, This may be Jameis Winston’s last chance to be a franchise QB, and that means taking care of the football, writes Eric D. Williams.,

National Football League

19 mins ago

By Eric D. WilliamsFOX Sports NFL Writer

By the time veterans report to New Orleans Saints training camp next week, it will have been nearly nine months since Jameis Winston suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on Halloween night last year, ending a promising start to his 2021 campaign.

Replacing future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, Winston helped New Orleans jump out to a 5-2 record. He performed like the player the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft, throwing for 1,170 yards, with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions through seven games.

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Fast-forward to 2022 and Winston was still wearing a bulky brace on the injured knee during offseason work, something he said will continue during the regular season.

“I know I’m going to definitely be ready when it comes to preseason,” Winston recently told reporters. “But right now I’m just focusing on getting better every day, embracing my teammates, growing in this offensive system and getting to know everybody again.”

The Saints lost five straight after Winston’s season-ending injury, finishing with a 9-8 record and out of the postseason for the first time since 2016. Still, there’s reason to be bullish on the Saints for the upcoming year, including a tough defense led by tackling machine Demario Davis at linebacker, elite pass rusher Cameron Jordan and Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore

New Orleans added veteran slot receiver Jarvis Landry and safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, both New Orleans natives. And the Saints drafted a receiver in the first round who will help them right away in Ohio State speedster Chris Olave.

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However, the Saints’ success this season will heavily depend on how soon Winston is 100 percent healthy, and if he can repeat how he played at the beginning of last season.

The Florida State product is 28 years old, and he’s perhaps looking at one final opportunity to prove he’s a franchise quarterback in the NFL. The Saints signed Winston to a two-year, $28 million deal after losing out to the Cleveland Browns in the chase for Deshaun Watson.

“He’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Landry told reporters back in June, when asked about Winston. “Just the conversations we’ve had, and the intent he’s putting behind the things he’s saying. Obviously, out here on the field, what you see is what you get. I don’t see anybody else out here, and this guy is the last one. That’s who he is. That’s something you want at that position and a part of your team.” 

While Winston’s return from injury is a top priority for new head coach Dennis Allen, the Saints have other concerning issues. They include: Who will play left tackle after Terron Armstead signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency? (First-round selection Trevor Penning will likely get the first shot.) Will running back Alvin Kamara be available at the start of the season? (His felony court hearing on a battery charge is scheduled for Aug. 1). And will top-notch receiver Michael Thomas be healthy after not playing last season due to troubling ankle injury? (The Saints are hopeful that Thomas will be ready for training camp.)

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If Allen can resolve those issues, a healthy Winston should give the Saints a chance to compete for a playoff spot — if the QB takes care of the football. NFL observers know the numbers: During his five years with the Buccaneers, Winston threw a league-high 88 interceptions, which helps explain his 33-44 career record as a starter.

However, Winston showed over a seven-game stretch last season that he’s capable of playing mistake-free football. Doing that means he has to be willing to take the easy, short completions when nothing presents itself deep down the field. He also has to lean on Kamara and Mark Ingram II in the running game and play efficient football on third down and in the red zone. 

“I’m really excited to focus on my intermediate accuracy,” Winston told reporters in March when asked what he wanted to work on this offseason. “Getting those easy completions to Alvin Kamara … really perfecting the passes from behind the line of scrimmage to 10 yards down the field.

“Just being more accurate in those areas. I know I can make the big plays, but just staying in rhythm of completing passes and keeping the offense going throughout the course of a game.” 

Along with that, Winston will have to mix in what he has done well in the past, pushing the ball down the field for big chunk plays. Achieving that balance will be important to improve an offense that finished No. 28 in the NFL in total offense last season.

The Saints recorded just 41 passing plays of 20-plus yards last season, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL. Winston and New Orleans must figure out how to be more explosive on offense. He is certainly capable of throwing it around the yard, with 20,982 career passing yards and 134 touchdown passes. 

With offensive guru Sean Payton gone, the Saints will lean on longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to reenergize the offense. Winston says he has a good relationship with Carmichael and expects the Saints to return to their explosive ways. 

“The great thing is he’s been the same guy since I first got here — his mind, his attention to detail,” Winston said. “Being in the meetings, he’s basically in the same role. Actually, in the preseason I got a chance to hear him call plays then, so I’m very used to Pete. He’s been in this scheme for 16 years, so he’s excellent at what he does. Honestly, we trust Pete with this whole offense, because this is his offense, too.” 

Unlike last season, when he had to compete for the starting job with Taysom Hill, Winston is the guy. Hill has returned to his role of utility player and special teams standout, while veteran Andy Dalton will serve as the backup and replacement should Winston get injured again or falter.

But for now, the Saints will go as Winston goes. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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