It’s a new day for Saints: This won’t be a Brees

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

If you were to make a list of NFL players who were synonymous with a franchise, it wouldn’t be long before you got to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints

The Saints were close to moving to San Antonio when Brees signed. They had no history of success. Brees helped build the Saints into winners. They won a Super Bowl. They stayed in New Orleans. Brees set many NFL records. Considering what he did for the franchise, he’s the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. The Saints’ Mount Rushmore of players could just be Brees’ face four times. 

That era is over. Brees retired as the leading passer in NFL history (he’ll be passed by Tom Brady very soon), and for the first time since Brees replaced Aaron Brooks in 2006, the Saints will have a new regular starting quarterback. 

Whenever a coach and quarterback have amazing success together, fans want to determine who deserves the credit. Bill Walsh or Joe Montana, Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, etc. That’s the wrong way to look at it, because both can share the credit, but we will enter a new chapter in Sean Payton’s career. 

Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans together. It was a great marriage that resulted in 143 wins for Payton and nine playoff appearances. Now Payton goes ahead with Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston instead of the NFL’s all-time leading passer. 

Brees missed some time the past two seasons, and the Saints did just fine. They went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater starting in 2019 and 3-1 with Hill last season. That indicates the Saints could be fine without their franchise icon. 

No decision has been made on who will start this season, at least publicly. The multi-talented Hill has been a favorite of Payton for years. Winston is a more conventional quarterback, a former No. 1 overall pick who despite a problem with turnovers has led the NFL in passing yards. The quarterbacks are far different and the decision on who will start will shape how the Saints look. It’s the biggest call Payton has made in a long time. 

“We feel like we’ve got a real good football team,” Payton said. “Both of those guys have done a great job this offseason in what was kind of a little unique offseason, I would say. But yeah, I think there’s that challenge of winning each year. And especially with our current roster, it’s important you get good, solid play at that position.” 

The Saints have a fantastic offensive line and elite playmakers Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. They had a top-five defense last season. Brees’ physical issues at the end of his final season might have kept the Saints from a longer playoff run. It’s a very good team around the quarterback position. 

Of course, the quarterback position isn’t trivial. Hill has four career touchdown passes. Winston has been a turnover machine. The Saints will need to figure that out. If Payton has the right answer, he could add to his legacy. 

Jameis Winston (2) and Taysom Hill (7) will compete for the Saints' starting quarterback job. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jameis Winston (2) and Taysom Hill (7) will compete for the Saints’ starting quarterback job. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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The retirement of Drew Brees wasn’t unexpected by the end of the season, but it still is a franchise changer. Then the Saints, who have spent impulsively in free agency for years, were very quiet. Tight end Nick Vannett was added on a three-year, $8 million deal but he was the only significant addition. The Saints lost defensive end Trey Hendrickson, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown was traded to the Jaguars. The Saints went heavy on defense in the draft, with edge rusher Payton Turner, linebacker Pete Werner and cornerback Paulson Adebo with their three top-100 picks. The Saints have a good foundation but it wasn’t a great offseason. 

Grade: D

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The unique part about the Saints’ quarterback competition is how different the two players are. Taysom Hill is a dual threat, more a runner or gadget player than a pure passer, though he did pass well in four starts last season. He had a 98.8 passer rating. Winston is a pocket passer who likes to take chances deep. The offense will presumably look entirely different based on who starts. 

“It could vary based on who the quarterback is,” Payton said, according to NOLA.com. “We’ve always tried to look closely at the strengths of our players, and we’ll build a little bit around that player accordingly. … There’s certain things we would do differently with each one, but we’ll work that out.”

Given how Payton has shoehorned Hill into the lineup, Hill has more Saints experience and a larger contract than Winston, it would seem Hill has the edge. The Saints might want to make a decision quickly so they can design an offense around their quarterback. 

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BetMGM’s win total for the Saints is 9. Knowing what to expect out of the Saints is difficult. It’s still a team that was among the best in the NFL last season. That was with Brees missing four games and being at less than full strength in most others. However, it’s hard to trust Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston as a full-time quarterback. The Saints also lost a lot in the offseason. I’d lean to the over and trust the Saints’ core and Sean Payton, but it’s not a bet I’d feel comfortable with. 

