METAIRIE, La. — There’s only four weeks left in the 2019 NFL season, but there’s still plenty to sort out.
Is this the season Jerry Jones will mercifully put Jason Garrett out of his coaching misery in Dallas?
However, there’s at least one thing that’s settled, now that we’re 13 weeks in. And it’s this indisputable, unassailable fact:
The most versatile player in the NFL is a 29-year-old, third-string quarterback who went undrafted in 2017.
Not that Payton has ever bothered to tell the third-year pro that himself.
“I don’t know that Sean and I have ever really specifically talked about it,” Hill told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “But I know it’s been said.”
Indeed. Payton hinted at the comparison while speaking to CBS’s broadcast team during the preseason, and lavished more praise upon Hill after his sterling Thanksgiving performance in the Saints’ 26-18 win over the Falcons.
“Listen, he’s just a football player,” Payton said. “He’s neat to coach, he can play a number of different positions. There aren’t many guys like him.”
Opponents have taken notice. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan — whose team will square off against the Saints on Sunday in a critical NFC battle of two 10-2 teams — called Hill an “unbelievable” player on special teams, while 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told the media Thursday how important it is for his players to know where he is.
It makes sense because football players like Hill don’t exactly grow on trees. He’s a 6-foot-2, 220-pound quarterback with 4.5 speed (to run away from defenders), soft hands (to play receiver and tight end), enough power to play running back, and the instincts and toughness to star on special teams.
“[He’s] the first one I’ve coached like him,” Payton added.
And as he has all year, Hill showed why his coach loves him so much against the Falcons, as he blocked a punt — which set up a 3-yard touchdown catch from Drew Brees a few plays later — and scored another touchdown on a 30-yard run later in the game on a direct snap.
On the season, Hill has rushed 16 times for 127 yards and a score, while catching 13 passes for 114 yards and four scores. Those numbers are even more impressive considering Hill has also logged a stunning 55.5 percent of the Saints’ special teams snaps while you know, doing the abundance of tasks NFL quarterbacks are expected to do on a weekly basis to prepare.
“I watch film, I do everything Drew does,” Hill said. “As we prepare for a game, I’m in with Drew early and late, and I’m getting all that experience. I know what his routine is, and he’s a master of that, and so I’ve adopted that routine.”
For the moment, Hill is the Saints’ third-string quarterback, which means reps are hard to come by. Teams get only so much practice time, so they overwhelmingly devote it to getting the No. 1 starter as many reps as possible, with the No. 2 guy working in only sparingly.
This leaves Hill to take mental reps — the process of watching the No. 1 QB practice, while imagining what he would do in the same situation. Yet, the absence of these regular quarterbacking reps frees Hill to be Payton’s gadget with the No. 1 offense.
On one play, he might be asked to run deep. On another, he might have to block a defensive end. And then the next play, he’s tasked with playing quarterback, right before he has to go out as a core special teamer.
This all requires an extraordinary amount of focus.
“Which is the easy part, since I’m a quarterback,” Hill said. “Intellectually, the transition from, ‘Hey, go and do this at this position’ [was] easy [offensively] because I already knew what that guy was supposed to do.”
So a lot of times Hill does the things he’d want a running back or receiver to do, as if he were playing quarterback. He has also worked hard on his technique at those positions, and handling the physicality required to line up everywhere is no small chore.
“So maybe your hands get beat up, right, and then you’re asked to go in and throw the ball,” Hill said.
The physicality doesn’t seem to make much of an impact on Hill, whose passion for the game shines through in practice.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that enjoys playing football more than him,” Payton said. “That kind of rubs off and is contagious on his teammates. When a guy like him makes a play, you see guys get excited.”
For all the on-field work he has gotten this season, it’s worth noting that Hill has thrown only three passes this season, completing two of them for 35 yards, and the path to regular playing time at quarterback in New Orleans is unclear as long as Brees and backup Teddy Bridgewater are around.
And considering his advanced age, not to mention the fact he’s entering a contract year in 2020, one might wonder if Hill would be better served committing to a “slash” role full-time for an upcoming payday.
When asked if he sees himself playing quarterback long-term, Hill didn’t even let the reporter finish before making his preference clear.
“Absolutely,” Hill told Yahoo Sports, with conviction. “Absolutely. Yep. Yep … I think as a dual-threat quarterback, that’s always a challenge — it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a great runner, so the assumption is something’s lacking, right?’ Like, whatever. It’s the same thing Lamar Jackson gets, that we all get. And it is what it is. I’m comfortable with my abilities.”
And in the meantime, so is Payton, who has already gotten Hill on the field for 17 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps and can’t wait to devise more ways to unleash on opponents the NFL’s most versatile weapon.
“While he’s developing as a quarterback, there’s a lot of places he’s playing,” Payton said. “We probably need to get him the ball even more.”
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