What to expect from Jameis Winston 2.0 in first start with Saints

Jameis Winston's longtime trainer and friend, Otis Leverette, made a great point. He said he often hears people knocking Winston for his decision-making on the field.

But it’s that decision-making that led Winston here -- to this golden opportunity to revive his career as the New Orleans Saints’ starting quarterback Sunday against the Green Bay Packers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox).

“I would love to see another quarterback after a 5,100-yard passing season make a decision to be one of the lowest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL [in 2020] and sit down on the bench and go through a humbling process as he did and be willing to learn -- and have a good attitude, with a great work ethic,” Leverette said. “I would like to see a quarterback with a résumé as strong as his make a better decision than that.”

Winston, 27, didn’t take any shortcuts to get here.

After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to swap him out for Tom Brady last year, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft choice didn’t seek a team that would offer the most money or the chance to get back on the field the fastest.

Instead, Winston came to New Orleans, where he knew he would sit behind Drew Brees and learn under top offensive coaches like Sean Payton and coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.

He studied Brees obsessively, learning what he could from his decision process on the field to his practice habits to his offseason training methods. Over the past two years, Winston has also had LASIK surgery to repair his eyesight, changed his diet and exercise to improve his fitness and sought out experts to learn from this past offseason -- including Brees’ longtime trainer, Todd Durkin. Winston pored over film of past mistakes, reviewing all 30 of his infamous interceptions from 2019 with Saints’ coaches and his own throwing coach John Beck.

“He has gotten smarter in all facets,” said Beck, who rattled off things Winston has worked on, from training methods to footwork to managing his body.

Beck and Leverette stressed, however, that this approach is nothing new for Winston, who has always been a relentless worker who seeks ways to improve.

“I can remember in some of our early conversations [when Winston first started working with Beck and 3DQB three or four years ago], Jameis said, ‘I watch where I’m at and I watch where those guys [like Brees and Tom Brady] are at. And I want to be where those guys are at,’” Beck said of when Winston first began working with him and the 3DQB training facility three or four years ago.

What’s different now, Beck said, is Winston has the perspective of someone who sat and watched for a year. Winston never had that luxury as an immediate starter in Tampa.

“This last year could have a really cool effect on Jameis,” Beck said. “And I really like that he’s in a place that has had so much consistency between Sean and Pete and all those guys.”

Winston’s approach has paid off so far. He earned the Saints’ starting job this summer by showing a new level of consistency, mixed with his traditional big-play ability.

But he wasn’t about to get ahead of himself while insisting multiple times this week the next step is “consistent preparation.”

“It’s just fun, it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to lead the pack. I’m just grateful for it,” Winston said. “It’s been more than a year removed for me having and opportunity and I’m not taking anything for granted.”

So what should we expect from Winston 2.0?

Well, it won’t exactly be a brand new version of the quarterback, who did have his share of success in Tampa. He led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019, when he notoriously became the first player to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.

But Winston clearly has a lot to prove if he wants to make his second NFL starting gig more successful than his first.

He went 28-42 as a starter during his five seasons in Tampa, and turnovers were a nagging issue even before that 2019 epidemic. Winston led the league with 111 turnovers from 2015 to 2019 (88 interceptions and 23 lost fumbles).

Obviously Winston’s decision-making has been a major focus since he arrived in New Orleans last year. Payton, Carmichael and quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry have all said the biggest thing they’ve worked on with Winston is making the best reads as he goes through his progressions. Winston said the biggest thing he learned from Brees is making the right decision on every play instead of trying to force a home run.

We won’t see the “no risk it, no biscuit” approach in New Orleans that Bucs coach Bruce Arians preaches -- which led to those gaudy numbers for better or for worse.

Payton recently vowed to the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast team, “Jameis will not play the same way he played in Tampa Bay, I assure you of that. I will not allow him to, and our system will not allow him to.”

But Payton will absolutely try to take advantage of Winston’s elite arm talent and ability to push the ball downfield -- which is one of the first things Payton mentions every time he talks about Winston.

“I know I’ve seen growth, and someone who was extremely vested in this process,” Payton said this week.

Winston threw one interception in two preseason games on a slightly underthrown deep pass that bounced off of his receiver’s hands. He threw less than five interceptions in 11-on-11 drills throughout training camp.

“He’s playing with a discipline that was not a consistent case at Tampa,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “... And then when the moments have shown themselves where he can go be aggressive, he’s still willing to do that. That’s a really abnormal combination. Because a lot of times when players become obsessed with discipline at that position, they get timid and don’t play aggressive.

“And he should really get more comfortable because their offensive line is so dominant. I do think there’s gonna be some limitations because of the skill positions. But if [receiver Marquez] Callaway continues his emergence, Michael Thomas gets back (from an ankle injury), he can start to have that [Tennessee Titans] Ryan Tannehill narrative of his career.”

Leverette, who has been training Winston since he was 14 in the quarterback's hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, said he doesn’t like calling this a “second chance” because that implies Winston’s five years in Tampa were more of a failure than they really were.

But Leverette absolutely expects people to see maturation and growth.

“That tree is at the point where it’s ready to bear the ripe fruit," Leverette said. "He’s been watering it, putting the right fertilizer around it … and I think he’s with the best farmer he can be with in Sean Payton. And the world’s gonna see a ripe harvest come out.”