Let’s break down whether this is a good move.
The case for...
It’s incredibly difficult to predict the kind of contract Jameis Winston might command on the open market. He could sign for a one or two year deal in the hopes of showing the NFL world he’s fully recovered from a devastating knee injury in order to hit free agency again. He could also opt for security over the gamble and take a longer term deal to protect against future injuries.
Regardless, he’s a player the Saints could add without having to also trade away draft picks, like they would if they wanted to make a run for Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or even Jimmy Garoppolo. The Saints are tight up against the 2022 salary cap, and signing a free agent quarterback like Winston allows the team to be creative with his 2022 cap hit without having to also give up precious draft picks that can be used to fill other holes on the team.
Without trying to go “Full 1of1” here, Jameis Winston was showing elite efficiency rates before getting injured in the 2021 season.
JAMEIS WINSTON✊ NFL RANKS in 2021— Author Jameis1of1 (@jameis1of1) January 13, 2022
* Min 7 starts
Adj. EPA/Play: #2
Total QBR: #4
Raw QBR: #4
Passer Rating: #7
TD/Int Ratio: #3
#Saints JW just turned 28 & was ELITE-ELITE in '21
Granted, it’s unclear if Winston would have been able to play at a sustained pace over the course of an entire season, but there’s no questioning the production we saw in limited games. There’s a reason Winston was a former Heisman trophy winner, former first overall pick, and led the NFL in passing in his last full season as a starter. Winston has the arm strength - and showed surprising play-making ability with his legs last season - to be an MVP-caliber player.
No available free agent - not Teddy Bridgewater, not Mitchell Trubisky, not Marcus Mariota - present the type of upside Jameis Winston would bring. On the trade market, only former MVP Aaron Rodgers and 9-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson have shown an ability to play at an MVP level, even if only in a short burst. Jimmy Garoppolo? Get serious.
Winston said that the one thing he learned while sitting behind Drew Brees was to make the right decision with the football, regardless of the outcome. In limited action in 2021 before his injury, he was showing just that.
Winston’s first test came Week 1 last season against the Green Bay Packers.
Let’s set up the play. The Saints are up 10-0 over the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, late in the first quarter. It’s 1st-and-10 at the Green Bay 37.
This is a modified “Y-Leak” concept where the play appears likely designed to go to Taysom Hill. Taysom starts at the top of the formation and then uses pre-snap motion to become a blocker at the bottom of the offensive line. Jameis is supposed to fake a hand-off to Alvin Kamara and then fake a bootleg to the right where crossing receivers should be coming across the field. The fullback in this formation is also supposed to move right, faking the wide block for the bootleg.
Instead of blocking for the bootleg, Taysom is supposed to disengage from his block and run a wheel route up along the top of the screen. It would look something like this, with Taysom using pre-snap motion to get to the yellow “X” below, engage the defensive line during the yellow squiggles, and then run the wheel route.
Adam Trautman, lined up as a receiver at the top of the screen, and Marquez Callaway, the Saints receiver at the bottom of the screen, are both running the two crossing routes to the opposite side of the field as Taysom’s wheel. The thought here is the two crossing routes by Trautman and Callaway would help free up space for Taysom on the other side of the field as the Packers defense would all be shifting away from Taysom.
New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara operates as Jameis’s check-down option, where he is supposed to stay close to the line of scrimmage and present a safety net of sorts if there isn’t a deep shot elsewhere. However, the play is designed in a way to give Taysom Hill a solid chance at catching an easy pass from Jameis Winston for a big gain.
That’s what is supposed to happen.
Due to no fault of his own, Taysom takes a bit longer to get out of his block than anticipated. By the time Jameis fakes the hand-off to Kamara and completes the rest of his drop back, Taysom had momentarily caused a minor traffic jam with two Packers lined up at the line of scrimmage, #47 linebacker Chauncey Rivers and #93 defensive lineman T.J. Slaton.
When Jameis looks up to where Taysom is supposed to be, he isn’t there yet. Instead of panicking, Jameis looks down the field from left to right, first to Adam Trautman and then to Marquez Callaway, hoping either were able to get separation on their routes. They weren’t.
Jameis then looks to his check-down option in Alvin Kamara. Also covered.
