into the small ring.

“I think implementing more of that [has been good], even though I’ve got to get better at those targets,” said starter Jameis Winston, who admitted he wasn’t routinely winning those competitions over teammates Andy Dalton or Ian Book.

The purpose of the drills was to work on accuracy, and Winston had a specific goal. Winston knew he could launch a deep pass easily, but to be a better quarterback for this particular offense, he needed to improve his short and intermediate throws.

It was one of the first goals he mentioned publicly when he re-signed with the Saints in March. Getting better at passes anywhere from behind the line of scrimmage to 10 yards out was the idea.

“I think the biggest thing is giving the receivers a ball they can transition with, opposed to giving them a ball that kind of brings them down,” Winston said. “Coaches always say, ‘Put the ball in front.’ Allowing them to be able to get extra yardage beyond just the throw and the catch. Just kind of making it easier for them to get upfield and get [yards after the catch].”

Last year's initial 53-man roster included players like Ty Montgomery and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, while Michael Thomas began the season on the physically unable to perform list and never played.

The Saints added free agent Jarvis Landry and first-round pick Chris Olave this offseason, and they get back Thomas, who returned from last year's ankle injury but is currently nursing a hamstring issue.

Thomas, who was the 2019 Offensive Player of the year, can run the deep routes, and he has excelled running crossing routes and slants. Winston has never gotten to establish that chemistry with Thomas in a game, with their only snaps together coming while Winston was filling in for an injured Drew Brees in the second half of a 27-13 win against the San Francisco 49ers in 2020.

Winston was 1-for-5 while targeting Thomas that day.

“He’s got a mean out route," safety Tyrann Mathieu said of Winston. "It's like real gas when he throws it. It's probably from his baseball days, but it's good to just see him running around. Obviously he can make every throw."

Winston started thinking about that this spring while recovering from an ACL tear in his left knee that prematurely ended his 2021 season. It took a while for his body to get to the point where he could handle working on deep passes.

The short and intermediate throws, the bread and butter for Brees, were something Winston could handle without overstressing his knee.

“I have a plan every offseason of what I want to work on, and this year, probably because of my knee, I was able to work the intermediate game because I wasn't able to drive the ball down the field as much,” Winston said. “I always was confident in throwing the ball down the field. I just … wanted to improve on my intermediate accuracy.”

When Winston joined the Saints in 2020 from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was coming off three straight seasons well below the league average for short passes. During those seasons, he threw the lowest percentage of passes of under 10 air yards of any quarterback with at least 100 attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

By 2021, he had significantly increased that stat, keeping 67% of his passes to 10 yards or less compared to 55% in 2019. The sample size was smaller, though, with Winston suffering the season-ending knee injury in his seventh game of the season.

It's just one example of how Winston was evolving as a quarterback with the Saints. Winston threw only three interceptions in 161 attempts, for a career low percentage of 1.9.

Saints quarterback coach Ronald Curry said he and Winston actually looked at those statistics, pointing out that Winston would counter with the positive percentage of deep passes thrown. Both agreed the statistics spoke to the differences between the offense Winston operated in Tampa and the one in New Orleans.

“The backs never really got out,” Curry said. “It was a big protection team, so he never really had to do that. Here, that was a big part of Drew’s game … You always had [Alvin Kamara], you had [Darren] Sproles, you had Reggie (Bush), you had those guys that we want to get out to patterns. And their stuff is 5 yards and in. It was like he had to train for one style of play, really his whole life, until the last three years. And that’s what he’s been working on, and I think he’s been doing a great job of it.”

Said Winston: “This offense, we like to attack teams laterally. Most of my offenses, we were always vertical, vertical threats, heavy play-action, throw the ball down the field.”

Winston already had five seasons of experience by the time he got to New Orleans, but he hadn’t run an offense like this.

“This was actually the first offense that I was in that we played the Canadian concept of football where we’re efficient on first and second down,” Winston said in March, "and I’m grateful that I got a chance to see Drew Brees do that for a year while he was here."

When the Saints open the season at the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 11, Winston will be 315 days removed from what he called the biggest injury of his life. It will also be his second chance to finally move on from the 2019 version of himself – when he led the league in passing yards (5,109), averaged 8.2 yards-per-throw and threw 30 interceptions to 33 touchdowns.

He has pointed out that he didn’t get much time to work with the first-team offense last summer because he was in a quarterback competition with Taysom Hill, who has converted to tight end this season, and spent this offseason recovering from the injury. He then missed a significant part of training camp this summer due to a sprained foot.

But Winston said he's changed and grown even since the injury, noting that while "last year was an improvement," he's ready to step back on the field and build off 2021.

"I'm a different quarterback today than I was with my last game with the Saints," Winston said. "I take a lot of pride in trying to and preparing to get better every single year ... knowing everyone's strengths and weaknesses and being more honest about my strengths and weaknesses. Every practice, every day, I'm evaluating myself to get better."