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FAB 1. Bucs May Have To Use Franchise Tag On Winston
The NFL could be facing an unprecedented game of musical chairs at the quarterback position the likes we haven’t seen in quite some time – if ever. With Drew Brees indicating his return to New Orleans this week to play a 20th season in the NFL, here are the headlining free agent QBs whose contracts expired after the 2019 regular season.
New England’s Tom Brady Los Angeles’ Philip Rivers Dallas’ Dak Prescott Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston New Orleans’ Teddy Bridgewater
Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton could be on the trading block this offseason, as could Las Vegas’ Derek Carr – if the Raiders can land Brady in free agency.
New Orleans’ Taysom Hill is also a restricted free agent that could draw some interest from another team, although the Saints want to keep him as Brees’ heir apparent, and will likely apply the $5 million tender that requires first-round draft pick compensation if he’s signed to an offer sheet by another team.
Now if Brady returns to New England, Brees and Hill return to New Orleans, Prescott returns to Dallas, and Tannehill returns to Tennessee, the free agent quarterback market will be much less chaotic come March 18 when NFL free agency officially begins and players can sign with new teams.
But still, there will be some QB movement in 2020 as Rivers, Bridgewater, Dalton and perhaps Newton and Winston could be playing for new teams this year – in addition to the three first-round rookie quarterbacks entering the league.
Patriots QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Getty Images
Yet there is one aspect of this potential quarterback carousel that not many other than ProFootballTalk.com are really talking about, and it’s the timing.
Timing, as they say, is everything in life.
The NFL could be on the verge of seeing the biggest game of free agent musical chairs unfold in mid-March and timing would certainly mean everything to teams involved in it like Tampa Bay.
You know what happens when you play musical chairs – somebody ends up without a chair to sit in when the music stops.
Let me explain. What if agents for Brady and Rivers put out feelers that the Bucs are legitimately in play for their clients, and that those QBs want to visit Tampa Bay to meet the coaching staff, the front office, the owners, some of the key players and to have their wives visit the area?
We all know that the Bucs wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of the list for either future Hall of Famer, but if the agent was emphatic that Tampa Bay was in the running for Brady, wouldn’t general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians have to leave the door open to the possibility of potentially landing him – even if it was a long shot?
What would Licht and Arians tell Brady? “Sorry, Tom – not interested.”
Yeah, I don’t think the Glazers would allow that to happen.
Just from an ego standpoint, Licht and Arians would love to land Brady, who is the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.
Remember back to the 2001 offseason when Brad Johnson left Washington. Baltimore was the odds-on favorite to land him, yet he surprised the league and chose Tampa Bay in free agency instead. The next year, playing under new head coach Jon Gruden, Johnson helped the Bucs win their first and only Super Bowl.
But what if Brady – and/or Rivers – wants to go on a free agency tour to multiple teams to find the right fit? While those high-profile, aging stars are being courted by a handful of suitors, other teams that are out of the running will be signing up some of the second-tier quarterbacks like Bridgewater, Tannehill, Winston or making a run at a trade for Dalton or Newton – if he can pass a physical.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Getty Images
“You’re just sitting there waiting to see is there someone available? … Is he a better option?” Arians told the Tampa Bay Times after a recent coaching clinic last week when he addressed the Bucs’ stance at the quarterback position. “And then, that’s the problem, you get about three days to decide – the legal tampering period. Is somebody going to get let go? What’s the trade values? It’s really monotonous right now because you don’t have any answers.”
What makes it difficult for teams like Tampa Bay that want to explore all of the available options before truly deciding what to do with Winston, is that while the team waits to see who is available during the legal tampering period, Winston may be exploring his options, too.
What if Brady opts for Las Vegas, Rivers signs with Indianapolis, Tannehill stays in Tennessee, Prescott stays in Dallas, Bridgewater goes to Los Angles, New England wants to pursue Winston to replace Brady, and the Raiders trade Carr to another team? Then the Bucs could lose the game of QB musical chairs and be left without a quality starter.
Then Tampa Bay would be forced to trade up and draft a quarterback, which would not be ideal for a team that is trying to get over the hump and back into the playoffs in 2020 after a 12-year drought.
So how do the Bucs avoid the scenario of possibly losing Winston – whether he’s at their top of the QB wish list or a backup plan – while not giving into Winston’s demands over the fear of losing him, and still being able to explore other options in free agency?
What Tampa Bay could do is apply the franchise tag – or even the transition tag – to Winston on March 10, which is the deadline for teams to use the tag, and then still talk to other quarterbacks to see if there is interest from a supposed better option. The reason why the Bucs could in essence double dip at the quarterback spot is because Tampa Bay could rescind Winston’s franchise or transition tag at any time – as long as Winston doesn’t signed the offer.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The franchise tag would be close to $27 million, and represent over a $6 million raise for Winston, who made $20.92 million in 2019. The transition tag would be a few million dollars cheaper. So if he were to sign the franchise or transition tag contract before the start of free agency, Winston would be committing to the Bucs on a one-year deal, which is not what he nor his camp are looking for. They want a long-term deal.
And the Bucs would love to have Winston – or another quarterback – for a lesser cap number in 2020, considering all of the team’s own free agents Tampa Bay is looking to re-sign – unless it was Brady, who would command $30 million or more. The Bucs wouldn’t mind paying Brady that much because his arrival would instantly sell out Raymond James Stadium and bring the national media attention that the Glazers crave.
So the Bucs could roll the dice by using the franchise or transition tag on Winston, temporarily keeping him off the free agent market and hoping he wouldn’t sign it right away. If he’s their best option, the Bucs halt their inquiry in to other quarterbacks and would then have some time to negotiate a longer deal with Winston’s camp this offseason. If Tampa Bay found what it believed to be an upgrade over Winston, they could pursue that quarterback and then rescind Winston’s tag.
That might not be what Winston’s camp wants to hear, but the Bucs have this option and the obligation to do what is best for the team – not for one particular player like Winston.
Bucs GM Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Finding the right free agent fit at quarterback is essential. Just ask Houston, who signed quarterback Blake Osweiler away from Denver to a four-year, $72-million contract right out of the gate in free agency in 2016 without ever meeting him. Osweiler wasn’t a good fit for the Texans organization or Houston’s offense. He threw a franchise-record 16 interceptions and was traded to Cleveland the next year while Houston had to eat a lot of dead cap space.
I would imagine Licht, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich would want to meet with Rivers to see how much passion for the game he has left, or meet with Tannehill or Bridgewater to see if he would be the right fit for Arians’ system. Those meetings can’t take place until March 18, which could delay some of the QB signings as the game of musical chairs begins.
If Winston isn’t feeling the love from the Bucs and doesn’t feel like he’s No. 1 on their list, and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels come calling if Brady leaves New England, Winston might want out of Tampa Bay. Taking a chance and using the franchise or transition tag on Winston would be the only way for the Bucs to ensure they aren’t left without a quality quarterback when the music stops.
But using the franchise or transition tag on Winston won’t necessarily stop Tampa Bay from entertaining the thought of pursuing another QB and then rescinding it if a better option presents itself.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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