NFL insider notes: Sizing up Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill, latest on Michael Thomas, plus more Saints focus

BALTIMORE – I have a hard time believing Taysom Hill can be a better NFL quarterback than Jameis Winston. And while one preseason game played without a host of key contributors on offense is hardly the end-all, be-all in the Great Saints QB Debate, when Winston gets in a groove he does things that Hill simply can’t.

Expect Saints head coach Sean Payton to be noncommittal and calculated as to how he handles this massive decision as to which quarterback will end up being the replacement for retired Hall of Fame-bound Drew Brees – and he was anything but verbose in assessing or comparing their performances Saturday night. But it’s hard to watch Winston execute a fairly flawless two-minute drill and produce downfield strike after downfield strike and imagine Hill looking quite as polished. There were rough moments for each in their exhibition debut, but Winston had fewer truly self-induced errors and he struck some high notes that Hill might need Auto-Tune and an amazing set of backup singers to approach.

Winston surely lacks some of Hill’s athletic dexterity and mobility – Winston nearly tripped over his own feet after handing off the ball for the first time in Saturday night’s 17-14 loss the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium – but he can be so tantalizing when he has time to step into a probing throw downfield, and Payton, going dink-and-dunk in Brees’ final years, must be captivated by some of the air yards he saw Winston rack up fairly effortlessly.

“I’m not really going to make comparisons tonight,” coach Sean Payton said after the game, a refrain likely to be repeated as every throw, practice and game these quarterbacks produce is clearly being dissected by fans and the media. It was difficult for Payton to get beyond the six turnovers his team committed on the whole, and one can expect most of the more meaningful observations in sorting out this QB conundrum will remain in-house.

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Hill, whose role as Brees’ sidekick grew in recent years, got first crack against the Ravens, and was somewhat erratic. There were some bad throws and decisions he would want back, in particular a wild attempt in the face of a defensive back blitz in which he threw the ball where only Ravens depth safety Geno Stone (seen by many as a long shot to make this team) could catch it. And he did.

“We were not on the same page,” Payton said of how the quarterback and receiver read the situation.

Hill said: “There was some confusion there. I was expecting him to stay on the move and on that look, and he thought he should settle.”

It wasn’t as smooth and streamlined as Winston’s scoring drives, but Hill did manage to sustain drives by connecting repeatedly on third-and-longs, generally a most challenging scenario against Ravens coordinator Wink Martendale’s exotic blitz packages. To his credit, Hill and his teammates kept finding one more yard than they needed in those instances, before the preponderance of them caught up to New Orleans.

Hill converted passes on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-7 on the opening drive – staying within the framework of the offense – and also picked up five yards on 3rd-and-4, and 11 yards on 3rd-and-10 on another long march. But he seemed a little confused by the defense and was sacked on 3rd-and-12 to end that drive, and the prior possession lasted just one play – the pick to Stone. Hill left the game going 8-for-12 for 81 yards.

“I think that there were some really good things,” Hill said. “I think we were moving the ball, and then we had some costly mistakes that we overcame in a few drives.”

Payton told me before the game he wants to tailor his approach to what these passers do best, and letting Winston air it out is part of his DNA. Payton recalled being wowed by Winston’s arm at his pro day years ago, and it hasn’t waned since. Despite working with a hodgepodge cast – albeit against largely Ravens backups as well – there was a different spark to this unit with him at the helm.

The Saints had a touchdown in Winston’s first sustained drive – a first-down fumble by running back Devonte Freeman cut his first drive short – and he was at his best in a two-minute situation late in the first half. Payton dialed up a deep shot on first down – the antithesis of late-era Brees – which proved futile, but Winston found Ty Montgomery on a pretty 26-yard dart on 3rd-and-9, then exploited the middle of the field again on his next throw, to Juwan Johnson (residing at the bottom of this receiver depth chart) in stride for 33 yards, looking confident with his protection holding up despite working with many players on offense he hasn’t repped much with yet.

