Jameis Winston leads Teddy Bridgewater among New Orleans Saints' best bets at QB

METAIRIE, La. – Whether or not quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson were realistic possibilities for the New Orleans Saints, two things remain true:

Quarterback is still the team’s top priority. And free agent Jameis Winston is still the frontrunner to return as New Orleans’ starter.

“We’re approaching [the quarterback position] with a sense of urgency, that’s for sure,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told reporters last week. “Hopefully we can get something done with one of the guys that’s available. And Jameis is certainly an option for us, and hopefully we’re an option for him as well.”

Those “available” guys now include another free agent the Saints hold in high regard -- Teddy Bridgewater, who won’t be back as the Denver Broncos’ starter after they acquired Wilson in a blockbuster trade Tuesday.

One way or another, the Saints won’t shortchange themselves at the position, despite salary-cap constraints.

Rodgers, who announced Tuesday that he is returning to the Green Bay Packers, and Wilson may have been long-shot possibilities. But it’s clear the Saints plan to aim as high as they can in the quarterback market with the intention of trying to win another NFC South title in 2022 under coach Dennis Allen.

Loomis has stressed repeatedly the Saints don’t plan to rebuild in the wake of coach Sean Payton’s departure. And even if they wanted to rebuild, Loomis said it “would be difficult” to count on landing the quarterback they want in this year’s draft since they pick 18th.

“You just don’t know what’s going to fall to you, No. 1, so it’s hard to target someone,” Loomis said. “And even if you decide you want to make a move forward, you’re limited in moving ... into the top eight or 10 picks. It’s really difficult, it’s expensive in terms of the draft capital you have to give up. It’s unrealistic, typically.

“It can happen. It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty difficult to predict.”

Of course it’s possible the Saints draft a quarterback. That position will remain their top priority until they lock in a long-term solution. It’s just too hard to count on the draft as Plan A -- especially in a year when most analysts agree the depth of elite talent is shallower than usual.

Here are New Orleans’ best bets:

The case for Winston

This would probably be a no-brainer if Winston hadn’t torn the ACL in his left knee in Week 8 last season.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner went 5-2 in his first season as the Saints’ starter with a career-high passer rating of 102.8. Most importantly, he proved he could overcome the turnover issues that plagued his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by throwing 14 touchdown passes with three interceptions.

Winston’s passing numbers weren’t prolific. He averaged 186 passing yards per game in his six complete games and completed just 59% of his passes. However, a lot of that was a product of New Orleans' game plans while relying heavily on its defense and run game and having little proven talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions.

Getting former Offensive Player of the Year wide receiver Michael Thomas back from injury and adding at least one more pass-catcher in free agency or the draft would help. Winston is 28 years old, and the Saints felt like he was continuing to improve as last season progressed. And they sorely missed his big-play ability after he was sidelined (he completed four passes of 49-plus yards).

The only real hurdle to a Winston-Saints reunion is whether another team lures him away. This is Winston’s third straight year on the free-agent market, and he hasn't landed a big deal yet. But there are new teams in play now, and Winston may have attracted more suitors with his performance last season.

The case for Bridgewater

Another obvious choice -- since Bridgewater went 5-0 as New Orleans’ starter while replacing an injured Drew Brees in 2019. The Saints liked Bridgewater enough to trade a third-round pick for him in 2018. Then they made him the NFL’s highest-paid backup in 2019 with a one-year contract worth $7.5 million plus incentives before the Carolina Panthers signed him to a three-year, $63 million deal to become their starter in 2020.

Obviously Bridgewater’s star has fallen since then. The Panthers traded Bridgewater to Denver after one season, and the Broncos have moved on. But the 29-year-old had moderate success with a 7-7 record as Denver’s starter while throwing for 3,052 yards with 18 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions, a 66.9 completion percentage and a 94.9 passer rating.

Bridgewater was more solid than spectacular during his five starts with the Saints, averaging 241 passing yards and completing 69.7% of his passes with nine touchdown passes and two interceptions. But he had a terrific rapport with New Orleans’ two best playmakers -- Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. And that’s a formula that could work for a team that relies heavily on its defense.

Other trade possibilities

Of course the Saints will investigate every possibility.

The idea of trading for an established veteran can’t be ruled out. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported there were rumors of a possible pairing with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo floating around the NFL combine.

However, Garoppolo’s value is complicated by his shoulder injury. And it’s unclear if the Saints would have enough interest in any other team’s quarterback to pay both the higher salary and the valuable draft capital it would cost when they could sign a free agent like Winston or Bridgewater for much cheaper.

Other free-agent options

It’s hard to imagine the Saints would choose another free agent over Winston or Bridgewater. But there will be other experienced starters available at discounted prices if needed -- including Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor and Jacoby Brissett.

What about Taysom Hill, Ian Book and Trevor Siemian?

All three could be back (Hill and Book are under contract, Siemian is a free agent). But none will go into the offseason as the projected starter.

Hill is expected to recover from the Lisfranc injury he suffered in his left foot during Week 18. But it’s unlikely he will be part of an open competition for the starting job like he was with Winston last summer. More likely, Hill will return to his versatile role, where he is used in packages as a read-option QB as well as playing TE/WR/RB and special teams.