To many, Hill’s brief sojourn at the quarterback position was seen as a ‘mini-experiment’ by Payton; something that would not be considered over a full 16 (now 17) game season. However, Hill performed better than expected, partially repaying the faith shown in him by his head coach. And with recent reports coming out of Saints training camp alluding to Hill being named the starting quarterback over Winston, the odds of seeing Hill as the Saints first-string quarterback have increased.
So, let’s take a look at Hill’s four games as starting quarterback of the Saints in 2020 and analyse the good, the bad, and what 2021 could have in store for the Saints if Payton places his favourite toy behind centre.
If we only take one thing away from Hill’s four games as starting quarterback of the Saints it’s this: Taysom Hill is not a joke.
Hill started four games for the Saints (home against the Falcons, at the Broncos, at the Falcons again and at the Eagles) going 3-1 in the process. In those four games, Hill threw for 834 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions with a completion percentage of 71.93% and a yards per attempt (Y/A) of 7.32. If you were to adjust that over the course of 16 regular-season games, Hill would end up with 3336 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 8 interceptions.
Hill demonstrated that he has the arm talent to survive at the NFL level. There’s enough power and accuracy there to consistently hit medium-range passes over the middle of the field. According to PFF, on passes up to 20 yards, Hill has a PFF grade which sees him placed in between Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill – not bad company at all. Moreover, per SIS, Hill had a higher yards per attempt than Brady, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. Hill also had the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the NFL with 72.7%.
Hill’s accuracy is reflected on the field. Take a look at this 23-yard completion to Michael Thomas.
The play-action gives Thomas time to get out on his drag route across the middle of the field. As Hill turns back around to face the field, a free rusher is crashing down on him. However, Hill stands firm in the pocket knowing he is going to get hit and delivers an accurate pass to the open man. This is a perfect example of Payton taking the post-snap decision out of Hill’s hands and letting the talent take over.
Outside of conventional quarterbacking, Hill’s trademark characteristic is his legs. During the 2020 season, Hill took 94 special team snaps, 90 snaps as a wide receiver, 46 as a tight end and 27 as a tailback. This guy is an athlete and that shines through when he’s behind centre.
Is Taysom Hill the most versatile player in the NFL? pic.twitter.com/2gQWlAsGrs
— GMFB (@gmfb) June 30, 2021
In his four games at quarterback, Hill rushed for 209 yards on 39 attempts with a yards per carry of 5.36 and 4 touchdowns. If you were to stretch that out to a 16 game regular season and Hill would finish with 836 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. That would see Hill rank first in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks and second in rushing yards among quarterbacks.
Although Hill may be near the bottom of the list of quarterbacks you want throwing it in the red zone, his legs, combined with his large frame, make him one of the most dangerous goalline weapons in the NFL. At the quarterback position, only Cam Newton poses more of a threat.
This play against the Broncos demonstrates the perfect melding of Sean Payton’s playcalling ability with Taysom Hill’s versatility.
The three blockers lined up at the bottom of the screen combined with Kamara’s motion gives the impression that Hill is going to dump it off to Kamara for the end around. Instead, Hill keeps the ball, the offensive line does a great job of moving right and sealing the edge with a swing block. Hill uses his speed to get to the edge and score on a 3rd & goal.
Hill’s struggles are located in three main areas: the deep pass, turnovers and mental processing within the pocket.
The deep accuracy is the smaller of the concerns. The passing targets Hill had last season did not thrive downfield. Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook all thrive over the middle of the field at that intermediate level. Moreover, we have seen quarterbacks drastically improve their deep ball in a short amount of time. Josh Allen is a perfect example of that.
The turnovers are also a problem. The main motivation for keeping Winston on the sidelines is his tendency to turn the ball over through interceptions and fumbles. However, in his four starts, Hill fumbled the ball ten times and threw three interceptions. Fumbles are going to happen with Hill’s dynamic, scrambling play-style. However, a lot of them occurred through sheer moments of panic.
The biggest crutch in Hill’s game is his ability, or lack thereof, to consistently operate out of the shotgun. In Week Thirteen, Hill did put together some solid pieces of play out of shotgun against a poor Falcons defence, but against the Vic Fangio led Broncos in Week Twelve, we saw the worst of Hill.
Take this play in the 3rd quarter for example. Hill stares down his receiver and throws into traffic. This passing concept called by Payton is actually fairly simple. Named ‘stick’, the two outside receivers run deep curl routes as the two slot receivers head towards the flat. The quarterback reads the corner, who is in conflict with the two routes, then makes the throw to the open man.
The slot receiver at the top of the screen was wide open from the jump here and Hill just missed him. In the previous play, Hill had a bad fumble. The interception can be explained by Hill’s brain going into panic mode and lacking any real composure. The biggest leap for 28-year-old Hill has to make in order to become a true first-string quarterback is to improve composure, his skills between the ears and his confidence operating out of the shotgun consistently.
Another example from this game saw Hill hold onto the ball for too long and take a sack.
The slot receiver at the top of the screen runs a deep in-route and comes open across the middle of the field. The window isn’t huge for Hill to hit the pass but in the NFL, that pass is wide open. Hill just hesitates for a second and holds onto the ball. A fraction of a second later and he’s sacked. Odds are that Jameis Winston lets fly here.
If Payton places his faith in Hill for the second time, it would not surprise me.
In Hill, the Saints are getting an exciting, dynamic playmaker at quarterback. There are some valid concerns, especially around the topic of Hill’s weapons (their number one wide-out is injured, the number two is suspended, first and second-string tight ends are gone and there is no kicker).
However, in the NFL you’ve got to be willing to take risks – to think outside of the box. And giving Sean Payton his own versatile, athletic, scrambling weapon at the quarterback position may just be a recipe for success for the post-Brees Saints.