When you’ve experienced the level of consistent success the New Orleans Saints have enjoyed for over a decade, areas for criticism can be difficult to identify.
During the Sean Payton era, the Saints had just five losing seasons – one of which came during his 2012 suspension – and they have not had a losing record since 2016.
This is a franchise that has continually stretched the financial constraints of the NFL salary cap to its limits and has remained extremely competitive in the NFC, Payton last year steering them to a 9-8 record despite a catalog of injuries.
The Saints are far from immune to criticism, but negative assessments of their approach in recent times are tough to make stick when a team wins as regularly as they have done.
However, as the Saints head into 2022 with Payton, for now, having left coaching to ride off into the sunset and a quarterback in Jameis Winston who is known predominantly for a tendency for turnovers, it is fair to question an offseason process that saw New Orleans take the PR hit of going after Deshaun Watson, only to swing and miss and be forced to settle for an arguably unconvincing fallback option.
New Orleans will approach the 2022 campaign clearly a distant second in the NFC South to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team seemingly ready for another deep playoff run with Tom Brady back in the fold, making it time to scrutinize the decision-making of a franchise that has largely avoided missteps since Payton led them out of the NFL wilderness.
All cap numbers courtesy of Over The Cap.
Saints’ latest cap clearing mission
Continuing a theme from years gone by, the Saints produced an excellent illustration of the flexibility to salary cap to get themselves from at one point being a projected $75 million over the cap to now being $23.1 million under it.
Restructures for Demario Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, Bradley Roby, and Taysom Hill freed up nearly $30 million in space, with the Saints clearing the decks for a run at Watson.
With the Browns’ gargantuan offer to Watson ensuring the Saints’ pursuit came up short, the Saints pivoted to using that cap space on Winston and a two-year contract with a base value of $28 million.
Having spent the last two seasons in the Saints’ system, Winston’s return gives new head coach Dennis Allen and long-time offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael a quarterback in whom they believe they can trust.
But is their trust in Winston well-placed?
His performance across seven appearances – he tore his ACL in the seventh game of 2021 against the Buccaneers – suggests that there is plenty of reason for optimism.
Winston’s strong start
Winston threw for 1,170 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2021. The Saints appeared to harness the former No. 1 overall pick’s obvious big-play ability while helping him limit the turnovers that have otherwise been a constant in a career in which he has failed to live up to his potential.
He also impressed in the efficiency metrics. According to rbsdm.com, Winston was second behind only Aaron Rodgers in Expected Points Added per play among quarterbacks with at least 200 plays last season. Had he met the 200 pass attempt threshold, Winston’s Football Outsiders DVOA – which measures value per play – of 13.6 percent would have put him in the top 10 for quarterbacks.
Accuracy concerns remain with Winston, however. Per NextGen Stats, his Completion Percentage Over Expected of minus 5.3 was the fourth-worst in the NFL, ahead of only Trevor Lawrence, Mike Glennon and Zach Wilson. Winston completed 59 percent of his passes when he had an expected completion percentage of 64.3.
Yet, with Winston tied for the fourth-highest average Intended Air Yards per attempt (9.0), some of that inaccuracy is tied to his aggression in attempting more ambitious throws downfield that he unquestionably has the arm to complete.
For as impressive as the Saints were with Winston under center last season, the sample size of him producing efficient, largely turnover-free play for New Orleans is a small one and, with a quarterback who threw 30 interceptions as recently as 2019, there is the danger of the former Buc reverting to his previously established type.
However, a lack of compelling options in the draft may well have forced the Saints’ hand in betting on the upside of an experienced quarterback who led the league with 75 completions of 20 yards or more in that same 2019 campaign.
“Jameis re-signing with the Saints has as much to do with their view of the upcoming draft as much as any other factor,” said former NFL General Manager Mike Tannenbaum. “This year’s draft presents a lot more questions than answers as it relates to options at quarterback.
“At 28 years old, Winston remains an intriguing option. When you look at his age and options for the Saints, this was clearly the Saints’ best option at quarterback.”
New Orleans’ still strong supporting cast is also likely to have factored into the Saints’ decision to put faith in Winston.
Defense to play defining role
While this year’s salary cap gymnastics were not enough to help the Saints keep Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead, Winston is still set up well for success given the talent around him.
Alvin Kamara remains a remarkable safety net for any quarterback, and Winston will hope he can develop a rapport with former All-Pro Michael Thomas after his 2021 was lost to injury.
But Winston’s primary source of support may come from the defensive side of the ball.
The last two seasons have seen a marked improvement from Allen’s defense – the former Raiders head coach having assumed coordinator duties in 2015 – with the Saints finishing both 2020 and 2021 in the top five by yards and points allowed.
Stretching that out two seasons further back, and New Orleans has been in the top 15 in yards and points allowed in each of the last four campaigns.
Ending 2021 second in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, the Saints possess one of the most efficient defenses in the NFL and there is little to suggest that should not be the case again in 2022 after New Orleans swiftly moved to atone for the departure of safety Marcus Williams with the signing of Marcus Maye to fill the void.
The combination of the depth in talent on defense and the switch from Payton to Allen at head coach should see a lot of the pressure taken off Winston’s shoulders.
Indeed, Tannenbaum adds: “With Dennis Allen as the new head coach, he’ll manage the game through a different lens than his predecessor, Sean Payton. Relying on an excellent defense, I would expect Allen to continue to emphasize to Winston to continue to minimize mistakes as he did last year.”
The Saints’ calculated gamble
The counterargument would be that it is a questionable approach to expect Winston to continue to avoid turnovers given his checkered history in that department.
That the Saints were also willing to take part in the grotesque spectacle of the Watson bidding war may also point to a lack of organizational faith in Winston to maintain a risk-averse style of play and stretch his 2021 success over the course of a full season in 2022.
But their participation in that sweepstake is more likely a reflection of Watson’s status as a young dynamic quarterback who fits the modern NFL perfectly and has previous history of playoff success. They saw the same thing the Browns did, a player who with the ability to weaponize a roster ready to compete to go deep into the postseason and were prepared to take on the criticism to pursue him.
Make no mistake, criticism surrounding their role in that saga should continue to come the Saints’ way. However, it is tough to pick holes in the eventual decision to settle on Winston.
Getting him on a contract worth $14 million a year – 16th in average annual value among quarterbacks – the Saints secured his services on a deal cheaper than that of potential trade candidates Carson Wentz ($32 million AAV) and Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5 million).
Winston is younger than each of those quarterbacks and comes with the advantage of having prior knowledge of the offense. On top of that, there was no opportunity cost in parting with draft picks as there would be in dealing for the still available Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield.
As such, the Saints are now in a situation where they have the eighth-most cap space in the NFL to help them sign a class of rookies from a draft where they have three top-100 picks and build the roster around a quarterback with a track record, albeit a small one, of success in the offense.
Yes, there is a risk in sticking with an often-turnover prone quarterback coming off a major injury and yes, the Saints could have done this without taking the black eye of getting involved with Watson, but, in essence, this decision is a bet on an extremely talented supporting cast to elevate a quarterback who still possesses clear upside. As gambles go, it is a very well calculated one.