The New Orleans Saints made the surprising decision to start Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston for Sunday's Week 11 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, marking Hill's first career start in the NFL. New Orleans -- specifically head coach Sean Payton -- has showed a lot of faith in Hill over the years, with the biggest vote of confidence in the team handing Hill a two-year, $21 million contract this past offseason.
Why did the Saints choose Hill over Winston? And what can we expect from Hill in his first start? Let's take a look.
Why the Saints are going with Hill
Basically, the Saints aren't paying Hill $4.8 million this year --and $17.439 million guaranteed -- to strictly play H-Back when Brees is out, even though the front office signed Winston this offseason for the exact scenario. There's also the potential that, if Hill plays well, the Saints could receive some draft compensation for him from a quarterback-needy team after the season. What prompted Payton to start Hill over Winston will be explained in due time, but the Saints offense will look very different with Hill taking the snaps this weekend.
A look at Hill's NFL history
Hill has attempted just 18 passes in his four NFL seasons, completing 10 of them (55.6%) for 205 yards and an interception. This year has been Hill's best as a passer, completing 4 of 5 passes for 86 yards while averaging 17.2 yards per attempt. The Saints are risking a lot by starting a player who hasn't had a lot of experience throwing the ball in the NFL. Hill last started a regular season game at quarterback in his redshirt senior season at BYU in 2016, completing 59.7% of his passes (372 attempts) for 2,323 yards and 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Hill has been utilized more as a runner over the past few games, notching a career-high in carries over the past two weeks (seven in Week 9 and eight in Week 10), rushing for 99 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He has rushed for 186 yards on 34 carries (5.5 yards per carry) while scoring a touchdown this season. The Saints aren't using Hill much as a receiver -- he had six receiving touchdowns last year -- a role he won't be utilizing much now that he's the starting quarterback.
What to expect from Hill and Saints' offense
Assuming New Orleans doesn't have a set package of plays for Winston under center, it's fair that New Orleans will significantly alter its offense for Hill. Picture the Baltimore Ravens' offense once Lamar Jackson took over the quarterback position from Joe Flacco; the Ravens were heavy on the run and utilized Jackson's explosive ball-carrying ability as the centerpiece of the league's most-dynamic rushing attack. Baltimore rushed for the most yards in a season in NFL history last year, Jackson's first full season as a starting quarterback.
The Saints have the personnel to pull this off with Hill, using Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray as the running backs in a variety of read-option packages and even opening up the run-pass option. New Orleans can use Kamara in his typical role out of the backfield as a runner and pass catcher, as his numbers will certainly improve with the threat of Hill carrying the ball and defenses guessing what the Saints quarterback will do after the snap. Kamara's target share should increase as a security blanket for Hill underneath, as the Saints will surely use quick passes to establish a rhythm for Hill.
Brees actually was last among NFL quarterbacks in intended air yards per pass attempt, which measures the average depth of a target -- regardless of whether the pass is completed. The Saints could attempt more passes downfield with Hill, especially since he does average 9.4 intended air yards per pass attempt. Having a receiver downfield would certainly help the Saints in that department, and they could use Emmanuel Sanders in that role -- similar to how he was used in San Francisco (Sanders averaged a career high in yards before catch per reception, which measures the average of yards the ball traveled in the air before he caught the pass).
Simulations with Hill as Saints QB
SportsLine number cruncher Stephen Oh added this nugget on what to expect from Hill, specifically as it relates to the line.
"Our simulation had the Saints with Drew Brees as 7-point favorites vs. the Falcons," Oh said. "With Brees out and Winston in the sim, the line moved to around Saints -4 to -4.5. But with the news that Hill is the starter, the line has moved to just -3.5.
"Our sims are assuming a lot more running from the Saints and obviously reduced passing efficiency, but we still have the Saints as 4-point favorites. If the Saints are starting Hill, it's safe to assume they are confident in his ability and view him as a better option than Jameis."
Hill's fantasy outlook
CBS Sports Fantasy Expert Chris Towers sees an opportunity for players to add Hill to their roster. Towers explained Hill is only rostered in 26% of CBS fantasy leagues, but he's only eligible as a quarterback.
"I would guess he'll be started pretty widely — and in ESPN leagues where he's TE eligible, he should be started in pretty much every single league," Towers said.
The Ravens had Jackson attempt over 20 passes in six of his first seven starts his rookie season, so it's fair to assume Hill will eclipse the 20-plus pass mark. While Jackson averaged 17 rushing attempts per game in his 2018 regular season starts, perhaps the Saints won't give Hill the football that much (nor will Hill take off as frequently) in his first start -- although it's fair to speculate his carries will increase now that he playing well over 50% of the team's snaps.
Since Hill has such a limited sample size heading into his first start, it's difficult to know exactly what to expect except that it will be a much different look from Sean Payton and the Saints offense. Until we see a full package of plays, the Falcons defense -- and NFL fans around the world -- will be guessing how Payton will efficiently use Hill's skillset.