FAB 3. Bucs Have Veteran Options At QB In 2020
The Titans have already given up on Marcus Mariota and turned to Ryan Tannehill, who is 2-0 as a starter in Tennessee. Mariota, the second overall draft pick in 2015 behind Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, will most likely be an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
Will Winston be joining him? That depends on how the beleaguered Bucs quarterback fares over the last nine games of the season for 2-5 Tampa Bay. Winston has thrown 14 touchdowns this season is tied for seventh in the league, but with 12 interceptions, Winston is tied with Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield for the most picks in the NFL right now.
Unless the narrative of Winston being a turnover machine somehow changes over the second half of the season, both of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 draft class will be with new teams next year, and that means Tampa Bay will be looking for a new signal caller under center in 2020.
While next year’s draft class looks promising with the likes of first-rounders, such as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, and possibly Washington’s Jacob Eason, don’t be surprised if the Bucs seek out a veteran quarterback in the second year of the Bruce Arians era. While he has worked wonders with rookie quarterbacks in the past, such as Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning in 1998 and Andrew Luck in 2012, Arians just turned 67 and wants to win now.
That was the case seven years ago in 2013 when he became the head coach in Arizona and the Cardinals traded for 33-year old Carson Palmer, who was 38-21-1 with Arians from 2013-17. Palmer and Arians had three straight playoff appearances during that span.
The Bucs have had success with veteran quarterbacks in the past, most notably with Brad Johnson, who won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay at age 34. Johnson was a four-year starter in red and pewter through age 36. During the 2004 season, head coach Jon Gruden turned to another veteran in 29-year old Brian Griese after Johnson went 0-4 to start the season.
At age 30, Griese had the Bucs off to a 5-1 start before a torn ACL ended his season. Chris Simms, a third-round pick in 2004, helped guide Tampa Bay to an 11-5 season with a 6-4 record down the stretch. After Simms ruptured his spleen the next year, Gruden signed veteran Jeff Garcia in 2007 after the Bucs failed to land Brett Favre in a trade with Green Bay.
Garcia went to the Pro Bowl in 2007 at age 37 and led Tampa Bay to an NFC South title and a home playoff game. In fact, that was the Bucs’ last postseason appearance. Since then, the team has used a first-round pick on Josh Freeman in 2009, a third-round pick on Mike Glennon in 2013 and a first-round pick on Winston in 2015 – and none of those quarterbacks have helped get the Bucs to the playoffs.
The combined record of those three veteran quarterbacks in Tampa Bay was 52-42.
Record In Tampa Bay By Free Agent QBs (2001-08)
Brad Johnson 26-23 (53.6 percent)
Brian Griese 12-9 (57.1 percent)
Jeff Garcia 14-10 (58.3 percent)
All three had winning records with the Bucs, and that was much better than the record of the three quarterbacks Tampa Bay drafted since 2009, which is 52-86.
Record In Tampa Bay By Drafted QBs (2009-19)
Josh Freeman 24-35 (40.7 percent)
Mike Glennon 5-13 (27.7 percent)
Jameis Winston 23-38 (37.7 percent)
Of course, Josh McCown’s 1-10 record and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 4-6 record as starters in Tampa Bay since 2014 is proof that just because the Bucs have a veteran QB doesn’t automatically guarantee success.
So aside from Mariota, what other veteran quarterbacks are poised to be free agents in 2020 if Tampa Bay wants to move on from Winston?
The clear front-runner is future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers, who has 386 touchdowns and 185 interceptions in his 16 seasons for the Chargers in San Diego and Los Angeles. Rivers has an ideal 5.3 percent TD rate and a 2.5 percent INT rate in his career and is still going strong at age 38.
Rivers is an eight-time Pro Bowler, who has been to Orlando the last three seasons, including last year when he helped guide the Chargers to a 12-4 record. Los Angeles has underperformed this season with a 3-5 record, but Rivers is still having a good season completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 2,315 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
What’s impressive about Rivers isn’t just the fact that he’s thrown for at least 4,200 yards and 28 touchdowns in each of the last six seasons. It’s his durability. Rivers hasn’t missed a start in the last 13 and half seasons.
Will the Chargers let Rivers leave, though? He signed a four-year, $83.25-million deal in 2016 that included a $22.5 million signing bonus and an average salary of $20,812,500 per year. L.A. could simply slap the franchise tag on him next year at age 38 and spend a first-round pick in 2020 on his heir apparent to transition the Chargers to a new, younger quarterback in 2021.
