TAMPA, Fla. — The 2019 NFL season just officially concluded, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers already have been busy evaluating their options at quarterback. A decision looms on what to do with free agent Jameis Winston, who became just the eighth quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 5,000 passing yards in a single season but also the first in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season.
Do the Bucs re-sign him or do they move in another direction? No decision has divided the fan base more. There’s no consensus inside the Bucs’ building, either. Coach Bruce Arians said of Winston just before the season ended, “The growth was great, but to see the regression in some areas was very frustrating.” No decision has been made, but with the NFL scouting combine starting Feb. 23, expect things to pick up.
Here’s a closer look at what they’ll consider and where things stand:
The case for re-signing Winston
Arians believes Winston could cut down on the interceptions in Year 2 in his system. He has indicated that not all 30 of them were Winston’s fault and sometimes were a function of receivers running the wrong routes.
Winston has a strong chemistry with Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who both eclipsed 1,100 yards despite neither playing a full 16 games. Winston’s deep-ball chemistry with receiver Breshad Perriman, who will become a free agent as well, was an important development late in the season.
While the interceptions were the glaring issue and put the Bucs into tough predicaments, Winston did show remarkable resilience, coming back from three interceptions to account for five touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in a 38-35 victory. Those are the types of things Winston’s camp will use to try to leverage a better deal.
The Bucs’ first pick in the 2020 draft doesn’t come until No. 14 overall, which might mean they’ll miss out on the top quarterbacks unless they trade up.
The case for making a change
Opponents scored 112 points off Winston’s turnovers this season — the most in the NFL, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. That’s pretty damning in a league in which games are often decided by one score. “You’re not going anywhere. … You’re going home if you lead the league in giveaways,” Arians said at the end of the season.
When asked if the Bucs could win with another quarterback, 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.”
He said he would have no concerns about teaching another quarterback his system either, even at this late stage in his coaching career. (Arians is under contract with the Bucs for four more seasons, but many close to the situation believe he’ll retire in two years.)
Arians has a solid track record of developing young quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
“If that’s what it comes to, he’ll be expected to play at the level to win a championship,” Arians said of the possibility of adding a new quarterback.
At this point, the Bucs know what they have in Winston — a quarterback who was pick-sixed on his first pass as a pro in 2015 and his last in 2019 — and have a pretty good idea of what they have with him in their system. A new quarterback would offer a fresh start for a team that didn’t want to commit to a full rebuild, unlike teams that made coaching changes during the 2019 offseason.
Whom the Bucs could pursue at quarterback
The Philip Rivers rumors aren’t circulating just because Rivers and his family moved to Florida. League sources say the Bucs’ interest in the eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback is legitimate, although Rivers has been plagued by many of the same issues that Winston has — interceptions. He has thrown 198 picks since 2004, third most of any player in that span. He also has thrown the second-most interceptions over the past five seasons (76), behind only Winston’s 88.
League sources also say the Bucs have interest in Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill, but the first two seem unrealistic.
Even if Brady leaves New England, why would he go to a team that hasn’t tasted the postseason since 2007? There is, however, speculation that the Las Vegas Raiders will pursue Brady, and they finished 7-9 in 2019, the same record as Tampa Bay.
Brees’ teammate Cam Jordan said at the Pro Bowl: “At the end of the day, Drew has always said this is home for him — New Orleans has been home for him. So until he says otherwise, I’m gonna keep believing he’s our quarterback.”
It’s hard to see Bridgewater leaving, especially knowing Brees is in a year-to-year situation. Bridgewater could inherit an immediate contender, although the Saints’ cap situation and efforts to keep three legitimate quarterbacks on their active roster will be intriguing to watch. It’s also hard to see the Titans letting Tannehill walk after he led them to the AFC Championship Game.
If the Bucs don’t sign a veteran, they can certainly draft a quarterback, too. In fact, they could still do so if they keep Winston. The Bucs spent a lot of time looking at quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl, particularly Utah State’s Jordan Love. They also really like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, although he could be taken in the top 10, whereas Love might be available to the Bucs at No. 14.
Competition wasn’t a priority for the Bucs last season — it was about rebuilding Winston and his confidence, and reestablishing the Buccaneers as his team. Expect more competition this season if Winston returns — and less tolerance for his mistakes.
How much could Winston get on the open market?
This is tricky to forecast, because the concern for Winston league-wide is turnovers. As one agent familiar with the situation told ESPN, “Truth be told, if he leaves Tampa, who else makes him a starter?”
A league executive echoed that to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler: “I don’t see how you can pay him,” the executive said. “It would have to be pretty reasonably low if they did. You can’t give him big money based on the way he played. He won’t have a market.”
NFL teams needing quarterbacks include the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and possibly the Washington Redskins, depending on new coach Ron Rivera’s assessment of Dwayne Haskins. Four of those teams are drafting in the top 10 and in great position to take quarterbacks, with the Colts just outside of the top 10 at No. 13. While it’s pretty clear what type of quarterback Winston is to just about everyone in the league, fresh faces afford coaches and general managers time to find out.
So, what will the Bucs do?
Winston likely will get the franchise tag at $26 million, even if he’s less than thrilled with it. The alternative would be a two-year deal with $26 million in the first year, but the guarantees wouldn’t extend beyond 2020. That has been floated around, according to league sources, but Winston wants more long-term security.
A two-year deal might be the only compromise the Bucs would be willing to make outside of the franchise tag, and Winston might not have much leverage beyond that because of the interceptions. The Bucs technically can re-sign him to a new deal at any time. March 10 at 4 p.m. ET is the deadline for NFL teams to designate franchise-tag and transition-tag players. If neither of those things happen, legal tampering begins March 16, with the new league year beginning March 18 at 4 p.m. ET.