NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints are probably in the quarterback hunt again.
The Saints are entering the third offseason in a row without a concrete plan at their most important position since Drew Brees retired on March 14, 2021.
The Saints held a quarterback competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in 2021. Winston won out before going down with a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game of the season. Then, New Orleans unsuccessfully pursued Deshaun Watson last offseason before re-signing Winston to a two-year deal and adding veteran Andy Dalton on a one-year deal as his backup.
Winston would only start the first three games before going down to an injury. Dalton took over and did enough to keep the job for the remainder of the season.
Now they’re currently at another crossroads with Dalton’s deal expiring and Winston’s future in limbo following the conclusion of the Saints' 7-10 season.
Here’s a look at the Saints' options this year:
The Saints surprised some when they signed Dalton on March 29, 2022. The actual contract (one year, $3 million) was a steal with Dalton starting 14 games.
The surprise was in the timing, as that signing likely ended up canceling out any 2023 compensatory pick gained with the departure of left tackle Terron Armstead during free agency.
The Saints liked Dalton so much that they stuck with him permanently after Winston fractured his back and injured his foot at the beginning of the season.
“I think initially it was the injury issue [with Winston], and then, as time went on, I felt like Andy was the one who gave us a better opportunity to win,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said after the season. “And we didn’t win enough games, so all those things are always gonna be questioned and second-guessed … and I’m comfortable with that.”
Winston lamented that he lost his job to injury, something he was told would not happen.
"I lost my job due to injury and the policy has always been you don't lose your job due to injury. And that's what happened," Winston said in November.
While Allen said that Winston’s comments don’t complicate anything going forward, it’s unlikely to be smooth sailing, as Winston has been passed over for the starting role several times now.
Former Saints coach Sean Payton went with Hill over Winston in 2020 when Brees was hurt, explaining that he promised Hill the opportunity.
Despite winning the job in the offseason, Winston said there were some “tough conversations” last spring about how the team viewed him.
Although Winston remains under contract for one more season, he is owed $12.8 million in base salary, a number far higher than the Saints would like to pay their backup (with the exception of Hill, who plays a number of roles). Loomis said Winston and his camp had not asked for a trade right after the season's end, but unless the Saints promise him the starting job in 2023, it’s hard to imagine him staying at that salary.
Any move made with Winston would need to happen before March 19, when $5.9 million of his base salary becomes guaranteed.
Dalton had an up-and-down season, posting a career-best 66.7 completion percentage, throwing 18 touchdowns to nine interceptions and posting a 95.2 passer rating -- his best since his 2015 season with the Cincinnati Bengals.
But the offense simply wasn’t good enough this season for a multitude of reasons. It’s possible the Saints could end up re-signing Dalton as a starter or backup, but they’ll likely explore all their options first.
Free agents or trade candidates
Tom Brady will be one of the biggest names to hit the market this offseason if he doesn’t choose to retire at 45 or return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is also a pending free agent, but a much more unlikely target considering his potential asking price and the expectation that the Ravens could franchise tag him.
Any potential trade for a quarterback is complicated by salary cap and the Saints' current lack of a 2023 first-round pick after a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis admitted they wanted to manage their salary cap space “back to the middle” after years of pushing out contracts to get cap compliant. However, the Saints have said that for several years and still pursued players like Watson, showing that they’re willing to go get any player they feel could help the team win.
The Saints usually manage these signings by structuring contracts with low first-year cap hits that take a significant jump in future years that toe the line as the salary cap number itself continues to increase.
Another player that could hit the market is Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who Allen drafted and started right away as a rookie in 2014. The Raiders will likely try to trade Carr, whose $32.9 million base salary becomes guaranteed on Feb. 15, but Carr can veto any destination because of his no-trade clause.
Other options that could come on the market are San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, Seattle Seahawks' Geno Smith, Eagles backup Gardner Minshew, Carolina Panthers' Sam Darnold, Los Angeles Rams' Baker Mayfield and former Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose season just ended with the Dolphins.
The Saints have not used a first-round pick on a quarterback since they took Archie Manning with the second pick of the 1971 draft. Loomis said last week that he believes a team needs to hold a top-five pick to truly feel good about a long-term starter at quarterback and did not believe they would be drafting that high this year.
That belief was part of the reason the Saints decided to send their 2023 first-round pick and other future picks to the Eagles as part of the moves needed to acquire wide receiver Chris Olave and offensive tackle Trevor Penning in the first round last April.
“I like what we did.” Loomis said. "I like the players that we ended up with in this last draft. So today, I wouldn’t change that."
The 2022 draft was unusual because the first (and only first-round) quarterback did not go off the board until the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Kenny Pickett with the 21st pick (after the Saints had already picked twice).
It seems extremely unlikely for that to happen this year with several quarterback-needy teams, including the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Raiders and Panthers, all holding top-10 picks.
The best way for the Saints to have a shot at any of the top picks is to receive compensation for Payton since he is still under contract with the Saints for another two years.
The Saints granted permission to the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos Panthers and Texans to meet with Payton before negotiations were to begin.
Payton has publicly said he thinks the compensation would be a mid-to-late first-round pick.
The Texans hold the No. 2 and No. 12 picks in the draft, the Cardinals have the No. 3 pick, the Panthers (who would likely have to give up more as a division rival) hold the No. 9 pick and the Broncos, who only have the Niners first-round pick, will be picking toward the end of the first round depending on how far San Francisco advances in the playoffs.