METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints coach who once brought you a surprise onside kick to start the second half of a Super Bowl, might have just made his most fascinating decision yet.
We really shouldn’t be shocked that the Saints are choosing Hill over fellow backup Jameis Winston. Payton has said publicly for the last three years that he believes the 30-year-old Hill could be successful as a starting quarterback in the NFL -- even though he has attempted only 20 career passes, including the playoffs. Payton and those around him have always confirmed that privately as well. And the Saints proved it by signing Hill to a two-year, $21 million contract extension as a restricted free agent this offseason.
So now that Drew Brees is sidelined indefinitely with broken ribs and a punctured lung, Payton is going to take his run-first, read-option quarterback out for a high-stakes test drive.
Yes, the Saints are probably doing this in part so they can find out what they have in Hill before they have to make any permanent long-term decisions in the event Brees retires after this season.
And yes, Payton’s hubris might be playing a role, since there seems to be a universal agreement among NFL talking heads that Hill can’t work as a full-time quarterback.
But neither of those elements would trump the fact that New Orleans is trying to come up with the best plan to win now. The Saints (7-2) know the value of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed better than most teams after so many gut-wrenching playoff losses over the past decade. And they don’t want to cede any ground while Brees is out.
Now, on to the burning questions surrounding the move:
Can this actually work?
The short answer is yes, of course it can work. Just because Hill has rarely thrown the ball in his career (11-of-20 for 255 yards, zero TDs and one interception) doesn’t mean he can’t. He used his big arm to complete a 50-yard pass in the Saints' playoff loss to Minnesota in January. He threw for 6,929 yards and 43 TD passes during his injury-plagued career at BYU, during which he was touted as a Heisman candidate at one point.
And back when we had preseason games, he completed 40 of 59 passes for 443 yards, three TDs and one interception in 2019, in addition to what he did with the Saints in 2018 and the Green Bay Packers in 2017 (when he was impressive enough to inspire the Saints to claim him off waivers).
“He’s got a better arm than you want him to have for a guy that runs as well as he does,” Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said this week.
Not to make a direct comparison to the talent level of reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, but that was another case where an offense thrived when it was dedicated to building a game plan around a running quarterback. Perhaps a better comparison would be the success the Buffalo Bills had last year with Josh Allen while his throwing accuracy was a work in progress. And no one disagrees with the notion that Payton is one of the league’s best offensive minds when it comes to devising game plans and playcalling.
Most likely, the Saints' offense will feature a heavy dose of designed runs for Hill, read-option runs where he has the option to hand off to Alvin Kamara or designed passes where he takes off running as a second or third read.
Yes, that can be predictable. But defenses still have to stop it. And so far, Hill has averaged 5.7 yards per carry over 105 career rushes. Only three NFL players have averaged more than that with at least 100 carries since the start of the 2018 season (Kyler Murray, Raheem Mostert and Jackson, according to ESPN Stats & Information).
Honestly, the biggest concern with the prospect of Hill being a long-term starter at quarterback is the injury risk. Not only did he suffer a series of injuries in college, but he also hasn't shied away from contact in the NFL. He plays both the quarterback and running back positions like he’s a linebacker.
Wait, how is Hill already 30 years old?
This is the one that critics point to even more than Hill’s lack of passing attempts -- his age. He is actually four years older than Winston.
Hill got a late start to his college career at BYU. He went on a two-year church mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Australia after he was named the 5-A All-Idaho Player of the Year at Pocatello’s Highland High School. He missed three football seasons since his mission started in the winter following his senior year. He was initially committed to play for coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford but switched to BYU in part so he could enroll in school earlier once his mission ended.
Hill then spent five years at BYU, including a medical-redshirt season. He had a total of four season-ending injuries (knee in 2012, broken leg in 2014, torn ligaments in his foot in 2015 and hyperextended elbow in 2016). Yet he still finished his career with 6,929 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes, 2,815 rushing yards and 32 rushing TDs while earning the nickname “Thor-terback” from the Cougars’ coaching staff.
What does this mean for Winston?
That remains unclear, since the Saints have kept their plans close to the vest. We don’t know yet if Winston will also get a turn under center during Brees’ absence as the Saints try to evaluate all of their options for the short term or the long term -- or if they’re going to ride Hill as long as he shows promise.
We do know, for this week anyway, a source told ESPN’s Dianna Russini, that Winston will not be part of any offensive packages unless needed because of injury.
That is not necessarily an indictment of Winston. By all accounts the Saints have been pleased with Winston’s development this season and love his attitude, leadership and work ethic. And Payton is enamored with his arm talent. So by no means has New Orleans closed the door on Winston as a potential successor to Brees.
But this has to be a disappointment for the former No. 1 overall draft pick, considering that he came to New Orleans this offseason to try and resuscitate his career after turnovers began to define him in Tampa Bay.
Winston signed a discounted one-year deal worth $1.1 million plus incentives with the Saints, saying he wanted to receive a “Harvard education” in QB school under Payton, Brees and veteran assistant coaches like Pete Carmichael Jr. and Joe Lombardi. If Winston was (or still is) able to have success in a temporary role with the Saints, he could potentially parlay that into a lucrative second chance as an NFL starter, like Teddy Bridgewater did with the Carolina Panthers after his 5-0 stint as an injury fill-in for Brees last season.
What does this mean for Hill’s fantasy value? And Kamara and Michael Thomas?
Hill is eligible as a tight end in ESPN fantasy leagues. So stop reading this immediately and grab him if that is the case in your league. Hill also wouldn’t be a bad option at QB in deeper fantasy leagues since he is certain to rack up plenty of rushing yards, with rushing TD opportunities along with whatever he does throwing the ball.
Unfortunately, Hill’s presence at quarterback will likely ding the value of guys like Thomas, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. Thomas will likely be Hill’s leading target, just like he was for Brees and Bridgewater. Expect Thomas to improve on his numbers from his three games so far this season. (Thomas’ snaps were limited two weeks ago, and a strange game script led to a low volume of passes last week.)
But it’s undeniable the Saints will throw the ball less -- and less accurately -- with Hill at quarterback.
As for Kamara, his value could take a slight hit, especially if Hill vultures some goal-line TD runs away from him. But the run game and short-passing game will still play a big role in New Orleans’ offense, and Kamara is ideally suited for both.