FAB 2. Why Is The Bucs’ Secondary Struggling?

Bucs general manager Jason Licht believed that coaching was the problem in Tampa Bay over the last two years – not so much the talent. But he knew that the Bucs needed more talent at cornerback and spent four premium draft picks at the position, selecting M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round in 2018 and Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in the second and third rounds this past year.

Licht also bolstered the safety position by acquiring Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round of the 2018 draft and spending a third-round pick on Mike Edwards this past April. Those are six new members of the Bucs’ defensive backfield, and adding Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Whitehead in this year’s draft class prompted new head coach Bruce Arians to suggest that the secondary “was fixed.”

Saints WR Michael Thomas
Saints WR Michael Thomas – Photo by: Getty Images

Things haven’t gone according to plan as the secondary has just three of the team’s five interceptions in the first five games. Tampa Bay’s pass defense ranks dead last in the league, allowing 1,618 passing yards this year – an average of 323.6 yards per game.

The Bucs are on pace to allow an embarrassing 5,177 yards this year, which would smash the NFL record for most passing yards allowed in league history, which was 4,783 yards. That broke the previous record by Greg Schiano’s Bucs surrendered 4,758 yards.

After last Sunday’s 31-24 loss at New Orleans in which the defense surrendered over 300 yards passing again and four touchdowns to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Arians called the secondary “soft.”

“That’s constructive criticism coming from B.A.,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He’s a hard-nosed coach and he expects nothing but greatness from each and every one of us. We have to take it personal, but not personally and show him what we’re all about because the word ‘soft’ should never come out of any coach’s mouth. That’s not going to define this DB group. We are for sure going to change things and go in the right direction.”

So what’s wrong with the Bucs’ secondary, and how did Tampa Bay’s pass defense start the season off so poorly? Let’s take a look.

VH3 Hasn’t Lived Up To First-Round Billing

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has shown some improvement this season over years past, as he’s more comfortable playing in a press-man coverage scheme that better suits his talent. Yet Hargeaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, and unfortunately he’s shown so far that’s he not the elite talent the Bucs hoped they were getting.

Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Photo by: Getty Images

Hargreaves made his 30th career start for the Bucs last Sunday in New Orleans, and got beat like a drum several times by Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas. Hargreaves is supposed to be a shutdown CB1 in Tampa Bay, but just hasn’t developed into that caliber of player. Part of what has stunted his development was struggling to learn how to play off coverage in Mike Smith’s defense.

The problem the Bucs have with Hargreaves is that the team picked up his fifth-year option for 2020 worth $9 million, but it’s not guaranteed unless he’s injured and can’t play. That means Tampa Bay could part ways with him without any salary cap ramifications. They’ll probably decide to pull the plug on Hargreaves next year unless he really turns his play around and proves he can play like a shutdown cover corner. So far he’s not showing that he’s worth $9 million next year.

No Starting Nickel CB – Yet

The Bucs have spent six draft picks on cornerbacks since 2016 and four of those picks have come over the last two years with Davis, Stewart, Murphy-Bunting and Dean. Davis and Dean are outside cornerbacks because of their length, and the hope was that Stewart or Murphy-Bunting could develop in the slot as nickel cornerbacks. So far, the Bucs don’t have a clear-cut guy that can handle the slot role on a full-time basis.

Bucs CB MJ Stewart
Bucs CB MJ Stewart – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Stewart started five games last year on defense, but lined up at nickel for a total of 11 games. He’s seen action at nickel in all five games this year too, but while Stewart is physical, he just doesn’t have the speed or the quickness to cover faster, more agile receivers in the slot and often trails in coverage after five to 10 yards. That led to the Bucs playing more of Murphy-Bunting, who is much faster, in the slot on Sunday and New Orleans, but with mixed results.

While Murphy-Bunting recorded his first career interception against the Saints, he was also soft in coverage and needs to play more physical. Part of that is being a rookie and seeing his first meaningful playing time on defense, but at the same time, Hargreaves had a soft game in New Orleans too, which shows that a rookie or a veteran can play soft, unfortunately. If the Bucs could combine Stewart and Murphy-Bunting into one player Tampa Bay would probably have one heck of a young nickel cornerback.

No Evans At FS

The Bucs were hoping that veteran free safety Justin Evans would be available to start for a third straight season in the secondary, but that hasn’t been the case. A toe injury bothered Evans last year, and that, combined with some flaws in Mike Smith’s soft pass defense, limited his 2018 production before being placed on injured reserve in November. In last year’s 48-40 upset of the Saints in New Orleans, Evans had a key scoop-and-score in the first half. The Bucs secondary is missing his playmaking ability and experience.

Bucs FS Justin Evans
Bucs FS Justin Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Evans missed the entire offseason program, training camp and the preseason due to an Achilles injury, for which he just had surgery. The Bucs placed him on injured reserve in early September after his heel injury was slow to recover, which ultimately prompted the surgery. As a result, the Bucs have been forced to play Edwards, the team’s third-round pick, who missed three preseason games due to a hamstring injury, and has looked lost at times in the secondary.

There was an outside chance of possibly having Evans back around midseason after his Achilles surgery had it been done earlier. But now the Bucs will have to play Edwards in a trial-by-fire situation during his rookie season and hope he can develop on the fly – and stay healthy. Veteran Darian Stewart, who is Edwards’ backup, has lost a step and lacks Edwards’ speed and athleticism. The only player playing well in the secondary on a consistent basis may be strong safety Jordan Whitehead, but Edwards needs to step up and match his play. Or perhaps it’s time to give Andrew Adams, who had four interceptions last year, a look.

Dean Has Been Hurt

Dean, a third-round pick, had a promising preseason where he provided good coverage and tied for the team lead with two pass breakups and registered an interception. Dean even outplayed Murphy-Bunting, the team’s second-round pick, in August.

Bucs CB Jamel Dean
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

A lower leg injury on special teams in a Week 2 win at Carolina forced him to miss the last three games, although he returned to practice last week. Dean could see time on defense against the Panthers in London on Sunday as the Bucs look for better play from their defensive backs, especially the cornerbacks.

Dean has great size at 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, and is a carbon copy of Davis – only faster. Despite two surgically repaired knees, Dean ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash, compared to Davis’ 4.53 time. Dean and Davis played together at Auburn and could be the Bucs’ starting cornerback duo later this season and beyond if Dean can stay healthy and continue to develop. He’s Tampa Bay’s most physically gifted cornerback.

No INTs From Davis

Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians has called Carlton Davis, last year’s second-round pick, the team’s top cover corner and he’s right. Davis does a decent job in coverage, using his long arms, 6-foot-1 frame, and physical nature to his advantage. The only thing he lacks is ideal speed, as he runs a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, and hands.

Bucs CB Carlton Davis
Bucs CB Carlton Davis – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Davis played in 13 games as a rookie with 12 starts, and has started all five games this year. Yet in 17 games, Davis has yet to record an interception and has just six passes defensed, including two this year. Unfortunately, he’s just not a natural ballhawk by any means. At least he hasn’t shown it yet in any game – preseason or regular season.

The hope is that Davis can develop his ball skills like former Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly did back in the late 1990s. Kelly had just three interceptions in his first four years, and never any more than one in a season before erupting for an NFL-high eight in 2002 while playing opposite Ronde Barber. In a secondary that is desperate for playmakers, the sooner Davis can pick off some passes, the better.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th 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 son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]

34 COMMENTS

  1. Off the top of my head the QBS that had career games against us:
    Case Keenum
    Danny Jones
    Teddy Bridgewater
    Drew Brees Often
    Matt Ryan Often
    Mitch Fricking Trubinsky looked like Joe Montana
    The Carolina Career Backup torched us one year
    I am sure I am missing a bunch. Its been beyond painful to watch this secondary the last few years.
    Butttt a win Sunday and we are right back in the thick of things. I hope they pound the rock right at McCoy all game!
    Go Bucs!

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    • Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater aren’t terrible QBs. Especially Bridgewater. I was on board for drafting Teddy back when he was coming into the draft – he has starting QB talent if Kirk Cousins does. Daniel Jones looks like he could develop into a good QB. Drew Brees is a legend. Matt Ryan on a better team with a defense would have a ring by now if for no other reason than just being a game manager. The Trubisky fiasco was inexcusable and they finally ran Mike Smith out of the league.

      You’re thinking of Derek Anderson and yeah lets not talk about that.

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      • Running right at McCoy might not be the best game plan in this one. RG and RT are different, no game time chemistry has developed. Probably gonna be some hard sledding trying to get a clean push for our RBs. I don’t even wanna talk about how it’ll effect the passing game. Could be ugly

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  2. This would require Licht to be smart and not pretend like he’s got it all figured out with his majority bad draft picks.

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  3. LMAO here. Peterson trade? PLEASE! When on earth have out Bucs truly gone out and ben super bold with an in season trade? You can count the times on one hand in the last 20 yrs or so. The is not the Pats, Chiefs,or a team who wants to win at all cost. We had 4 chances to upgrade our DE position already since the season began and did nothing. Hell will freeze over before this team gets bold. We are satisfied with being..
    The SOB’s (same ole Bucs). And you guys know..I’m telling the straight up truth.

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    • The only difference would be Arians. He went out and got Dwight Freeney when the Cards were making their 13-3 run and he paid off immediately for them. Licht and the Glazers dont do it, but Arians does. Let’s see if he can talk some sense into them.

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  4. Hargreaves will start, but I would love to see him move to nickel and play Dean on the outside for all nickel packages. Hargreaves is best in the slot anyway and this would give dean a fair amount of snaps on the outside…

    Our other slot CBs can bite it, theyve sucked all year anyway

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    • I agree. Move Hargreaves to slot, and platoon Dean and R Smith at CB1. Couldn’t hurt to try it.

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    • I would not give up our 1st rounder. I’d rather they trade it away for a bunch of 2nd, 3rd, & 4th round picks. This team needs as many picks that it can get, so they can throw a bunch of picks at the wall and see who sticks. Then they need to fortify DE/OLB & OT first, then worry about DB’s. Rockstar tried to build a defense from the backside with Revis, Baron, & Goldson. How did that turn out?

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      • The problem is, what you describe here is the way of the same old Bucs, and unfortunately nothing sticks too well. Making a move like this would be showing the fans and the team that this is not the same old Bucs. Besides, having a guy like Peterson around to mentor some of these young CB’s would be a huge benefit that you just can’t get any other way. Right now, you have the young and inexperienced leading the young and inexperienced, making it up as they go along. These guys need to see how a true All-Pro does things and learn from it. It would be well worth the investment.

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  5. Very good article! I will give my honest opinion on each CB which is currently our weakest group in need of significant help. I think Carlton Davis will be fine he just needs to be more disciplined. He’s very physical and isn’t afraid to hit or at least TRY and jam receivers. For Sean Murphy Bunting, he’s a rookie but I’d like him to play aggressive on receivers so I think in time he will be better (fingers crossed). MJ Stewart (CB/S) I have no hope for honestly. I thought he would improve in the offseason but it just seems like he’s too slow and is constantly getting beat or always out of position. Jamel Dean we really haven’t gotten to see much of so he’s still a mystery. Ryan Smith is a special teams ace but a liability in the passing game. Maybe if given the opportunity in this defense he could make a play here and there but I won’t hold my breath. *Sigh* last but not least VHII. I’ve tried holding out hope for him for the longest. I didn’t know much about him when we drafted him in 2016 so I thought he’d be decent at best. He was okay in his rookie season. Timid (soft) in his second season then he got hurt. In his 3rd season he played decent against the Saints in 2018 before being hurt again. This season I thought he would take a step forward to being a better player but he’s worse. He’s still playing 10 yards off giving cushion, he’s scared to at least try and jam the receiver at the line, he always gets beat with simple routes, always stumbling or out of position. I’m tired of screaming at the TV every time he gives up long reception or a first down and he just looks like he didn’t even try. I give people the benefit of the doubt, I believe in second chances and giving people time to improve but no more with him. Licht should trade him and at least get a 5th rounder or an offensive lineman for him or something. I wouldn’t even put him on the bench or even have him as the waterboy because either one of those would at least TRY!!!! Licht needs to do whatever he can to trade for Patrick Peterson before things get worse. Even if we don’t get Patrick Peterson but we get a really good corner I’d have more confidence in the Bucs defense especially if we get rid of VHIII.

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  6. Derek Anderson also lost against us the last time he played the Bucs.
    That is just the ebb and flow of the NFL.
    Can you imagine all the opposing fans getting on their teams when that nobody 6th round pick who took over the Pats due to an injury started to spank everyone.
    So give it a rest, anyone who is on an NFL roster is a potential starter and has the talent to be there.
    Well, almost anyone.
    VH III is still here.
    With the quality of his play right now, I can’t see anyone putting VH III on their roster as an outside corner except the Dolphins who seem determine to end the season at 0-16 and win the coveted No. 1 pick.
    Even if the Bucs can only get three good years out of Peterson, it would still be a good trade due to the putrid drafts Licht keeps having around here.
    Bet the thought here is that because of his age, he might be had for a No. 2, a round Licht has a real history of poor drafting in.
    Good luck on your trip to Kansas, Scott. Great moment and time to be a dad.

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  7. We are 1 good CB away from being an average pass defense (which be a HUGE improvement) and Peterson comes back from suspension after this week. Give them nothing higher than a 2020 2nd round pick (since Licht always Fs up 2nd round picks) and get us PP.

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  8. This secondary is going to get smoked sunday. I have no doubts. Anyone see what danny dimes has done since playing us? 3tds 6 picks, and 2 fumbles. Bridgwater, mr. Checkdown, smoked us for 300 and 4 tds. If they can make a trade for peterson, you make it. But the bucs wont. Anyone watch the patriots last night? Think they could use a TE? I love brate and howard, but if youre not going to use them, which we clearly arent, trade om6e of them for a first or second. They need to do something because this secondary is going to continue to lose games for this team.

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    • I hope you are wrong here cgmaster. But I fear..you are right. Lets hope Jameis and his receivers are on. If they are, we might..win a shootout like we did in LA.

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  9. I’m sure all of Licht’s CB draft choices were drafted to be shut down corners. VH3 was the 11th pick in the draft, shouldn’t he be one? We’re not one corner from making a playoff run. We could’ve got a vet this off season, but Licht was thinking his draft choices would get the job done with better coaching. You can’t make slow, and small, any bigger, or faster. Besides, with our first round pick we might draft Jameis’s replacement. I’m not sold on his play, he might flame out the rest of this year. So far he’s not worth 30 plus million a year. Our first pick next year is more valuable then trading for Peterson this year. It could be as high as top five, there are at least five top QB’s in this draft. You can afford a lot of talent moving on from Jameis, and drafting a rookie on a five year rookie deal. Gabbert could be our bridge QB. So no don’t sell our future to help save Licht from himself.

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    • You really think bruce wants to teach a rookie? Not happening unless jameis just collapses. As for him not playing well, he actually is. I love how you all think a rookie qb will just come in and take this team anywhere. You think a rookie will succeed with this offensive line? How about a pass defense thats giving up over 300 yards a game? The going rate for a starting qb is 25 million ,thats not going to change anytime soon. It will only get larger. So we draft a rookie qb next year and ignore the offensive line again. Are you setting him up to succeed? No you’re not. Jameis stats speak for thenselves right now. 11tds and 5 picks and a 97 quarterback rating. With a 100+ rating in 4 straight games. But you’re right, hes not worth it.

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  10. I’m not a fan of always looking back as to what you should have could have would have done. I would not surrender our number one pick for Peterson; let the existing group play and let’s see what we got at the end of the season. One player is not going to make the difference with this team. We have other issues yet to deal with and giving up the number one pick it just makes it even worse then what it is.

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    • I agree with Horse 100%. No 1st round pick for Peterson, and I would be shocked if there is ANY TRADE but if hell freezes over and we pull the trigger on a trade, Licht will not trade a first rounder (nor should he in this case). We have some young CB’s, it’s our “greenest” position on the team and these guys have only 5 games under their belt. Even Ronde Barber struggled his first season.

      That said, VHIII will be history next season (if not sooner) unless his play drastically improves. Arians thinks he’s soft, I don’t disagree but I do know he is looking more and more like a bust for an 11th overall draft pick in his 4th season. I thought he would thrive in this new Defense but so far……ummm nope.

      I think the Defense rebounds after last week, and if the offense doesn’t take a step back, I like our chances to sweep the Panthers like we did in 2016.

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  11. I personally would be willing to give up this season if it meant that Lason Licht would be fired.

    We have seen 7 Drafts with him calling the shots – and are only marginally better than when he
    got here. Too little progress made, and outside Ali Marpet, his 2nd Round picks are just abysmal.
    Get out a big broom and wipe out the front office – then hire a true football guy and Glazers, just
    keepa-you-hands-off and let the man run it.

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    • AMEN that Crackerball.

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  12. I think if we only have to give up a 2nd and maybe a 3rd the following year, that would be doable due to Peterson’s age. One great corner can definitely change a secondary and Licht really needs to look into this!!

