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NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints on Sunday placed backup quarterback and ex-Buc Jameis Winston on the club’s COVID-19 reserve list.
The move left the Saints with two active QBs for their 32-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
It came a day after the Saints moved quarterback Drew Brees from injured reserve to the active roster but also waived reserve QB Trevor Siemian.
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The COVID-19 reserve list is for players who’ve had a positive test for the coronavirus or were discovered to have had close contact with an infected person.
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Winston has played sparingly this season, with most of his action coming in the second half of a victory over San Francisco which Brees left at halftime because of fractured ribs and a punctured lung. But Winston’s lack of availability affects how the Saints deploy versatile QB Taysom Hill.
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When Winston is available and Brees is starting, the Saints not only use Hill as a change-of-pace read-option QB, but also play Hill at tight end and on special teams.
With Hill now the only active QB behind Brees, there is more risk in having Hill play multiple roles that expose him to contact.
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Sean Payton’s decision to start Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston in relief of the injured Drew Brees raised a lot of eyebrows around the New Orleans Saints’ orbit. Winston, signed as a free agent this year, was the proven commodity with extensive starting experience. Hill was seen as an undeveloped athlete.
But it’s mostly worked out so far, with the Saints going 3-1 under Hill’s game management. That doesn’t mean the offense hasn’t had its ups and downs with Hill at the helm. Payton explained how they got here on a recent episode of the “Huddle and Flow” podcast with NFL analysts Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter, saying that this was an opportunity Hill had earned after years of hard work in New Orleans.
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“My thinking was a commitment that I had made to Taysom in the offseason,” Payton said.
When the Saints signed Hill to a contract extension not long after adding Winston, the gesture wasn’t just meant to pacify him. It symbolized the team’s belief that Hill was the clear-cut backup to Brees and a viable starter once No. 9 has retired.
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Still, the temptation is there to turn to the former Heisman Trophy winner, who has started 75 games in the NFL. Especially when Hill has low moments, like encroaching on Aaron Brooks’ team record for the most fumbles in a single season.
Payton added, “I and we as an organization love what we have seen from Jameis, and that constantly weighs in your mind relative to each game.”
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So far, the Saints are determined to stick to their plan. The way Payton tells it, when Winston first got on the field after Brees was injured midgame, they did so because Hill’s myriad responsibilities as a blocker, receiver and special teams ace would have had to be redistributed on the fly. The plan all along has been for Hill to start after being given enough time to prepare for it. Whether or not Brees is cleared to return for their Week 15 game with the Kansas City Chiefs, they’ll probably look back on this experience as a win.
“I’ve been proud of how that room has handled it, Jameis particularly. Because he’s a competitor, and he wants that opportunity,” Payton continued, repeating that he believes the next Saints quarterback — either Winston or Hill — is already in the building. “Jameis definitely is a starter. He’s performed exceptionally well considering the amount of time we’ve had, or haven’t had, since we signed him.”
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It’ll be fascinating to see how the situation develops in the months ahead. Not just as Brees makes his return (whenever that is) but in the offseason, when he’ll again consider retirement with an NBC Sports broadcasting gig waiting for him. Winston will be a free agent again unless he re-signs with New Orleans, which would put him in competition with Hill to win the starting job outright after a full offseason of work.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Payton and the Saints certainly aren’t.