2019 NFL playoffs: Why the Buccaneers’ window for contention has closed

For four seasons, Jameis Winston was a bargain for Tampa Bay. Those days are over. Soon, the Bucs will be paying him more — at the expense of building a deeper team.
Jameis Winston' salary cap hit will jump from $8 million to $20.9 million in 2019. [Associated Press]
Jameis Winston' salary cap hit will jump from $8 million to $20.9 million in 2019. [Associated Press]
Published January 5
Updated January 6

Think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are just a coach away?

The brass over at One Buc Place thinks so. It’d be nice if you played along, too.

Get sucked into the coaching rumor mill. Pour over resumes. Refresh the @Buccaneers Twitter feed every 30 seconds to see whether the team just completed an interview with a candidate whose name is not Bruce Arians.

If you really want to know what’s in store for next season, though, you should stop.

Follow the money instead.

The 2019 Bucs already are at a disadvantage — before they hire a coach, before they shop Gerald McCoy, before they draft an offensive tackle.

This is not a team that is on the cusp of championship contention. This is a team that will need a bunch of best-case scenarios to fall into place — and maybe a little bit of luck — to win two or three more games next season. Trust the process? Around here, there is no process to trust.

Scan this season’s playoff field. Chiefs. Patriots. Texans. Ravens. Chargers. Colts. Saints. Rams. Bears. Cowboys. Seahawks. Eagles.

Notice what’s missing? (Besides the Bucs.)

Where are all the expensive quarterbacks? Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers are nowhere to be found.

Sure, Andrew Luck and his $24.4 million salary cap hit are there. So is Drew Brees ($24 million), Russell Wilson ($23.8 million), Tom Brady ($22 million) and Philip Rivers ($22 million).

What about the quarterbacks for the other seven teams? Everyone else’s cap hit ranks 20th or lower. Dak Prescott’s cap hit this season is $725,848. That’s 55th among all quarterbacks. Among all players? It’s not even in the top 1,000.

2018 playoff quarterbacks and their cap hits
Quarterback Team 2018 cap hit Rank among QBs
Andrew Luck Colts $24.4 million 5
Drew Brees Saints $24.0 million 6
Russell Wilson Seahawks $23.8 million 8
Tom Brady Patriots $22.0 million 11
Philip Rivers Chargers $22.0 million 11
Nick Foles Eagles $13.6 million 20
Jared Goff Rams $7.6 million 26
Mitchell Trubisky Bears $6.6 million 28
Patrick Mahomes Chiefs $3.7 million 34
Deshaun Watson Texans $3.1 million 38
Lamar Jackson Ravens $1.7 million 45
Dak Prescott Cowboys $728,000 55

Which brings us to Jameis Winston, the 2019 Bucs and the storm on the horizon. Jameis will be here next year. Those are general manager Jason Licht’s exact words.

Winston is entering the final season of the contract he signed as a rookie, so his cap hit will jump from $8 million to $20.9 million. Relative to other quarterbacks, that’s not expensive. In fact, it’s reasonable. It ranks 18th. Though Winston has not played like a top tier quarterback, he ranks safely among the top half. Therefore, he is providing surplus value.

So, fire the cannons, right?

Well, no.

The “cap” part of “salary cap” still applies. A $13 million raise for a player has to come from somewhere. Spending more on your quarterback might mean spending less on the receivers he’s throwing to. Or it might mean spending less on the defensive line that’s responsible for handing the quarterback good field position. Look at what happened to the Ravens after they signed Joe Flacco to a contract extension in 2013. They’ve won one playoff game since.

It’s possible to do both — to pay a quarterback market value and build a contender. This season’s Colts, Saints and Seahawks are proof of that. But it’s harder to do, especially over multiple seasons, once a team gives an extension to its quarterback. It has to make choices it wouldn’t otherwise make, like releasing or trading productive players. To replace those players, the team has to stack consecutive successful drafts and find free-agent bargains. The task becomes even more difficult if, as was the case for the Ravens, the quarterback’s performance doesn’t live up to the new contract terms.

The more likely scenario for the Bucs? It’s too late. Their optimal window for contention already has closed.

That has little to do with Winston’s talent or performance and more to do with timing. Tampa Bay never capitalized on the flexibility that his contract once afforded the organization.

Because the Bucs introduced the “Raise the red flags” slogan this season, you can’t say they didn’t warn you. There are a couple of numbers that should concern you, and they’re not “back-to-back 5-11 seasons.”

The numbers that should concern you are 10.9 percent and 10.4 percent. Those are Winston’s and Mike Evans’ cap hits, assuming that the team’s maximum cap is somewhere around $191 million. That’s two players eating up a fifth of the cap.

