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FAB 1. Bucs Face Franchise-Changing Decision On Winston
As Jason Licht is finding out this offseason, selecting Jameis Winston first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft was not his most monumental decision as the Tampa Bay’s general manager.
It’s actually deciding whether or not to re-sign Winston to a multi-year contract extension.
Whether or not Winston will continue to steer the Bucs’ ship will be the defining decision of Licht’s career – one that will have a lasting impact on this franchise.
If Licht and Arians don’t get this call right it could mean disaster for the Bucs, and would be up there with some of the most dubious franchise-defining decisions of all-time. This is up there with the “Doug Williams debacle” and the “Bo Jackson blunder” if Licht makes the wrong move.
Of course Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg could try to play it safe and go the one-year route with either the franchise tag at $27 million or the transition tag at around $25 million, but that approach has its own pitfalls. If Winston falters in yet another contract year in Tampa Bay that likely means six playoff-less seasons with him under the center.
Tagging Winston means Licht is essentially saying, “Yes” to Winston for the third time.
The first time was when Licht drafted him out of Florida State in 2015, and the second time was deciding to pick up Winston’s fifth-year option. Applying a one-year tag on Winston in 2020 would be the third time, and if that fails, Licht likely strikes out with three swings trying to hit on a franchise quarterback home run as the team’s general manager.
And when I mean strikes out, I mean Licht could be out of a job.
Head coach Bruce Arians, who would be 69 in 2021, could very well follow Licht right out the door if he can’t fix Winston’s penchant for turning the ball over with two years worth of exposure to him.
Yet if Licht and Arians are all-in on Winston after months of evaluation and debate in the halls of One Buccaneer Place and give Greenberg the green light to do a more cap-friendly multi-year extension that carries its own risk.
Even if Winston were to get a deal worth $25 million per year, that would likely come with at least $75 million in guaranteed money. Las Vegas’ Derek Carr had $70.2 million in guaranteed money in his latest deal, and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo was given $74.1 million in guaranteed money in his recent extension.
That means the Bucs would be tied to Winston for at least the next two to three years. If Winston remains a turnover machine and falters under this scenario, it means Tampa Bay would have wasted at least seven years – nearly a decade’s worth of football – hoping he would become a franchise quarterback capable of taking the Bucs to the playoffs and contending for a Super Bowl.
It used to be that drafting a quarterback in the first round and missing, especially in the Top 10, was the death knell for NFL teams. Look no further than San Diego’s drafting of Ryan Leaf, Cincinnati’s selecting Akili Smith and St. Louis’ Sam Bradford – prior to the NFL’s rookie salary cap – for proof.
But with rookie salaries being more manageable since the rookie salary cap, it’s actually the decision to re-sign quarterbacks to second contracts that carry much more risk for general managers like Licht because of the money involved.
A total of 21 quarterbacks had salaries of $20 million or more in 2019, including six at $30 million or more. That number will swell this offseason as Kansas City’s Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s DeShaun Watson are slated to get massive contract extensions worth between $30-$40 million.
Winston’s earnings during the first four years with the Bucs totaled $23.35 million. Now we’re talking about every year of his contract being at that amount or more.
Former Jacksonville executive vice president of football administration Tom Coughlin decided to extend the contract for turnover-prone Blake Bortles, signing him to a three-year deal worth $54 million, including $26.5 million in guaranteed money.
Notice I said former executive vice president of football administration in Jacksonville.
Bortles was cut just one year after his extension because he couldn’t stop turning the ball over and Coughlin was fired last fall. After Coughlin’s dumb decision to re-sign Bortles, he panicked and gave former Philadelphia backup and previous Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles a four-year, $88 million contract complete with $50.125 million in guarantees.
Foles, who has a cap value of over $21.8 million in 2020, isn’t that good, and was benched in favor of rookie Gardner Minshew II, the team’s sixth-round pick. With those QB blunders it’s no surprise that the Jaguars are $3.4 million over the current 2020 salary cap and in a world of hurt from a cap perspective. Cutting Foles this year isn’t even an option, either, due to the dead money that would accelerate and hit the cap.
Moving on from Winston certainly has its risks, too.
There is evidence that quarterbacks in the second year of Arians’ system typically throw fewer interceptions and thrive. That was the case with Arizona with Carson Palmer, who expects Winston to have “a massive year” in 2020 if he returns to Tampa Bay.
And while the Bucs might have some experienced veteran options in free agency is the grass going to be greener for Arians and Licht? Plus, Winston already has a year’s worth of knowledge in Arians’ offense.
Los Angeles’ 38-year old Philip Rivers and possibly New England’s 42-year old Tom Brady are upgrades based on their career achievements, but how much do they have left in the tank before a dramatic drop off that will signal retirement? And will that sudden drop off happen this year, next year or in 2022? Nobody knows.
Does Teddy Bridgewater have the arm strength to be a fit in Arians’ vertical offense? And does he have the durability to stay healthy for 16 games?
Will the Bengals release Andy Dalton or will they hold on to him until they can acquire a draft pick for him? Would he be a good fit in Tampa Bay?
Is Ryan Tannehill’s re-signing a done deal in Tennessee, or is he an option in free agency?
And perhaps most importantly, what if Winston goes elsewhere and really succeeds in 2020? That would be Licht’s worst nightmare, especially if Winston’s replacement fails to be an upgrade and gets the Bucs into the playoffs.
There isn’t an easy answer available for Licht and Arians this offseason when it comes to Winston and the starting quarterback position. That’s why this decision is taking so long and will likely extend into March. But whatever the decision is, it could cause a seismic change to this franchise – for better or for worse for years to come.