Then we go back to Taysom Hill’s wheel route. By this point, Packers linebacker Krys Barnes has the play diagnosed and has recovered to catch up to Taysom Hill. Also covered.
Finally, Jameis looks at Alvin Kamara one more time before deciding to launch the ball out of bounds.
Now that we’ve discussed the play in-depth, let’s watch it in action.
After the game, Jameis told Peter King of NBC Sports that this same play was run by the starting offense during practice. On the play in practice, Winstead said, “I was trying to make a play, and I threw it, and [Saints linebacker] Kaden Elliss intercepted it. So I just said to myself, If we call that play in the game this week, and it’s not there, I’m gonna throw it so high out of bounds that Shaq can’t pick it off. And that’s what I did.”
Watch Jameis’s helmet. Watch him track the routes discussed above, not panic, and then make the smart decision to throw the ball out of bounds instead of forcing the ball to Trautman, Callaway, or Hill.
This is the kind of decision Jameis does not make as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head as the play starts to break down. He wants to sling it down the field. He considers for a brief moment launching the ball to Callaway deep down the right side of the field. If he had, the safety on top of the route likely would have caught what would have been one of Jameis’s 30 interceptions in 2019. In 2019, Jameis would have made the wrong decision on this play and tried forcing the ball down field.
Throughout Jameis Winston’s career, he took risks, passing up the sure thing in order to try for the big play. Jameis constantly passed up the first completion available to go for the home run. Look at the below, for example. It’s third-and-long, and Mike Evans is open on a slot curl in the middle of the field, right in front of the sticks.
Instead of taking the sure-fire first down, Winston is waiting on the dig route to come behind it for a gain of a few extra yards. Instead of taking what the defense gave him, which in this case was a first down to move the chains, Jameis opted to hold on to the ball a little longer in the hopes something bigger would develop down the field.
The result? Jameis gets sacked to set up forth down with the Buccaneers outside of field goal range.
What we saw in 2021 was a different Jameis. A matured Jameis. A Jameis that was more cautious with the ball and willing to make the right decision, regardless of the outcome. That is not just an NFL-caliber starter. That is an MVP-caliber leader of a franchise.
This offseason, the New Orleans Saints have shown a desire to make the “safe” play even if it’s not a splashy one, like opting to go with Dennis Allen at head coach, keeping Pete Carmichael at offensive coordinator, and internally naming co-defensive coordinators for the 2022 season.
Continuity - both in the locker room and on the field - cannot be under-appreciated. Jameis Winston was liked by the front office enough for him to be signed to two separate contracts, and was well-respected in the locker room by all accounts. Even if the offense will change in the absence of Sean Payton, the change shouldn’t be drastic with Pete Carmichael calling plays. Jameis knows the players, the coaches, the front office, and the fan base.
If the Saints want to continue playing it “safe” this offseason, there isn’t much safer than a player who’s already shown an ability to win games with this team (even without the returning Michael Thomas).
The case against...
Jameis Winston is looking healthy and ready to get back to football, but we can’t ignore the fact that he suffered a brutal injury at the hands of his former team last season. Winston tore both his ACL and MCL in Week 8 of the 2021 season.
The risk is small, but there is always risk when dealing with a player returning from injury. I fully expect Jameis to be 100% healthy well in advance of training camp, but his season-ending injury in 2021 presents a risk that someone like Mitchell Trubisky or Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t.
Now we’re down to the brass tax, the reason reason the Saints would be hesitant to sign Jameis Winston this offseason: the risk.
For as high as Jameis’s ceiling is, his floor is just as low. Is Jameis an NFL leader in passing? Or is he an NFL leader in interceptions? Both? Neither? The volatility and uncertainty is something Jameis brings to any team he signs with this offseason. Jimmy Garoppolo and Teddy Bridgewater might not necessarily win you the big game on their own, but they might be the player to cost you the game either. Jameis Winston could be the GOAT or the goat. We just don’t know.
All in all, I think Jameis’s floor is a lot higher than other people give him credit for, and I’ve repeatedly gone on record to say he presents the Saints their best chances of winning in 2022. I think “the case for” is a thousand times stronger than “the case against,” but I’m obviously not the one making that decision. If enough GMs in the NFL - like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Indianapolis Colts, to name a few - feel like I do, though, it’s possible Jameis Winston takes the decision out of the Saints hands and signs a monster deal somewhere else.