When last the world saw Jameis Winston on the football field, it was the gruesome end of his season back on Halloween.
Enjoying a renaissance season as the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, Winston tore the ACL in his left knee against his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And that figured to be the last time anyone would see Winston for quite some time, as he left the stage to rehab the knee and hopefully get back on the field for the 2022 season. But thanks to the miracle of social media, Winston never really left at all. Since the surgery to repair the ligament last November, Winston has been a staple on Twitter, with a series of videos chronicling his rehab.
And as free agency approaches and Winston without a contract for next season, those videos could be Winston’s ticket to the 2022 Comeback Player of the Year Award.
In video after video, Winston’s rehab looks better and better
Last season, Winston was enjoying one of the finest eight-week stretches of his career in his second year with the Saints, having replaced legendary quarterback Drew Brees as the starter and leading New Orleans to a 5-2 record. Throwing for 1,170 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions, Winston showed none of the mistake-filled wildness that had come to define his previous tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But it was against those Buccaneers in Week 8 that it all came crashing to the ground. Winston was horse-collar tackled by Devin White and tore the ACL in his left knee.
It could have been the end of Winston’s NFL story. Instead, his rehab has become must-see video, as clip after clip documents his recovery. The videos show him performing all manner of agility and strength drills, throwing passes and working on footwork, all demonstrating the soundness and strength of his surgically-repaired knee.
Winston’s rehab tapes serve as an audition for free-agent suitors
A video posted to Twitter last Friday showed Winston performing a footwork drill that required him to shuffle laterally and forward and backward while passing a large medicine ball back and forth to his trainer. It’s the kind of agility drill commonly seen performed by quarterbacks in training camp, not a rehab room.
Without knowing the context, you would think Winston is ready to start playing again.
And that is undoubtedly the point.
The 2022 crop of free-agent quarterbacks is one of the weaker fields in recent memory. But with the class of ready-to-start quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft even more barren – Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett might be the only legit 2022 starter prospect in the field – finding a free-agent gem might be the only avenue for teams reluctant to make a trade.
By demonstrating the health and strength of his knee, Winston could vault to the top of the free-agent class, and that could mean either a new contract to remain the Saints starter, or a chance to begin anew with a new team.
Because he is coming off a major injury, Winston will likely have to settle for a one-year deal to prove his worthiness for something long-term heading into the 2023 season. But that is a path the former Florida State star will be willing to pursue after rehabbing his reputation as a passer last season.
Washington, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Denver should challenge New Orleans for Winston’s services
The Saints brought in Winston in 2020 full in the knowledge that Brees was likely to retire at some point sooner rather than later. Given the way Winston’s 2021 season was unfolding, there’s every reason to think the 28-year-old would have been rewarded with an extension after last season.
The injury obviously scuttled those plans, but the inability to adequately replace Winston over the second half of last season makes a reunion all the more likely.
NFL Media’s Jim Trotter said Friday on NFL Network that talks between the Saints and Winston on a 2022 contract should begin shortly, if they haven’t already started.
“They’re going to explore every option as it relates to that position, meaning the draft, trades and free agency,” Trotter said on NFL Network. “If they go the free agency route, the quarterback that makes the most sense is Jameis Winston. He’s been in the system for two years. They’ve taken the time to develop him, he has a relationship with [offensive coordinator] Pete Carmichael, who will be calling plays … My understanding is, if they have not already opened contract talks with him, they will very shortly.”
If the Saints ultimately go in a different direction, the Washington Commanders, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos could be options. All are looking to make an upgrade at quarterback. And all have certainly seen the videos.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference