After nearly a full year of outwardly supporting and defending quarterback Jameis Winston, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians’ comments took a decidedly different turn after Winston threw two interceptions in Tampa Bay’s 28-22 overtime loss to Atlanta to end the season. Winston’s first pass of overtime was a pick-six, his seventh in 2019, which was an NFL record, and perhaps his last pass as a Buccaneer.
Winston is coming off a year in which he led the league in passing with a franchise-record 5,109 yards, becoming the eighth NFL QB to hit the 5,000-yard mark, but also a year in which he became the first passer in league history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns (33) and 30 interceptions in the same season.
“There’s so much good,” Arians said. “There’s so much good and there’s so much outright terrible. So, we have to weigh that and see what happens.”
Winston is set to be a free agent, and the Bucs will have some options in 2020, including bringing him back with a contract extension before he hits free agency in March, using the franchise tag on him or letting him test the free agent waters before making him an offer.
“I would think in a few weeks, yeah,” Arians said about the timetable of the Bucs’ evaluation process. “We’ll have a decision on which way we want to head. Will we let it out? Probably not because you lose your leverage on that one too. Stay tuned.”
Arians and general manager Jason Licht, who drafted Winston, who made $20.92 million in his fifth-year option, with the first overall pick in 2015, will weigh the Bucs’ options as part of the evaluation process.
“Free agency – who’s available,” Arians said. “What’s behind door number two? That’s the first question. As you evaluate for the draft, that’s another question. Are they better than what you have? And then you evaluate and that’s when you make your decisions.”
Arians admitted that the Bucs were going to give Winston the entire 2019 campaign to perform without any real competition, as the team let Ryan Fitzpatrick move on to Miami and had only backup-level QBs behind him in Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin. Despite all of the turnovers – 39 – and the pick-sixes, Winston was never in danger of being benched last year.
“We had to find out,” Arians said. “This is a franchise and we had to find out.”
But Arians hinted that if Winston returned he would have a much shorter leash when it comes to turnovers.
“It’s a performance-based business,” Arians said. “If you’re not performing, you get replaced.”
Arians even went so far as to say that the Bucs could win without him.
“With another quarterback? Oh yeah,” Arians said. “We can win with this one [and] we can definitely win with another one too because we’re going to have this defense.”
So what if the Bucs decided not to franchise Winston and let him test the free agent waters to see what his market value actually is. How much interest would there actually be in a prolific, 26-year old passer, who played for three head coaches in five years?
Would opposing coaches see the positives and believe they would be the ones to fix Winston and greatly reduce his interceptions? Or would they look at Winston’s track record of throwing interceptions and fumbling the ball dating back to his days at Florida State and deem him a coach killer and shy away?
How many teams even need a quarterback and would compete with the Bucs to sign Winston? Let’s look at the quarterback situation of the other 31 NFL teams to find out.
New England Patriots (12-4)
Tom Brady is a free agent for the first time in his career and the Patriots don’t have enough weapons on offense to make his return to New England automatic. If Brady does leave the Patriots, it causes a ripple effect throughout the league as teams with relatively good quarterback situations like Tampa Bay and Dallas might be tempted to lure the greatest QB of all time – along with a host of other teams. If the 43-year old Brady leaves, Bill Belichick will likely want a veteran under center, and could be interested in Winston.
Buffalo Bills (10-6)
Buffalo has a first-round pick invested in Josh Allen, who just took the Bills to the playoffs. This won’t be a possible landing spot for Winston.
New York Jets (7-9)
New York picked Sam Darnold in the first round two years ago, which rules out the Jets for Winston’s services.
Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Winston could beat out Josh Rosen, but would want to steer clear of another destination that has Ryan Fitzpatrick. Plus, the Dolphins seem to want to draft a QB in the first round, so count them out, too.
Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
Quarterback Lamar Jackson is the league MVP on the best team in football, so cross the Ravens off the list of potential landing spots for Winston.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
All signs point to Ben Roethlisberger’s return in 2020, and the Steelers already have two young QBs on the roster that could be the heir apparent in Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, so Pittsburgh won’t be in the market for Winston.
Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Baker Mayfield is a former first-round pick and the Browns are committed to him being their starter with two years left on his rookie deal.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
The Bengals’ top need is at quarterback, but with the first overall pick, it’s a foregone conclusion that LSU’s Joe Burrow, an Ohio native, will wind up in tiger stripes.
Houston Texans (10-6)
The Texans used a first-round pick on DeShaun Watson, who has Houston in the playoffs this year. Houston is thrilled with him and won’t be in the market for Winston.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
The Titans had to settle for Marcus Mariota, who is moving on in 2020 after losing his job to Ryan Tannehill this past year. Tannehill is a free agent, but is a fit in Tennessee and it looks like he will re-sign with the Titans, which means Winston won’t wind up in Nashville.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
The official word is that the jury is still out on Jacoby Brissett in Indy. The Colts have two things that Winston doesn’t have in Tampa Bay – a really good offensive line and a running game – so pencil the Colts in as a possible suitor.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
The Jaguars chained themselves to Nick Foles last offseason when they signed him to a massive contract extension, but sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew is the fan favorite and had the better year. Jacksonville will have to pass on Winston.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Kansas City will be looking to extend the contract of dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes this offseason, not pursuing Winston.
Denver Broncos (7-9)
With so much guaranteed money invested in Joe Flacco (his release would cost the Broncos $13 million in dead cap money) and a second-round pick invested in Drew Lock, Denver would be hard-pressed to make a run at Winston.
Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)
Derek Carr has seemed to be on thin ice with Jon Gruden over the last two years, and that’s after throwing for 4,054 yards this year with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Can you imagine how crazy Gruden would get over Winston’s 30 INTs? Still, Gruden believes he can fix almost any QB, so Las Vegas is an option.
Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
The Philip Rivers era seems to be coming to an end with the Chargers and they’ll need a new, younger, dynamic QB in L.A. With 1,000-yard receivers like Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and tight end Hunter Henry, as well as running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, the Chargers might intrigue Winston.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
The Eagles signed former first-round pick Carson Wentz to a lucrative contract extension, so Philadelphia doesn’t have a need for Winston.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Dak Prescott will be a free agent and had a year that rivaled Winston with 4,902 yards and 30 TDs, but with far fewer interceptions (11). Mike McCarthy is taking over in Dallas, but it seems like Jerry Jones wants Prescott to remain with the Cowboys.
New York Giants (4-12)
The Giants just invested a first-round pick in Daniel Jones, so New York is off the list of possible Winston suitors.
Washington Redskins (3-13)
With Washington picking Dwayne Haskins in the first round last year, the Redskins won’t be interested in Winston.
Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Aaron Rodgers is still in his prime and winning division titles in Green Bay, so the Packers won’t be in the market for Winston.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
Kirk Cousins has one more year left on his deal in 2020, and just delivered a big playoff win for the Vikings. Winston won’t be in purple this season.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
The Bears seem committed to former first-round QB Mitchell Trubisky despite mixed results. Signing Winston at such a premium price would mean Chicago would have to give up on Trubisky, which they don’t want to do.
Detroit Lions (3-12-1)
The Lions would take a $24.8 million dead cap hit if they pulled the plug on Matthew Stafford, so he’ll remain the starter and Detroit won’t be in the market for Winston.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Drew Brees will be a free agent in 2020, but it’s hard to see him leaving New Orleans, especially after a 13-3 record and a bitter playoff loss at home. Besides, the Saints like Teddy Bridgewater, who could be re-signed as a cheaper Brees’ heir apparent over the more expensive Winston.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
Matt Ryan didn’t have a great year, but releasing the 35-year old QB would result in a $33.55 million dead cap hit that the Falcons can’t withstand. Winston won’t wind up in Atlanta.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Cam Newton, 30, is set to make $18.6 million in 2020, and his release would only result in a $2 million cap hit. A coaching change has everything in flux with the Panthers right now, so Winston can’t be ruled out in Carolina.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Jimmy Garoppolo led the 49ers to the NFC West title and signed a huge contract two years ago. The 49ers won’t be in the mix for Winston.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
Pro Bowler Russell Wilson just signed a huge contract extension and has the Seahawks deep into the playoffs once again. Seattle won’t be interested in Winston.
Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
The Rams have a fortune invested in first-round draft pick Jared Goff, who is on his second contract. Los Angeles won’t be the landing spot for Winston.
Arizona Cardinals (5-10-1)
The Cardinals just invested the first overall pick in Kyler Murray, so they are set at the quarterback position for years to come.
Of the 31 other NFL teams, these are the franchises – all five of them – that could have an interest in Winston if he hits free agency.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)
Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
New England Patriots (12-4)
If Tampa Bay decides to go in a different direction and pursue another option at quarterback, the pickings might actually be slim for Winston, who is a dynamic passer, but also has a dangerous penchant for turning the ball over at a record rate, as he has over 100 turnovers since 2015, which is the most in the NFL over that span. Remember, free agency is a two-way street, and Winston will have just as much say in his final destination as the teams courting him.
Two of those teams on this list – the Panthers and the Chargers – had worse records than the Bucs. Carolina hit the reset button with the head coaching position with Matt Rhule as the replacement for Ron Rivera, who took over the Redskins. If Rhule wants to keep Newton as the starter, immediately count Carolina out for Winston’s services. If not, Winston’s dynamic passing ability may be sought after by Tampa Bay’s division rival.
The Chargers might be intriguing due to the weaponry Anthony Lynn has assembled, but would Winston, who grew up in the south, want to move to the West Coast and live in Los Angeles? And are the Chargers going to be any better than the Buccaneers in terms of getting to the playoffs?
What about the Raiders or the Colts, both of whom finished 7-9 along with Tampa Bay? The Raiders are moving from Oakland to Las Vegas and Gruden seems to be as indecisive as ever when it comes to his quarterback situation. If he doesn’t want Carr, Gruden could opt for Winston, whom he has liked from afar. (Ironically, Carr could be an ideal fit in Tampa Bay if this happens.)
The Colts can be an intriguing option for Winston as they have effective receivers in Zach Pascal and T.Y. Hilton, as well as a young, promising running back in Marlon Mack, who went over 1,000 yards last year. The Colts also have an improving offensive line that features All Pro guard Quenton Nelson. Winston would be a clear upgrade over Brissett, so Indianapolis would likely be in play for him in free agency.
The last team is New England – if Brady wants to leave the Patriots or if Bill Belichick wants to begin a youth movement with his older, veteran team. Belichick might not like Winston’s penchant for turnovers – unless he thinks he can break Winston of some bad habits. If Winston leaves, does that put Tampa Bay in the hunt for Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time? Would Winston love to have the opportunity to play for Belichick, the greatest coach of all time?
That would certainly be an interesting scenario, wouldn’t it, Bucs fans?