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The NFL’s Search for the Next Taysom Hill Is Fundamentally Flawed

Teams around the league have become obsessed with finding Taysom Hill types. But they don’t seem to understand what makes the Saints playmaker so valuable—or how to replicate his impact.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We need to talk about what Taysom Hill is.

Just about half of the NFL has been described as searching for a “Taysom Hill-type” or “their own Taysom Hill.” Sometimes, this label is used on players seeking a path similar to Hill’s—late-round or undrafted college quarterbacks who hope to catch on with NFL rosters by displaying positional versatility. Last year, the comparison was made for sixth-round pick Trace McSorley and undrafted QBs Nick Fitzgerald and Eric Dungey. This year, seventh-rounder Tommy Stevens was pegged as a “Taysom Hill clone.”

However, the Hill comp is somehow also used for virtually any athletic quarterback. When the Eagles picked Jalen Hurts in the second round of this year’s draft, it was repeatedly said that Hurts was a Taysom Hill type. Both Hurts and Hill had exactly 1,047 passing attempts in college, but Hill had roughly 50 percent of Hurts’s touchdown total (Hill had 43 touchdown passes; Hurts had 80) while throwing roughly 50 percent more picks (Hill had 31 interceptions; Hurts had 20). Neither their talents, production, nor draft value are comparable—but hey, they’re both fast!

Meanwhile, the debate over Hill’s own trajectory rages on, fueled mainly by comments made by Saints head coach Sean Payton. Payton has said that Hill is a future NFL starting quarterback and a “young prospect” who could one day replace Drew Brees as New Orleans’s starter. (For the record: Hill will turn 30 before the start of the 2020 season.) Last August, Payton even likened Hill to Hall of Famer Steve Young. While some of these remarks may have been attempts to inflate Hill’s value—the Saints signed him to a first-round tender this offseason, meaning another team would’ve had to give New Orleans a first-round pick if it wanted to sign Hill—even ex-Saints staffers with nothing to gain from hyping Hill have sung his praises. Mike Westhoff, who worked as the team’s special teams coach in 2017 and 2018, offhandedly compared Hill to Lamar Jackson, saying Hill “throws better.” Payton’s and Westhoff’s comments have sparked a decent amount of debate about whether Hill could legitimately be an NFL starting QB.

So is Hill a model for versatile quarterbacks trying to find homes on pro rosters? Or is he a better thrower than the reigning league MVP and someone who could take over for the greatest statistical quarterback in league history? Much like the search for unicorns in the NBA, NFL teams have become obsessed with finding the next Hill. Except in this case, there seems to be no consensus as to why.

Hill’s college stats do not look like those of an NFL quarterback, his pro stats do not look like those of an NFL quarterback, and the Saints have not given him a role as an NFL quarterback. At BYU, his yards-per-attempt average (6.6) and touchdown rate (4.1 percent) were worse than any QB drafted this year, and his interception rate (2.9 percent) was worse than 12 of the 13 draftees. Hill’s stats have the profile of an undrafted quarterback, which checks out: Sure enough, Hill went undrafted out of college.

Since entering the NFL, Hill is 6-of-13 passing for 119 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. He’s nearly 30 and has a career passing stat line reminiscent of an actual starting QB’s first half—a first half that would have fans calling for him to be benched. Patriots receiver Mohamed Sanu has more passing yards, completions, and touchdowns than Hill does, and nobody considers Sanu to be a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. (Heading into his ninth season, Sanu is only a year older than Hill.) The biggest pass of Hill’s career—a 50-yard bomb in last season’s playoffs—isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his throwing ability. He had Deonte Harris wide open and streaking toward the end zone, but the play didn’t result in a touchdown because Hill’s throw was an off-target floater.

Perhaps most telling is the way the Saints have treated Hill. Despite having him on the roster since 2017, they’ve always made sure to have a more adequate passer to back up Brees, trading for Teddy Bridgewater in 2018 and signing Jameis Winston ahead of the 2020 season. When Brees went down with a thumb injury last year, Hill continued to fill his usual role, while Bridgewater went 5-0 in the games that Brees missed.