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From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Although injury was a big part of the story, Michael Thomas had a monstrous fall in production last year. His average yards per game dropped to 62.6 yards — an ordinary 1000-yard pace over a full season — and he didn’t score a single touchdown. And I’m not confident there will be a major comeback this year, as the Saints transition from the Drew Brees era.

“Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill both have their pros and cons, and I suspect Sean Payton could use both QBs in many games. If so, it might be difficult for the New Orleans pass catchers to establish consistency. And it’s open to wonder just how committed Thomas and the Saints are to one another. Thomas’s mercurial personality ruffled some feathers last year — he drew a one-game team suspension after fighting with a teammate — and it’s reasonable to envision Thomas in a different uniform next year. When a superstar player stops producing superstar numbers, teams less likely to put up with locker room discord.

“Even at his peak, Thomas has never been a deep threat (career YPC: 11.7) or a big touchdown scorer (career-best: nine). Although he’s dropped outside the Top 30 in early Yahoo ADP, Thomas is not a proactive target for me. For the first time in forever, the Saints passing game doesn’t look like a fantasy destination.”

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Michael Thomas went from an NFL-record 149 catches in 2019 to 40 in 2020. Thomas started last season by suffering a bad ankle injury and ended up missing nine games. He had 438 yards. In each of his first four seasons Thomas had put up at least 92 receptions and 1,137 yards. Given the other options at receiver for the Saints, Thomas and Green Bay’s Davante Adams are probably the two more irreplaceable No. 1 receivers in the NFL. The Saints were not bad in the passing game but only 19th in total passing yards with Thomas struggling most of the season due to injury. Thomas has never had a durability issue so it would be safe to assume he suffered a fluky injury and he’ll bounce right back. That would be great news for a Saints passing game that will be undergoing a big change. 

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Can New Orleans’ defense repeat its fantastic 2020? 

For years the Saints got a reputation of being an offensive-heavy team that was held back by its defense. The Saints haven’t had a bad defense in a while, and New Orleans had its best defense in many years in 2020. New Orleans was great across the board: Fifth in yards per pass allowed, fourth in yards per rush allowed, fourth in passer rating allowed, first in interceptions, fourth in total yards allowed and fifth in points allowed. The Saints ranked No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. There was no real weakness. 

But the offseason wasn’t kind. The Saints lost a lot of depth, especially along the defensive line, at linebacker and cornerback. Maybe a draft class heavy on defensive players can provide some instant impact, but it’s always hard to depend on rookies. The Saints’ big spike on defense in 2020 seemed like a bit of an outlier, defensive success is less predictable from year to year and New Orleans had some big personnel losses. There’s probably some regression coming. 

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There’s more to the NFL than just the quarterback position. The Saints have a top defense, two of the best skill-position players in the NFL and a stellar offensive line. They also have a coach who could be in the Hall of Fame some day. It’s hard to win in the NFL with bad quarterback play, but the Saints have two interesting options. They’d have to play a certain style with Taysom Hill, but it can be effective. Or they’d trust Payton can turn Jameis Winston into a more effective quarterback, which is possible. This is a team that went 8-1 without Brees the past two seasons and it’s not like Brees was at his peak last season (he said he felt good in only one game all season) when the Saints were one of the NFL’s best teams. It’s really not too crazy to think the Saints, with a new quarterback, could win a Super Bowl. All the other pieces are in place. 

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It is very disappointing the Saints didn’t get back to a Super Bowl during Drew Brees’ final seasons (yes, an all-time bad officiating error played a big role in that). The Saints have been one of the best teams in the NFL for years, and the core won’t be at its peak forever. New Orleans lost some very good players this offseason, and we have no idea if Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will play well. If the Saints fall off, everyone would point to Brees’ retirement. Maybe it would be more than that. 

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The Saints were really good last season. A divisional round loss to Tampa Bay overshadowed everything else they did. It’s easy to assume a team going from Drew Brees to Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will take a big step back, but that ignores a lot of strengths the Saints have. Ultimately I do think there will be a step back, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Saints figure out how to win in a post-Brees world. It’s hard to have a strong opinion on New Orleans either way. It’s a team that will be very interesting to watch early this season. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers