There is no clear timetable right now for when Drew Brees will return to quarterback the New Orleans Saints, after he exited the game at halftime of the team’s 27-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

On Monday, ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that medical evaluations revealed the All-Pro quarterback had five fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. On Wednesday, Werder said Brees sought a second opinion, which confirmed the original diagnosis.

Brees’ injuries reportedly stem from hits he took in two different games — during the Saints’ game Sunday against San Francisco and the week before against Tampa Bay.

“I was not going to be able to be effective. It had nothing to do with pain,” Brees told reporters after Sunday’s game. “It was definitely just what my body was going to be able to do or not be able to do.”

That sets up the scenario where the Saints will be going with either Jameis Winston, a one-time starter in Tampa Bay, or former BYU standout Taysom Hill at quarterback until Brees returns.

“The longer-term plan was, assuming Drew Brees probably only had one year left, that Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill would have a legit competition in 2021 to see who the quarterback off the future was. ... Obviously you accelerate that now,” NFL Network reporter Michael Silver said during a program segment Tuesday.

New Orleans went through a similar situation last year, when Brees missed five games with a thumb injury and Teddy Bridgewater took over the offense. Bridgewater led the Saints to a 5-0 record. 

How do the Winston and Hill compare as fill-in starters for Brees this season? Here’s a quick comparison:

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) passes in the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. | Butch Dill, Associated Press

The favorite: Jameis Winston

  • Winston is more experienced, going 28-42 as a starter since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards during three of his five seasons playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he has a career completion percentage of 61.4%, with 121 touchdown passes. There are flaws in that experience: Only one of his five years as the Buccaneers’ starter led to a winning season — in 2016, when Tampa Bay went 9-7 — and he has a tendency to turn the ball over. While he threw for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2019, he also threw 30 interceptions. 
  • With Winston at quarterback, the Saints would likely run a similar offense to what they run with Brees in at QB. Winston had rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, but he is more of a pocket passer, like Brees, than Hill is. When he filled in for New Orleans in the second half of their win over San Francisco on Sunday, Winston completed 6 of 10 passes for 63 yards and led the team on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives (for a touchdown and a field goal) to push the Saints’ lead to 17 points in an eventual 27-13 victory. If Winston is the starter, expect the Saints to use Hill less on offense. Last year, when Bridgewater filled in for Brees, New Orleans pulled back on how much Hill was utilized at other positions and it stands to reason that would happen again.
  • The Saints are in win-now mode, considering Brees is 41 years old and presumably close to retirement, and Winston, with his experience, better serves that purpose. The numbers back that up: Winston has thrown for 19,812 yards in his career and he’s younger than Hill — Winston is 26, while Hill turned 30 in August — despite Winston having been in the league two years longer. The Saints are well-positioned in the NFC playoff race, and going with Winston over Hill makes logical sense. There are fewer questions about Winston’s capability as a starter than Hill’s.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (99) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in New Orleans. | Tyler Kaufman, Associated Press

The challenger: Taysom Hill

  • With mobile quarterbacks taking the NFL world by storm, it’s easy to see why Hill provides an intriguing option. The past three weeks, he’s seen an increase in his offensive usage, particularly as a runner, when he’s averaged 6.7 carries a game for 44.7 yards with a 6.7-yard per-carry average. In his NFL career, Hill is averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt. The huge question, though, is the other part of the dual-threat equation. Can Hill consistently pass the ball at the NFL level? Hill has completed 10 of 18 passes during four years of regular-season play for 205 yards and an interception. He is 4 of 5 passing for 86 yards this year, hardly a strong sample size for how he could perform when asked to sit in the pocket and pass the ball on a consistent basis.
  • During the offseason, the Saints showed their commitment to their utility weapon when Hill signed a two-year, $21 million contract extension with $16 million guaranteed. Winston, meanwhile, signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal with New Orleans, according to Spotrac. This could be seen as a window of opportunity for New Orleans coach Sean Payton and the Saints to see what kind of player they have in Hill at the quarterback position, and not as a utility player, for the long term. Yes, New Orleans is in the middle of the playoff push with Tampa Bay on its heels in the NFC South race. But what if Hill pans out and is able to keep the winning going while adding a dual-threat capability to the offense? Several other of the NFL’s top teams, — like Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes, Seattle with Russell Wilson and Baltimore with Lamar Jackson — are excelling with mobile quarterbacks. 
  • Hill, who has been listed as the team’s backup quarterback behind Brees even though Winston took the bulk of the snaps Sunday in his absence, is more familiar with Payton and the Saints offense than Winston. Winston has been with the team less than a year — including an offseason impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — while Hill joined New Orleans off the waiver wire in September 2017, and since then, Payton hasn’t been shy about praising one of his reserve quarterbacks. Last year, he compared Hill’s potential to that of another former BYU great, Steve Young. “Well, if you look back at Steve’s career, and people don’t remember his time before he came into the NFL, you had a very athletic player that I think advanced when he got to San Francisco. And he always had great ability with his legs,” Payton said, per ESPN.

What the upcoming Saints schedule looks like

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New Orleans faces a manageable schedule the next few weeks, with games against Atlanta (3-6), Denver (3-6), Atlanta and Philadelphia (3-5-1) up next before a matchup with defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City (8-1) on Dec. 20. 

The question is, are the Saints ready to test out what they have in Hill during this stretch? Or is starting the more experienced Winston what’s best for New Orleans, which is on a six-game winning streak, for however long Brees is out?

Payton hasn’t given that answer, but said he will later in the week.

“(Jameis) and Taysom have a good feel of what we’re trying to do. They pick things up. And I feel like it’s (a) good room,” Payton told reporters Monday.

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