Taysom Hill is a Revolution

by Derrik Klassen

Gadget players are not new to the NFL. From the simpler cases such as Percy Harvin to the ever-versatile weapons like Josh Cribbs, there has always been room in the modern era for incomplete players who are effective with the ball in their hands. Coaches are willing to craft specific ways to get those players touches, going as far as putting together formations that revolve solely around that player. 

Most gadget players in recent memory are explosive wide receivers who struggle with the nuances of the position, thus reducing them to pseudo running backs. A few players, like the aforementioned Cribbs, sprinkle in the ability to throw on occasion, but their primary draw is what they can do with designed touches and as a returner. The New Orleans Saints have discovered a new breed of gadget player, though: the type of player who is more than an off-speed pitch, but worthy of a defined role in the offense, as well as on special teams.

Saints backup quarterback Taysom Hill occupies a unique space. An on-and-off starting quarterback at BYU, Hill was more a fantastic athlete with baseline collegiate passing ability than he was a truly capable quarterback. Hill’s sub-par ability as a passer all but nixed his chances to be a legitimate pro quarterback. In fact, Hill was expected by many to convert to safety due to his athletic ability. Two years into his pro career, Hill is wearing more hats than he could have imagined. 

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Hill is the Saints’ secret weapon in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. While Hill does get random snaps between the 20s like any other gadget player, Hill’s real value is inside scoring range or when the Saints need to finesse a couple of yards for a first down. Hill typically replaces Drew Brees at quarterback to pose as a run threat while Brees splits out wide. 

The Saints needed just one yard to pick up a first down here. With Hill at quarterback, the Saints run an arc-read concept in the red zone versus the New York Giants. Because Hill is a rushing threat, New York’s edge defender holds his position on the line of scrimmage while slowly shuffling inside instead of full-on chasing the running back. Hill reads the edge defender’s movements correctly and hands the ball to Alvin Kamara, who is able to trudge forward for a first down. 

Once again, the Saints need a yard to move the sticks. This play features Hill executing a more traditional zone-read in which he ends up keeping the ball and plowing through a defender past the first down marker. Washington actually schemed up a proper countermeasure by crashing the end and having a defender loop around to the edge to account for Hill, but Hill is a good enough athlete to make it work anyway. Hill burned Washington again with this same play in the red zone later on for a touchdown. 

Neither of these plays would be as effective with Brees at quarterback. Brees poses no threat as a ball-carrier, whereas Hill can gash a defense for 10-plus yards or a touchdown if not properly accounted for. 

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Though not as common, Hill will also pass out of these formations. Given Hill is a former college quarterback, Hill being a passer is not as jarring as when someone like Cribbs did it, but it still comes as a surprise considering that their primary passer is Brees, an undisputed Hall of Famer on pace to contend for the MVP this year. Throwing with Hill is a change-up within the change-up that is having Hill in at quarterback. That layered of a gadget package is peak Sean Payton galaxy brain. 

This is Hill’s only non-trick play pass attempt on the year. Granted, he has only been a feature part of the offense for two or three games now, so it is probably fair that the sample size for his passing is small. That said, like many of New Orleans’ other plays centered around Hill, this rollout pass to Kamara works. Kamara slips open behind the nickel defender as the defender initially rallies to Hill. Unfortunately, Kamara does not hang onto the pass, but the play design and execution up to the catch point working out so well is an encouraging sign for future pass plays with Hill. 

What is more interesting about the Saints use of Hill is that it is not intended to be some sort of energizer for the offense. Sometimes niche plays and formations can be used to shake up the offense and reinvigorate it when things get stale, but that is not the case with Hill. Hill has played 10 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. It may be odd, but Hill is a legitimate part of the Saints’ offense. 

For instance, Hill came into the game versus Washington for the two-point conversion following Brees’ touchdown pass that broke the all-time passing record. The decision was not made for Brees to be able to take a break and bask in the moment, either. Brees was on the field, split out wide like always. It may be conventional wisdom for Payton to have gone to, you know, the guy who just broke an all-time NFL record for the two-point conversion, but Payton turned to Hill and trusted his process. Hill’s rushing attempt did not end up converting, but that Payton maintained his strategy with Hill in a moment like that is worth noting. 

Where things get out of hand with Hill is all the other ways he sees playing time outside of quarterback. Hill can be an H-back, tight end, kick/punt returner, punt fake specialist, and more. Heck, by now, he’s probably covered almost all of the bases. Let’s go through some of the non-quarterback positions Hill has played so far. 

Below are two examples of Hill lined up as a tight end or wing player. 

And now, Hill lined up next to Brees in the red zone. Hill ended up catching a screen pass on the play. 

Lastly, Hill playing special teams. The first photo features Hill as a punt blocker before a punt-fake passing play that he completed for a first down, while the second photo features Hill receiving a kickoff. The third photo shows Hill attempting to block a punt. As one might guess due to the versatility here, Hill has played 87.16 percent of the Saints’ special teams snaps this year. 

Who knows, maybe one day the camera will pan to Hill calling plays in the booth, then back on the field two plays later to block for a field goal attempt. At this point, there is not any way the Saints could use Hill that would be surprising. Hill is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. 

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Whatever you want to call Hill’s role on offense and as a special teamer, it is here to stay. Almost everything the Saints have done with Hill has worked and much of it is not anything particularly gimmicky. Zone-read, quarterback sweeps, rollouts passes, and the like should continue to work with Hill so long as Payton continues to add wrinkles to it. 

It is fascinating to wonder how many previous players may have found success in this type of role or how many incoming pros have the skill set to mimic Hill. Tim Tebow and Terrelle Pryor, for example, could have found success in a role similar to Hill’s due to their experience as passers and outstanding athleticism. Down the line, players like Jalen Hurts may hold roster spots in a role like Hill’s. Time will tell if Payton and Hill are innovators or if they have created irreplicable magic.

All snap counts via Pro-Football Reference.