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Taysom Hill has bided his time in New Orleans. If Drew Brees retires, is he the heir apparent?

There are questions yet again about what this upcoming season will bring for the former BYU quarterback. It starts with whether Drew Brees decides to retire

SHARE Taysom Hill has bided his time in New Orleans. If Drew Brees retires, is he the heir apparent?
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) works in the pocket against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta.

Brynn Anderson, Associated Press

Last year, Taysom Hill went into the NFL offseason with uncertainty and questions surrounding his NFL career as he headed into restricted free agency for the first time.

Ultimately, he stayed with New Orleans and again played a key role in the Saints’ offensive attack. While he served as the backup for much of the year, Hill had his first chance as a pro to start at quarterback when All-Pro starter Drew Brees missed four games because of injury. 

Now, there are yet again questions surrounding what the upcoming season will bring for the former BYU quarterback who has one more year with the Saints on his current contract.

The big question: Is Brees retiring?

The expectation is that the 42-year-old Brees, a 13-time Pro Bowler and the NFL’s career passing yards leader, will retire this offseason. Brees is signed with the Saints through 2021, and if he chooses to come back, he’s on contract to net $36.1 million next season, per Over the Cap, including $25 million in base salary.

The other two quarterbacks on New Orleans’ active roster are Hill and former Tampa Bay starter Jameis Winston. Hill signed a two-year contract extension last offseason and is set to make $16.1 million in 2021, including $10.7 million in base salary and $7.1 million guaranteed, according to Over the Cap. Winston inked a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the team last year and is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

“We knew there’s a chance at some point in time, we’ll be dealing with a transition. And we’re going to try to be as prepared as we can when that time comes in. So, I really like the prospects of those players, and having seen them up close and personal.” — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton

“I’m real confident in the players. We have a real good room. I’m excited about Jameis Winston, I’m excited about Taysom Hill,” Saints coach Sean Payton said about the team’s QB situation in his end-of-season press conference. “Those are guys that we’ve had a chance, obviously, to see for a period of time. Not as long, maybe not as much time with Jameis. But I think that we will handle it accordingly. I mean, that position is important. It’s vital. And that’s why we paid attention to, like an offseason signing like Jameis or paid attention to keeping Taysom here.” 

Of course, the Saints’ plan at quarterback is contingent upon what Brees decides.

“We knew there’s a chance at some point in time, we’ll be dealing with a transition. And we’re going to try to be as prepared as we can when that time comes in,” Payton said. “So, I really like the prospects of those players, and having seen them up close and personal.”

One thing is for certain: Hill will go into next season with a new quarterbacks coach. Joe Lombardi, who’s coached quarterbacks with the Saints the past five seasons, agreed to become the new offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers.

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) drops back to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.

Butch Dill, Associated Press

What to make of Hill’s starts in 2020?

New Orleans got a glimpse of what Hill could do as a full-time starter midway through the 2020 season when Brees missed four games with fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. The Saints went with Hill as the starter over Winston, who has the longer track record: He’s gone 28-42 as a starter since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft and has thrown for 19,812 yards and 121 touchdowns in his career.

There were several positives that came from that first-time starter experience for Hill. In three of those games, Hill completed more than 70% of his passes and threw for 834 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in leading the Saints to a 3-1 record. He also rushed for 209 yards and four more touchdowns, with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average. 

Two of those games came against Atlanta, which had the worst passing defense in the NFL this past season, giving up 293.6 yards per game. The other two came against the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, who finished in the middle of the league in passing defense.

There were also some negatives: Hill didn’t throw a touchdown pass during the first two games — a much-talked-about storyline centered around when he would throw his first TD pass as a pro — and he took 13 sacks during those four starts. Perhaps most troubling, Hill fumbled six times during those four games and lost three of them. On the year, he had 11 fumbles, losing six.

It’s also interesting to note the utilization of two of the team’s star offensive playmakers during Hill’s month as the starter. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who missed much of the year because of injuries, had three of his top four receiving games with Hill at quarterback, including his only two 100-yard games. His 343 receiving yards during those four games accounted for 41% of Hill’s passing total. 

Running back Alvin Kamara, meanwhile, is a threat both as a runner and receiver. While his rushing numbers stayed on par during Hill’s four starts, Kamara’s receiving numbers took a sizable dip. Hill’s first three starts were Kamara’s worst three receiving games of the year, when he had three catches for 7 yards. In his fourth start, Hill completed seven passes for 44 yards to Kamara. 

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) runs out of the pocket against Atlanta Falcons linebacker Mykal Walker (43) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta.

John Bazemore, Assocciated Press

What does New Orleans’ cap situation look like?

The salary cap for 2021 is projected to be around $176 million, according to Over the Cap, down from $198 million last season after a year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the Saints maneuver their cap situation will impact Hill, especially if he were to take over as the team’s starter in 2021. Over the Cap projects New Orleans will be more than $100 million over this year’s cap and could have financial decisions to make with a variety of players, among them Thomas, Brees, offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and unrestricted free agents like former Utah safety Marcus Williams.

“Obviously, we have to wait to see where that cap number falls,” Payton said. “And we’ll begin the process of studying the roster and then looking closely at those decisions, but I think that we’ve always found a way relative to certainly the players we know, to work through some of the challenges and some of the obstacles and put the best team on the field that we feel like is possible.”

The Athletic’s Katherine Terrell took an extended look at how the Saints could restructure several deals or moves the team could make in order to help them retain much of their top talent. Among those moves Terrell analyzed was restructuring Hill’s contract. Hill has a cap hit of $16 million in 2021, a number that is fine for a starting QB, Terrell notes, but high for a utility player, a role Hill has mainly filled in his four NFL seasons.

Terrell’s suggestion on restructuring Hill’s contract would come with a cap savings of $4.95 million. “The Saints could essentially add an automatically voidable year and convert his base salary into a signing bonus. If they brought his salary down to the league minimum for 2021, they could spread the $9,730,000 over two years, lowing his cap hit to $11.2 million in 2021,” Terrell wrote.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell predicts New Orleans could be headed for a similar situation to what New England experienced in 2020. The Patriots missed the postseason for the first time since 2008, as they went 7-9 in the first season since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay.

“Drew Brees’ expected retirement and the $100-plus-million cap hole the Saints find themselves in heading into 2021 mean this roster will be significantly less talented than the one we saw over the past several seasons,” Barnwell wrote.

What will this year’s QB market look like?

Certainly the Saints’ cap situation — and having Hill and Winston, if he re-signs, familiar with the system — appears to keep them out of being a player in a quarterback free agent market that’s expected to have several big names this offseason, among them Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter anticipates it being a busy QB market this year. “My Over/Under of teams changing QBs this off-season is 18. I’ll go with the over,” he tweeted.

The Saints have the No. 28 overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. Without trading to move up in the draft, New Orleans is likely out of the range of the top tier of quarterbacks in this year’s class, which includes Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

Outside of bringing in a veteran on a low contract — like the team did with Winston last year — New Orleans’ outlook at quarterback appears right now as if it will revolve around the Brees decision and whether Hill or Winston, if he’s back, would take over in 2021.