The other enticing veteran is Teddy Bridgewater, who signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract with New Orleans, including a $6 million signing bonus, after the Saints acquired him in a trade with the New York Jets in 2018. Bridgewater was a former first-round pick by Minnesota in 2014 that completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 6,150 yards with 28 touchdowns and 22 interceptions with the Vikings before a devastating knee injury in practice wiped out his 2016 season and much of 2017 campaign as well.
Bridgewater, 27, had one start for the Saints last year, but went 5-0 as a starter this year when Drew Brees missed time due to a broken thumb. Bridgewater completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,488 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Louisville product has thrown 38 touchdowns and 25 picks in his career and has a 3.6 percent TD rate and 2.3 percent INT rate. This year’s TD rate in New Orleans was an improved 4.6 percent, along with an impressive 1.0 percent INT rate.
At age 28, Bridgewater will likely be one of the hottest commodities in free agency next March unless the Saints plan to have him serve as Brees’ eventual successor and can somehow squeeze Bridgewater under their salary cap. Yet Bridgewater might not want to wait until Brees retires and could be seeking a starting job elsewhere.
The New York Giants have already moved on to Daniel Jones, the team’s first-round pick this year, and that means the end of the Eli Manning era, as the two-time Super Bowl winner is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020. The 38-year old Manning, whose cap value this year in New York is $23.2 million, has been a durable starter, missing just one game in the past 14 years prior to the 2019 season.
But it’s clear that Manning’s game has been in decline in recent years, evidenced by an 8-25 record over the past three seasons in New York. Manning has thrown for 362 touchdowns and 241 interceptions over his career, and has a career 4.5 percent TD rate and a 3.0 career INT rate.
Yet over the last 33 games dating back to the start of the 2017 season, Manning has thrown 42 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. While his TD rate fell to 3.4 percent, so did his INT rate was 2.1 percent. But at age 39 in 2020, how much gas would Manning have left in the tank?
The other veteran option could be Andy Dalton, who just got benched in Cincinnati. Dalton went 0-8 as a starter this year, but the 32-year old had a record of 68-58-2 with the Bengals.
Dalton has completed 62.2 percent of his passes and thrown 197 touchdowns and 112 interceptions in his career. While he’s not been one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks with just two 4,000-yard seasons in his nine years in the league, Dalton has been to three Pro Bowls, and has a career TD rate of 4.6 percent and a career INT rate of 2.6 percent.
Dalton is making $16.2 million this year, and is scheduled to make $17.7 million in 2020. The Bengals could release Dalton without any cap penalty and save a huge chunk of cap room next offseason.
As for Mariota, the Bucs passed him over once because of his lack of vocal leadership, laid back personality and lack of polish as a pocket passer and deep ball thrower. The fact that Jason Licht and Titans general manager Jon Robinson are good friends likely means that Robinson’s decision to move on from the injury-prone Mariota is an indication that the Bucs won’t be interested as long as Licht is calling the shots in Tampa Bay.
Other potential free agent quarterbacks include Tannehill, who will likely be targeted for a re-signing in Tennessee if he keeps winning, along with Washington’s 31-year old Case Keenum, a journeyman who has been on six different teams in the last seven years. Brees and New England’s Tom Brady are 41 and 43 years old, respectively, and have voidable years in their contracts in 2020, but it’s hard to see the Saints and the Patriots moving on from those QBs, who are still playing at a high level in the twilight of their careers.
Both of Tampa Bay’s backup quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, are scheduled to be unresticted free agents next year, and one could return as a backup, but neither has shown the ability to be considered a starter for the Bucs.
Despite the success of rookie QB Gardner Minshew in Jacksonville, the Jaguars can’t part ways with 30-year old Nick Foles next year because he signed a four-year, $88 million contract that included a $25 million signing bonus this offseason. Jacksonville would take an $11.75 million cap hit in 2020 if it traded Foles away.
Whether it’s Rivers, Bridgewater, Manning or Dalton – or maybe Luck if he were to come out of retirement and want to play for Arians again – the Bucs will have some veteran options to turn to at quarterback if Winston can’t make his case for a long-term contract extension – or at least the franchise tag – with improved play down the stretch in 2019.