METAIRIE, Louisiana – He wore a brace on his surgically repaired left knee, but he moved and planted well on what will be vital to any success the New Orleans Saints hope to have this season.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is expected to wear the brace throughout the 2022 season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and damaging his medial collateral ligament on an illegal horse collar tackle by Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White in a win over the Bucs last Halloween in the Superdome.
“I’m comfortable with where he’s at,” first-year Saints coach Dennis Allen said after a mini-camp practice this week. “I don’t know that I had any expectation as to where he would be on this particular day. I know he still has some work to do to be fully ready to go.”
The target for full recovery is the preseason opener at Houston on Aug. 13.
“I know I’m definitely going to be ready when it comes to preseason,” Winston said. “But right now, I’m focused on getting better every day and going out there and embracing my teammates and learning this offensive system and getting to know everybody again.”
The Saints were 9-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016 before coach Sean Payton retired. New Orleans was 5-2 with Winston as the starter, then lost five straight without him in going 4-6 the rest of the way as backups Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and Ian Book struggled. The Saints let go of Siemian, who is now with Chicago, and acquired veteran quarterback Andy Dalton to be Winston’s backup. Hill is expected to play less at quarterback and more at tight end and receiver in addtion to special teams.
“I feel great,” Winston said. “Getting better every day. I’m embracing the process and getting better. Listening to the (injury) protocol that the team has me on and just honoring that.”
During the three days of mini-camp Tuesday through Thursday, Winston said he mainly worked on accuracy, particularly on shorter passes.
“I’m visualizing,” he said. “Throwing with my eyes closed – feeling the ball coming off my fingers.”
Throughout the first five years of Winston’s career with Tampa Bay from 2015-19, it appeared that the first overall pick out of Florida State often was throwing blind.
Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to reach a certain 30-30 club as he threw 33 touchdowns with a league-high 33 interceptions and league-high 5,109 yards in 2019 before Tom Brady’s arrival forced his exit. Winston threw 88 interceptions in all at Tampa Bay against 121 touchdowns – one of the worst interception-to-touchdown ratios in NFL history.
With the Saints and under Payton, though, he improved those numbers drastically in almost half a season last year, completing 95 of 161 passes for 1,170 yards and 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
“I’m trying to be as accurate as possible,” he said.
Payton, a quarterback guru who was a main reason Winston came to the Saints before the 2020 season, is gone. But the offense will be much the same with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael returning for 17th season after coming in with Payton in 2006 and often calling plays for him over the years.
“The great thing is he’s been the same guy since I first got here – his mind, his attention to detail, being in the meetings and basically being in the same role,” Winston said of Carmichael. “I got a chance to hear him call plays last preseason. So, I’m very used to Pete, and he’s been in this scheme for 16 years. He’s excellent at what he does. We trust Pete with the whole offense. This is his offense, too.”
That offense hopes to have one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers, Michael Thomas, back fully healthy in 2022 for the first time since 2019 before an ankle injury in 2020 that has lingered. Thomas attended the Saints’ mini-camp practices, but did not participate. The plan is for him to be ready for training camp in July. In his last healthy season in ’19, Thomas set the NFL record for receptions in a season with 149 for 1,725 yards.
Meanwhile, the Saints added free agent wide receiver Jarvis Landry last spring and drafted Chris Olave of Ohio State with the 11th pick of the first round in the NFL Draft last April to go with the strong-armed Winston.
“Getting the whole band back together and going out there and balling,” Winston said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
In the meantime, Winston continues to embrace a leadership role following Drew Brees’ retirement after the 2020 season in which Winston rode the bench.
“He’s been so positive the entire time,” veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “Even when he wasn’t starting in his first year here and after he hurt himself last year – his leadership is one of those core values that you’re always going to cherish.”
Jordan wants to hear the band Winston spoke of on offense, particularly with Mike Thomas on lead guitar to Winston’s lead singer role.
“We already added Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave,” he said. “You talk about possibly getting Mike Thomas back healthy? I mean if Mike T comes back healthy, that is a game changer in itself.”