TAMPA – Finding a quarterback is a big priority for the Bucs this off-season. That's not a misprint. No, they're not looking to replace Jameis Winston. Far from it. But they may need to find their version of the Eagles' Nick Foles — except this backup has to be prepared to start the season.
The Bucs would be naïve to disregard the fact that Winston is under investigation by the NFL for allegations that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016. Winston has denied the accusation, and Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby says he was in the backseat with his former Florida State teammate and nothing occurred.
In a perfect world for the Bucs, the NFL determines Winston did nothing inappropriate and dismisses the case before the start of free agency. But the NFL's timetable is never ideal. Tom Brady was notified of his four-game suspension in May. (The appeal process took a year). Ezekiel Elliott was informed of his six-game suspension in August.
But with the broad reach of the league's personal conduct policy, the Bucs have to approach the position as if Winston could miss games in September.
The Bucs have only one other quarterback on the roster — Ryan Griffin, who has never taken a snap in a regular-season NFL game.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 2-1 as a starter last season, is a solid option.
"For me at this point in my career, I'm not going to be given or gifted a chance to start anywhere probably," Fitzpatrick said at the end of the season. "So there's a lot of things that go into it that maybe didn't years ago in terms of family and different situations. I enjoyed the year that I had here and even the Tampa area in general. But this team, I think Jameis did a good job this year. You can see the improvement in his game. So I'd enjoy being back. I really enjoyed my role this year. But you never know. We'll see what happens."
If not Fitzpatrick, fortunately this could be a wild and fertile quarterback market stocked with plenty of intriguing options and even more that could shake free following the NFL draft.
It could take some time for things to sort out.
The Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Bills, Jets and Giants all are in the starting quarterback market, either for a top rung rookie or a veteran free agent. The first thing those teams have to determine is which players will become available by the March 14 signing period.
Kirk Cousins owns the sweepstakes as the hottest free agent since Peyton Manning. He won't be back in Washington after the Redskins traded for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
An NFL arbitrator ruled recently that Bengals backup A.J. McCarron is an unrestricted free agent and is hoping a team steps forward that wants him to be their starter.
The Vikings may hold the key to what happens next. It would be unlikely they want to move on from Case Keenum after he led them to a 13-3 record, and a franchise tag is possible. But Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are certainly hitting free agency.
Bradford is a No. 1 overall pick and former teammate at Oklahoma of Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. But his injury history is one teams may shy away from. Bridgewater hasn't really played in two years after sustaining a devastating knee injury, and he was inactive for the playoffs, meaning the Vikings saw him as a backup.
The Buffalo Bills seem ready to move on from Tyrod Taylor, who is due a $6-million roster bonus the third day of the new league year to go with a $10-million base salary in 2018. He won't consider restricting his contract, but the Bills could decide to pay the bonus and attempt to trade Taylor.
Josh McCown is 39 and his first stint with the Bucs didn't go so well under Lovie Smith. He went 1-10 as a starter in Tampa Bay but has done well when asked to start for the Browns and Jets. For 3-4 games, could McCown be the answer?
A lot will depend on how the NFL draft falls. There are at least four quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft — Southern Cal's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. Some may play right away, some may sit a few weeks behind a grizzled vet.
If there's one player the Bucs will watch closely, it's Mike Glennon. The Bears, who guaranteed him $18 million last season before drafting Mitch Trubisky, are expected to release Glennon. Bucs general manager Jason Licht seemed ready to offer him $8 million per year to remain as Winston's backup last year before he cashed in.
If somehow the music stops and Glennon doesn't have a team that wants him to at least compete for a starting job, who knows? The Bucs will be watching carefully.
Under the circumstances, quarterback is not a position they can ignore.