How Saints’ Jameis Winston is working to revive his career behind Drew Brees

METAIRIE, La. — A month into training camp, the New Orleans Saints are seeing the full spectrum of what Jameis Winston brings to the field.

Yes, that means some interceptions, some deep overthrows and some off-target days — along with the beautiful 55-yard strikes that flick easily off his wrist and the “funny body throws” that have impressed coach Sean Payton when Winston uses his combination of strength and athleticism to stay alive in the pocket and create on the move.

But more than all of that, the former No. 1 overall draft pick brings an energy and enthusiasm to work every day.

Without fail, those traits are the first thing anyone seems to mention when asked about Winston — from Payton to fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Taysom Hill to every other coach and teammate on down.

“Jameis, amongst many things, is a bright light in the locker room,” Saints receiver Austin Carr said. “From Day 1, he was all smiles, he was shaking hands, he was getting to know his teammates. It felt like we had been teammates for years already within the first week.

“He brings energy, he brings joy, he brings happiness in a time that is one of the most grueling of our careers — it’s training camp. So I think that joy in playing the game, and then getting to know his teammates, is just something that disarms guys and that you don’t expect initially.”

Tight end Jared Cook and center Erik McCoy both cracked a smile and laughed a little when asked what Winston is like in the huddle.

“He comes in there with his eyes really wide, and he’s just looking around at everybody with the hugest smile on his face. And it just, it makes everyone in the huddle laugh every time,” McCoy said. “Man, Jameis is one of the funniest guys in the locker room. He brings great chemistry, great charisma to the locker room. He’s just a fun guy to have around.”

Even undrafted rookie cornerback Keith Washington Jr. listed Winston, along with veteran defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Janoris Jenkins, when asked if there is anyone in particular he has leaned on during his first camp.

Winston was the same way during his five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he also endeared himself to teammates and coaches by showing his dedication and love of the game.

“I think the only thing I try to do is to serve. I think that’s an important part of leadership,” Winston said. “I see No. 9 [Brees] doing it each and every day. Just finding a way I can serve each and every one of my teammates, whether it’s on the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball.

“As long as you’re genuine with these guys … and trying to be the best teammate I can be.”

Of course, leadership and chemistry weren’t the issues in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs decided to move on to Tom Brady this offseason after Winston’s historically turbulent season.

Last year, Winston became just the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 5,100 yards in a season (Brees has done it four times). But Winston also became the first player in NFL history with at least 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same season; he finished with 33 TDs and 30 picks.

To Winston’s credit, he has acknowledged his need for an overhaul. The 26-year-old began the offseason by having LASIK surgery. He also decided to change his diet and exercise routine and said he now weighs 225 pounds — the lowest of his pro career.

Most dramatic of all, he decided to accept a one-year deal with the Saints worth just $1.1 million plus incentives so that he could receive “a Harvard education in quarterback school” under Payton, Brees, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi.

“By changing up my diet and going all-out this offseason, you definitely can see the improvements. And the LASIK definitely has helped me out, just seeing a clearer picture. But one of the best things I get, man, it’s a privilege to be in that quarterback room and see firsthand from one of the best that’s ever done it,” Winston said. “I’m blessed and privileged to have that opportunity.

“Man, these guys are really a family. And I’m just happy to be embraced by this family and being allowed to kind of see firsthand how this team has been so successful and how this quarterback has been one of the greatest quarterbacks to play this game.”

Winston said it also helps to be around friends and former Florida State teammates P.J. Williams and Mario Edwards Jr.

“Yeah, I know I was the enemy the past five years. But, man, these guys have really took me in, and I’ve had a chance to gain a lot of great friends,” Winston said. “This team is amazing.”

The results on the field have been mixed so far. But that should be expected, considering NFL teams had no OTAs or minicamps in the summer and Winston has spent most of the past four weeks alternating with Hill on the second- and third-string units.

Winston had a particularly hard time finding a rhythm in full-team drills during the first week of practice. But then he started to hit on a few of those deep passes, while also showing his arm strength on intermediate strikes and his ability to move and throw outside the pocket.

As Payton put it, “It doesn’t have to be perfect around him.”

Wednesday’s practice was a good example, when Winston spent some time with the first string while Brees had a scheduled rest day. About three-fourths of the way through the session, most media observers agreed it was one of his most impressive days yet. But then he had a deep ball picked off by Washington and another ball intercepted by defensive end Carl Granderson after it was batted at the line of scrimmage.

Ideally the Saints would like for Winston to prove he’s ready to be the No. 2 quarterback on game days so they can continue to use Hill in his versatile role as a QB/RB/TE/WR. But it’s far too soon to predict whether Hill or Winston can secure a long-term role as Brees’ successor.

“I think he’s doing well; I think he’s doing real well. I’ve been pleased,” said Payton, who described Winston as having “exceptional arm talent.”

“He’s in good shape. I think he’s very quickly picked up what we’re doing from a system standpoint. And yet there are a number of things that he continues to work on to improve,” Payton said. “But I think he’s made that transition with us pretty quickly. He’s a smart player, and we’ve just got to continue to give him the reps.”

Saints pass-catchers are having to make adjustments as well. Cook said Brees’ passes come out a lot earlier and it’s a “timing thing with him.” With Winston, meanwhile, the ball comes out a lot faster and “he could put some heat on the ball, man.”

“So a lot of times, being the receiver, it comes down to focus,” Cook said.

As for the risk-reward nature of some of Winston’s more aggressive throws, he said that will always be a part of his makeup. But he knows he can improve his decision-making and efficiency.

“I think it’s a happy medium,” Winston said. “I’m never gonna shy away from playing football the way that I know how to play it. But you get to learn from a guy (Brees) who does it so well and you get to talk through situations where he will take a chance and where he will not. And I think that’s great to just see him and visualize myself doing the same thing.”

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