Why Jameis Winston is set for breakout season with New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints offered Jameis Winston an opportunity to save his NFL career a year ago. Entering the 2021 NFL season, the former No. 1 overall pick will have his opportunity for a reputation-defining moment.

As Tom Brady won a Super Bowl with a loaded NFL roster and coaching staff, Winston watched from New Orleans and thought about what could have been. He’ll now head into training camp as the favorite to win a battle to become the Saints’ starting quarterback.

Let’s examine why Winston could be successful replacing Drew Brees this fall.

New Orleans Saints built a foundation around their quarterback

New Orleans Saints
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Brees remains beloved in New Orleans and for good reason. He did so much to help support this city and his play with the Saints was utterly phenomenal for so many years. If we’re being honest, the Saints’ supporting cast did a lot of heavy lifting near the end.

New Orleans ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency (87.9) this past season. A driving force behind that success, tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. Armstead surrendered just 15 total quarterback pressures in 2020, per PFF, and allowed only 17 quarterback hits in the last three years. Ramczyk, the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL, allowed just two quarterback hits in 589 passing snaps last season.

Keeping an interior pocket clear is also crucial. Eric McCoy, a 2019 second-round pick, showed tremendous growth last year and could become a Pro Bowl selection this season. If left guard Andrus Peat is healthy after dealing with ankle injuries in 2020, he could return to form and 2020 first-round pick Cesar Ruiz offers great potential.

Realistically, this is one of the five best offensive lines in the NFL and that means everything. Look at the difference it made for Baker Mayfield in 2020 and what it did for Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers last season. Giving Winston time to throw can make all the difference in the world.

Weapons around Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
Sep 27, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) breaks past Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos (31) and cornerback Parry Nickerson (35) during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The offense we saw from the Saints in recent years won’t be returning. Sean Payton, who is one of the NFL’s brightest minds, had an entire offseason to create a new scheme tailored around a quarterback with far more physical talent than Brees. So, while the Saints’ weapons are the same as before, there is more reason for excitement.

  • Drew Brees stats (2020): Ranked 38th in rate of throws 20-pus yards downfield (6.7%), 21st in ypa (13.1) on deep throws, ranked 93th in aDOT on vertical throws (24.9)
  • Jameis Winston stats (2019): Fourth-highest rate of 20-plus yard throws (15.8%), 30.0 aDOT, 90.6 PFF grade on deep throws

We saw the Saints are it out more in 2018, when 11.2% of Brees throws went 20-plus yards downfield. While it’s still not a high volume, compared to other top quarterbacks, we know Payton can bring it out and the Saints’ weapons can benefit from it.

Winston won’t rely on his backfield option nearly as much as Brees did (27.1%) of the time, we can expect Winston to use Alvin Kamara more than he did running backs in Tampa Bay. Kamara saw 19.9% of his snaps out wide and 22.7% in the slot last season. Given his explosive ability, Winston will target him plenty.

Michael Thomas got the unfortunate nickname “slant boy” from trolling cornerbacks, but he is capable of more. After ranking 92nd in deep targets during the 2019 season, that number will soar in 2021 and a receiver who had the fourth-highest contested catch rate (63.3%) and the third-most YAC (550 yards) will take advantage of it.

There are other pieces to get excited about. Tre’Quan smith averaged 13.2 yards per reception last year and, per Canal Street, is already training with Jameis Winston to take the deep threat role in this offense. We are also high on tight end Adam Trautman, one of our breakout picks in 2021.

2021 outlook for Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone remembers the interceptions and infamous pick-sixes from Jameis Winston in 2019. There were a lot of rough moments for him in that final season with the Buccaneers, but there were also some impressive numbers.

  • Jameis Winston had three four-touchdowns games in 2019
  • He posted a passer rating of 100-plus in eight starts
  • Completed more than 63% of his passes in seven games
  • Six starts with PFF passing grade over 70

We highlighted how Winston performed when throwing deep, one of his biggest strengths. He also finished second among qualified quarterbacks in intended air yards per attempt (10.4), just behind Matthew Stafford.

There were real problems with his decision-making, even when not pressured. When standing behind a clean pocket, Winston ranked just 16th among qualified quarterbacks in passer rating (98.6) and was 23rd in completion rate (66.5%). But an improved offensive line, a new coaching staff and strong weapons can help a young quarterback improve in those areas.

One recent example can be found from Baker Mayfield stats in 2019 vs. 2020, via PFF.

  • Baker Mayfield stats (2019): 64.5% completion rate, 16/15 TD/INT ratio and 85.0 passer rating in clean pocket
  • Baker Mayfield stats (2020): 67.9% completion rate, 24/4 TD/INT ratio and 108.9 passer rating in clean pocket

Mayfield dealt with inconsistent play and frequently made poor decisions in his first two years. A summer with Kevin Stefanski paired with an upgraded offensive line made a huge difference in his career.

Winston just spent a year watching tape with Brees, one of the best quarterbacks of his era. Learning from a Hall of Fame quarterback about diagnosing defenses, evaluating tape and what decisions to make in specific moments is incredibly valuable.

Payton brought Winston in for a reason, he recognizes there is special physical talent. All it takes is the right environment to help the young quarterback put it all together on the field for a new level of success to be reached.

Jameis Winston is playing for his career in 2021, this is his final opportunity. With so much at stake and the circumstances around him engineered for success, we could see a breakout season this fall. If that happens, the ceiling of the Saints’ offense will be even higher than we saw with an aging Brees.

Will Aaron Rodgers end his career in Green Bay?