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  13. I still can’t get on board with giving up a 1st for Peterson, who’s damn good but still 29 years old and not getting younger. If I’m Licht, I’m trying anything I can to use anything except a 1st for him. Dotson will need to be replaced next year…anybody really convinced we’re going to find a starting RT in the 2nd round? If we can trade our 2nd and some other conditional picks for Peterson, I’m for it. A 1st is just too steep, and far too nearsighted.

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  14. “Licht was right to flood the cornerback position in the last two drafts, using premium picks on young, cheap talent.”…evidence to the contrary Scott, evidence to the contrary! You said it yourself, all of these players in the secondary have been “EMBARRASSING”…that’s not “Licht [being] right”, that’s Licht being WRONG!

    Davis is not an outside CB….we went over this earlier this week. He’s way too slow. He has no INTs, because he’s never had any INTs, because he’s too slow.

    But you make one great point – trade for Peterson and once and for all improve the quality of our secondary….heck, it will only have taken Licht 5 years to figure something out.

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  15. I still think Licht should go after Chris Harris Jr. All pro in 2016 and was rated the top corner overall by PFF in 2016. 30 years old now and Broncos are trying to clean house so Bucs could most likely get him for a 4th rounder this year and maybe a 4th or 5th the next year. Harris and Davis on the outside while VH3 SMB and Stewart can play slot till the coaches figure out which one does it best.

    If it takes a 1st rounder to get Peterson then hell no. His contract plus a 1st rounder is too much. This team has too many players to resign the next two years plus I’d like to see some of that money and draft pick go to upgrading the offensive line. But Licht HAS to do something or this will be another losing season because there’s no fixing VH3 and teams will continue to take advantage of him week after week especially if the dline isnt getting pressure like last week.

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  16. Before we go trading draft picks mid season, I’d like to see Dean and Davis on the outside, Vernon in the slot. Add Evans to the safety rotation and maybe we have a secondary.

    As I’ve said in an earlier post, Peterson will be coming in mid season with rust, maybe we get 8 decent games from him, maybe. But on a non-playoff team is it worth it? He’ll be 30 this summer and speed doesn’t last forever. [Unless you’re Darrell Green.]

    The one perspective I haven’t read from Pewter Report writers is comparing this to acquiring Hardy Nickerson. He only had a couple of years left when we got him, but ask Sapp and Brooks and they’ll tell you Hardy was huge in the development of that defense. If that’s the play then it could be interesting.

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  17. Great article Scott.

    Those saying this team isnt one shut down CB from being a playoff team are wrong.

    A shut down CB is one player that can change an entire defense. Having someone man up on a team’s top WR allows you to roll coverage to other areas and helps the pass rush get home. Bowles would be able to get even more creative with a shut down CB.

    This team with PP wins last week and ia sitting atop the division.

    Getting a player like PP would completely change this defense.

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    • How quickly we forget Darell Revis !!! What did that get us?

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      • Exactly – we gave up a first rounder and $16 million for a guy coming off ACL surgery. He didn’t regain form until mid way through the season and then he was gone. A total waste.

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  18. This team is not going anywhere. Let’s not trade for anyone. Keep the high draft picks for the next GM

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  19. With all the draft picks for DBs we HAVE to give them a chance to make mistakes and grow up..it is one of the hardest positions to transition, especially with the rules. The sad side of all this is the historical pace we are on with the 5,000 pass yards projected to give up..

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    • Agreed, plus the last thing I want to see this team do is give up another 1st round pick for Darrell Revis version 2.0

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  20. All I know for whatever reason, Jameis’s won, loss record is all that matters. Going on his fifth year, we’ve lost more games, then we’ve won with him as the starter. Now you can talk about O line, D line, running game, defense being a big part of our losing, and be right. However it doesn’t change the fact he’s lost more games then he’s won. Could a rookie come in,and do any better, who knows? Would BA want to develop a rookie, who cares? If we draft high again, there could be a Burrow staring at us in the draft. You draft him, Jameis is a FA, if he wants to come back, and compete sign him to a one year prove it deal. No one is going to hand Jameis a starting gig if he leads us to another losing season. His best choice is to sign back with us. Have to keep our QB options open.

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  21. “Otherwise this season could be lost in a hurry.”

    Too late…this season is already lost!

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