Payton can tell the press that he considers Hill a future starter as much as he wants, but shouldn’t the fact that Hill is going into his fourth NFL season without even being New Orleans’s second-stringer tell us something? Yet this doesn’t mean Hill is worthless. Quite the opposite: As critical as I am of Hill’s ability to play QB, I still think he is a highly valuable player who could provide a blueprint for teams willing to innovate on offense—although it’s unlikely they can find someone with Hill’s skill set.

I’ve been a fan of Hill’s since his BYU career—particularly his 259-yard, three-touchdown performance against Texas in 2013. I should be clear: That’s a 259-yard rushing performance. Hill went 9-of-26 passing with an interception in that game, but more or less single-handedly powered BYU to a 40-21 win. And the next year he did it again, throwing for no touchdowns and an interception while rushing for three touchdowns in another Cougars upset of the Longhorns. He even hurdled a guy:

Hill threw for 300 yards in his BYU career only four times, and two came against Southern Utah and UConn. But he ran for at least 100 yards on nine separate occasions, including in games against Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Notre Dame. Hill’s college career was cursed, as he suffered four season-ending injuries in five seasons. When he was healthy, though, nobody could stop him.

Hill reportedly ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his BYU pro day, but went undrafted given his passing shortcomings, injury history, and age. (Like most BYU football players, he served a two-year mission through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tack on a medical redshirt allowing for a fifth year of college eligibility, and Hill turned 27 before the start of his NFL career.) Hill signed with the Packers in May 2017, but was cut in September after losing a battle for Green Bay’s third-string QB spot to Division III product Joe Callahan.

What saved Hill was that he provides a solution to an NFL roster math problem. He signed with the Saints, who used him exclusively on special teams during his rookie season. Since then, he has served on five of New Orleans’s six special teams units, blocking two punts, returning kickoffs and punts, recording 13 tackles, and, of course, using his running and throwing ability to execute various Saints fakes.

Considering the prevalence of quarterback injuries in the NFL, every team should strive to have a quality backup, because there’s a decent chance you might depend on one at a critical moment. Nick Foles could win you a Super Bowl, or Matt Moore could help you preserve a shot at a first-round playoff bye. But when your starting quarterback isn’t injured, he’s likely to play 100 percent of the snaps, meaning the backup quarterback generally does little besides look supportive and hold a tablet. (We can probably stop saying clipboard—it’s 2020.) Hill has allowed the Saints to simultaneously carry a QB and a special teamer and a guy who can play wide receiver.

But Hill doesn’t just solve roster math—he solves on-field math too. Normally, NFL defenses have to worry about only one person throwing the ball; when a quarterback hands the ball off, it can focus entirely on the ballcarrier. What if that weren’t the case? What if a team regularly played multiple QBs, and defenses had to worry about two passers? Teams have already melded the run and pass to devastating effect with the RPO—by making a decision after reading the post-snap movements of a defender, offenses take one opponent out of any given play. So why don’t they run more plays in which the handoff recipient has the option to throw as well?

Plenty of college quarterbacks have been shifted to other positions in the NFL, but relatively few have been given the opportunity to regularly throw in games. Since 2000, only seven players have at least 50 receptions and at least 10 passing attempts. One is Terrelle Pryor, who moved from QB to wide receiver during his career. One is LaDainian Tomlinson, who was used as a passer exclusively on trick plays. Three (Ronnie Brown, Brad Smith, and Josh Cribbs) were swept up in the brief Wildcat fad of the late 2000s. No recent team has experimented with playing multiple quarterbacks at the same time, unless we count the Ravens’ short-lived fascination with playing Lamar Jackson alongside Joe Flacco instead of just starting Jackson.

I don’t know why this is. It seems like an obvious next step for someone like Hill to line up alongside another quarterback, take handoffs, and then throw the ball. I’ve spent years dreaming about an NFL team fully buying into the promise of the two-QB system used by Louisiana-Monroe in 2012, in which a right-handed quarterback and a left-handed quarterback lined up next to each other in the backfield, with either capable of receiving a snap, taking a handoff, and throwing before or after a handoff.