“We have guys that have worked their whole life for this opportunity,” Winston said. “I have worked my whole life for this opportunity. I’m so happy to be back out there playing football with whoever. I felt like we did a good job executing for the most part. We have room for improvement. That’s a good thing.”

Winston finished the drive in rhythm, hitting Chris Hogan and explosive back Tony Jones, Jr. before capping the sequence with a strike to Lil’Jordan Humphrey in the end zone in a spot where only the receiver could get it. Winston capped that drive with five straight completions for 79 yards and a touchdown and was 7-of-12 for 96 yards in his roughly quarter of work.

“That was good,” Payton said of the two-minute drill on a night when he was not much in the mood to throw around superlatives.

There was an interception – with Winston there almost always is, which is why he isn’t already cemented as someone’s franchise quarterback – but even that wasn’t too egregious. He took another long shot, this time down the sidelines, and while the ball was a little underthrown it was catchable; Humphrey couldn’t pull it in, it bounced off corner Chris Westry and Stone was able to dive and grab the ball before it his the ground.

“He left it a little bit late, outside,” Payton said. “They made a good play.”

You will have to live with some of that with Winston. Always some risk/reward. But the potential for the scope of his offense is far greater with him, he just might be good for 35 touchdown passes, and it’s hard for me not to think the gap between him at his very best and what Hill can muster won’t grow by the week as these exhibitions continue this month.

Thomas on hand for Saints-Ravens: ‘Everyone embraced him’

There has been ample drama between the Saints and injured receiver Michael Thomas, but Payton told me Friday he believes he and the star were making gains to mending fences and he would be back with the team “soon enough.” Thomas has been away from the Saints on rehab, in Philadelphia, much of the offseason, but was at the game Friday catching some balls pregame and continuing his dialogue with Payton. Thomas waited until deep into the offseason to undergo surgery, which rankled the team, and Thomas responded on social media. A trade doesn’t seem likely at this point, but as we know things can always change. Saturday night seemed to be another positive step. 

“He is a part of the team,” Payton said after the game. “It was great seeing him. He is ahead of schedule. He was excited to be around these guys and we were excited to have him, but it wasn’t this big Kumbaya moment.” 

Winston said: “Everyone embraced him and we were happy to have him with us.”

More Saints notes

  • No Alvin Kamara for the Saints on Saturday night, and probably not much at all through the preseason. No reason to risk it, and trust me, Kamara will be in line for as many touches as anyone in this league once they start playing these games for real.
  • Hard not to be impressed by the work of receiver Marquez Callaway, who will be the latest in Payton’s long line of pass-catching finds. His body control and hands get your attention. He looked polished enough against Baltimore’s starters and he caught three of four targets for 61 yards, repeatedly shaking free and running open. Calloway, an undrafted free agent in 2020 out of Tennessee, started three games a year ago and is benefiting from the absence of Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith. “If you put the ball out there, he’s going to make the play,” Hill said. “He is a good player, and that’s what we’ve seen the last two weeks.”
  • The Saints will undoubtedly be working hard on ball-protection drills all this week. They should have put up way more points than they did, but their running backs continually put the ball on the ground. It popped out, in general, far too easily with numerous culprits from de-facto starter Latavius Murray to Devonta Freeman, another veteran, to Tony Jones Jr. “When you get six turnovers and 10 penalties, you are going to struggle,” Payton said, making a point that it was hardly just novice players responsible for the foibles.
  • Despite the fumble, Jones was another player who jumped out. He looks like a possible weapon in the pass game and flashed some serious wheels, being able to gain the corner and accelerate upfield against a defense that prides itself on negating that.  His 18-yard TD blast was something to see, and through three quarters he has six rushes for 80 yards (over 13 a carry!) and 34 receiving yards. If not for the fumble, he may have had another score in him. The 2020 undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame (three career rushes in Week 17 last season) faces a crowded backfield, but has some nice traits. “He is dynamic back,” Winston said.

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