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Taysom Hill stakes his claim as one of the best all-around football players

Former BYU star is an outlier in the NFL. That’s what the New Orleans Saints like about him

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill outruns Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and free safety Jordan Whitehead during game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Tampa, Fla.
Mark LoMoglio, Associated Press

He wasn’t drafted by an NFL team. He was claimed off waivers by his current team before spending much of his rookie season as a practice-squad player. After four seasons, he still doesn’t have a starting job and he’s still primarily a utility player and a backup quarterback.

And yet Taysom Hill has somehow become a phenomenon in the NFL, a jack-of-all-trades.

After a shaky start to the season, the Taysom Hill Show is back on center stage. In front of a national TV audience Sunday night, Hill ran the ball seven times for 54 yards, caught a pass for 21 yards and completed two passes for 48 yards in a rout of Tampa Bay that improved the Saints’ record to 6-2. Hill played only 19 offensive snaps and collected 123 yards.

NBC broadcast duo Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth spent a few minutes of the broadcast talking up the former BYU quarterback. A week earlier, Hill ran for 35 yards on five attempts and caught two passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Chicago Bears.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill rushes with the ball against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Chicago.
Kamil Krzaczynski, Associated Press

Hill had been struggling this season before these last two games — he had one game-turning fumble at Green Bay and was averaging just 3.5 yards per carry — and perhaps that is why his usage had been declining. His 12 rushing attempts the past two games is almost as many as he had had the previous six games (14), and his three receptions in those two games tied his total for the season. He had only three pass attempts before Sunday’s game.

Hill is not defined by a position — he is simply a football player. Teammate Michael Thomas is a better receiver, Dalvin Cook is a better running back, T.J. Watt is a better tackler and Matthew Slater is a better special teams player, but maybe no single player is better at all of the above. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, with 4.5 speed, Hill has become the so-called “Swiss army knife” of the NFL. He might be the best all-around football player since players stopped playing both sides of the ball.

Hill is capable of turning games. In a game against Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day last year, Hill caught two passes for 12 yards and one touchdown and blocked a punt that set up a touchdown by Hill himself three plays later — a 30-yard run. He became only the second quarterback since 1950 to run for a touchdown and catch a touchdown pass. The other player to do that was Jim McMahon, another former BYU quarterback, in 1983.

In the 2019 wild-card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings last January, Hill turned seven touches into 125 yards and two touchdowns running and receiving.

Even on an offense that boasts three of the greatest skill players in the game — running back Alvin Kamara, receiver Thomas and quarterback Drew Brees — the Saints go out of their way to find ways to get the ball to Hill. As Hill said after the playoff game, “ ... When you have guys like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, (tight end) Jared Cook, the list goes on, it kind of creates opportunities for little old me because there’s so much attention that’s put on those guys. Coach (Sean Payton) is one of the best at being creative and putting guys in position to be successful. I got lucky because I was the guy tonight.”

When Hill is on the field, the ball is probably coming to him one way or another. On Sunday night during his 19 offensive snaps, Hill ran, passed or caught the ball on 10 of those plays. This is no secret and yet defenses can’t stop him.

Credit Payton for finding creative ways of using Hill, as Hill himself noted above. Pro Football Focus charted the number of ways Hill was used last season and determined that he played 10 positions — quarterback 41 plays, fullback/running back 22, wide receiver 44, field goal/extra-point block 48, punt return 51, tight end 85, kickoff coverage 77, slot receiver 72, punt coverage 67, kickoff return 65. In his career, he has returned kickoffs, blocked punts, caught touchdown passes, completed passes, run for touchdowns and made tackles on special teams.

Following Hill’s productive 2019 season — seven TD catches, one rushing touchdown — the Saints awarded him a two-year contract worth $21 million, with $16 million guaranteed. It’s reasonable to ask if a 30-year-old role player is worth an average annual salary of $10.5 million.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Tampa, Fla.
Mark LoMoglio, Associated Press

There is considerable debate about whether he is the Saints’ quarterback of the future. Brees, who is 41, has been noncommittal about returning next season but his retirement will be soon and Payton says the team still considers Hill a quarterback. But there are few indications he will be the starting quarterback. In 3½ seasons he has been used more as a runner (90 rushing attempts, 493 yards, 4 TDs) and receiver (28 receptions, 312 yards, 7 touchdowns) than a passer (just 18 pass attempts, 10 completions, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception). He was not a great passer at BYU, nor is he a natural passer, although he does have a strong arm. One of his pass completions Sunday night was thrown behind the receiver.

Then there’s this: When Brees was injured last season, the Saints turned to Teddy Bridgewater as their quarterback. When Bridgewater signed with the Panthers in the offseason, the Saints signed former Heisman winner Jameis Winston, adding more competition to the position.

Hill’s value is difficult to quantify because there’s no other player like him. His salary is that of a high-end backup quarterback, but he is more running back than quarterback when he lines up there. If you apply his $10.5 million salary to his 2019 performance, he would’ve made $43,568 per offensive snap (241 total). Of course that ignores his value as a special teams phenom (287 snaps), but special teams players are not paid $10 million a year. He played only 22% of the team’s offensive snaps.

Hill is an outlier and apparently the Saints think so. His development as a jack-of-all-trades has become one of the most curious stories in the league.

“I think the role is pretty clear, and first and foremost, we still view him as a quarterback,” Payton told Sports Illustrated, “and we spent a lot of time (in the) offseason discussing our vision for him this season at quarterback, but then also at the F-position. And what I mean by that ... that slash, tight end, wide receiver. He’s a tremendous blocker, he’s physical. I don’t think people realize how fast he is.

“He’s probably one of the three or four fastest guys on the team. So, he’ll play that F-position, he’ll certainly be involved in the kicking game. It’s one of the things he takes pride in and is very good at. … I think Taysom sees himself as being a starting quarterback in this league and we do too.”