New Orleans has flirted with the idea, as nearly all of Hill’s snaps have come with another quarterback on the field. Whether Hill is lined up at receiver, tight end, running back, or fullback, there’s usually another QB there—but the Saints have run only one play in which Hill took a handoff and then threw a pass. (It didn’t work.) They’ve experimented with getting the ball to Hall through unusual play designs—like the below play in which he took an option pitch from a fullback—but haven’t yet unleashed a true two-QB set.

Regardless, Hill has been highly effective when playing alongside another quarterback. He had only three receptions in his first two NFL seasons, but had 19 catches for 234 yards with six touchdowns in 2019, plus a seventh receiving score in the playoffs. Those stats might not seem particularly impressive, but they’re remarkably efficient. Only 43 players had six or more receiving touchdowns last year, and all of them were targeted at least 40 times—except Hill, who had only 22 targets. Before Hill last season, no player had scored six touchdowns on fewer than 20 receptions since 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, Hill averaged 2.05 yards per route run, putting him 23rd among the 278 players with at least 100 routes run. That’s better than Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins (2.01 and 1.99 yards per route run, respectively) and in between Cooper Kupp and Jarvis Landry (2.08 and 2.04). Hill rarely makes contested catches, because he’s wide freakin’ open on virtually every catch he makes.

Hill’s abilities as a runner and a receiver make everything that the Saints do with him sellable—and have turned him into a weapon in short-yardage and goal-line scenarios. Last year Hill got the ball on 11 third- or fourth-down plays on which the Saints needed to pick up 4 yards or less. The team picked up nine first downs—six on Hill runs and three on Hill receptions. He’s been equally effective near the end zone. He touched the ball seven times inside the 10-yard line last season, resulting in four touchdowns.

Pro Football Focus makes a case for a different type of two-quarterback setup, in which a QB like Brees serves as the Saints’ main passer and Hill serves as a sort of short-yardage specialist. It’s clear that this could work, whether Hill is the only quarterback on the field or playing with someone else. Hill might not have the arm to worry defenses on first-and-10, but when defenses aren’t sure whether he’s going to run the ball, take off a route, or throw, it’s tough to stop him from picking up a few yards.

Every team should want a player like Hill, but that’s easier said than done. There aren’t a ton of guys who can run a 4.4 40, and the ones who exist generally aren’t so versatile. Hill is a great runner, a capable run blocker, and an effective route runner. On top of all that, he’s a decent thrower. Earlier in this piece, that probably sounded like an insult, but let me be clear—it’s a miracle.

There are a few Taysom Hill types in the most recent draft class. My personal favorite is Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who signed with the Eagles after going undrafted. Tate had a stunning sophomore season as a runner, with three 200-yard rushing games, but suffered from injuries and struggled when his college coaching staff tried to convert him into a pocket passer. I’d also spotlight Lynn Bowden Jr., drafted in the third round by the Raiders. Bowden is listed as a running back, but played wide receiver at Kentucky and took over as the team’s starting quarterback toward the end of 2019. He’s also willing to play special teams, as evidenced by this spectacular 99-yard touchdown he scored as a high school punter.

But in a fun twist, the Saints landed the player most like Hill in the 2020 draft—Tommy Stevens, a seventh-rounder who played in a two-QB system at Penn State and would’ve had the fastest 40-yard dash time of any quarterback at this year’s combine. Maybe the Saints are going to play three QBs soon?

To simply compare any speedy quarterback to Hill is wrong. Hurts, for example, has the skill set to be an NFL starting QB, having grown as a passer in college while still presenting a threat with his legs. To compare him to Hill, whose meager throwing capabilities will almost certainly prevent him from starting at quarterback, is an insult to Hurts. But to compare any speedy QB to Hill is also an insult to Hill, a one-of-a-kind playmaker whose rare blend of talents form the archetype for a new, exciting element of NFL offenses. Every team should want a Taysom Hill type—they just need to realize what a Taysom Hill type is, and how hard it is to find one.