Add Jason Pierre-Paul, Gerald McCoy, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Lavonte David and that’s five players who are set to eat up another 30 percent. That means, barring contract restructurings, at least one of the players from this group will be on the move, either via release or trade. It’s not going to be the recently extended Ali Marpet or the recently signed Ryan Jensen, and it’s unlikely Tampa Bay would move Pierre-Paul after trading a third-round draft pick for him in March.

That also means Le’Veon Bell-to-the-Bucs isn’t happening — or at least it shouldn’t. Tampa Bay would be committing cap suicide by trying to absorb another big contract. Last offseason, the running back reportedly sought a multiyear deal worth $17 million a season.

Contending teams tend to allocate their money more evenly. In this season’s playoff field, seven teams are rostering a player who is eating up 10 percent of their cap. No one is rostering two. Most have just three or four players who are eating up more than 5 percent.

This also was the case in 2017. The Super Bowl champion Eagles didn’t allocate 10 percent of their cap to any one player. The player who received the biggest slice? Receiver Alshon Jeffery, at 6.1 percent.

The last playoff team to allocate a fifth of their salary cap to two players was the 2016 Falcons, who blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. After Matt Ryan (15 percent) and Julio Jones (10 percent), no other contract ate up more than 4 percent of the team’s cap.

Fans and analysts marvel at the Patriots’ 18-season run of success. They attribute it to some aura or mystique. There’s no such thing. Call Bill Belichick a genius. Call Tom Brady the GOAT. Really, they’re just a couple of dudes who recognize a simple fact:

Good teams aren’t built around star players. Good teams are built on depth.

There are exceptions, of course. The Patriots, though, have recognized that football is a game of attrition and have managed their cap accordingly. Bad things are going to happen during a season, and those bad things, whether they’re injuries, blown calls or bad bounces, often are unpredictable. You can’t avoid them. So rather than overpay their best player, they invest in their 10th best player, their 20th, their 30th and so on.

The Patriots win not because of complex defensive schemes or majestic touchdown passes, though those things certainly help, as does Brady’s willingness to accept below-market contracts. They win because the 53rd player on their roster is better than the 53rd player on your roster.

The direction the Bucs are headed in 2019, there won’t be much money left to add depth. They will go as far as their stars will take them. A new coach won’t make much of a difference. Because he can’t.

Unless he can lace up a pair of cleats and play a few snaps at defensive tackle.

And offensive tackle.

And cornerback.

And running back.

• • •

Colts left guard Quenton Nelson was named to the All-Pro first team, the Associated Press announced Friday. [Associated Press]
Colts left guard Quenton Nelson was named to the All-Pro first team, the Associated Press announced Friday. [Associated Press]

What to watch for, wild-card weekend edition: Could-have-been (and could be) Bucs

Quenton Nelson: Winston’s last-second touchdown pass to Chris Godwin in the Bucs’ 2017 finale helped them beat the Saints, but it cost them the fix for their ramshackle offensive line. Instead of landing a top-five selection in the 2018 draft, they had to settle for the No. 7 pick. The Colts, via a trade with the Jets, nabbed Nelson at No. 6. The former Notre Dame guard, a candidate for rookie offensive player of the year, has allowed just 10 pressures in Indianapolis’ past 11 games. Captain Andrew Luck’s mother is most grateful.

Kris Richard: You won’t see much of Richard on Saturday, but his name most certainly will come up during a break in the action between the Seahawks and Cowboys. Richard, Dallas’ defensive backs coach, has been lining up interviews for head coach jobs and has been connected to the Dolphins, Jets and, of course, the Bucs. Though the Cowboys defense has improved significantly over last season, it has struggled at times to contain opponents’ pass attacks (17 explosive pass plays allowed over its past three games, tied for fifth most). The Seahawks’ Russell Wilson poses an especially unique challenge. He not only excels outside the pocket (108.7 rating) but also on deep passes (128.1 rating). Of Wilson’s 35 touchdown passes this season, 15 have come on passes that have traveled at least 20 yards.

Derwin James: The Florida State safety was available when the Bucs traded down from No. 7 to No. 12 in the 2018 draft, but they selected defensive tackle Vita Vea instead. After a slow start, Vea showed flashes of dominance but probably not enough to stop some fans from wondering, “What if?” The Chargers chose James at No. 17 and have taken full advantage of his versatility. He plays center field. He roams near the line of scrimmage. He’s an outside linebacker. He’s an inside linebacker. He manages the salary cap. He mows the grass. Basically, he’s the type of player the thrifty Rays would love. Quarterbacks have a 71.8 rating when throwing into his coverage, and he has allowed 7.1 yards per catch, the fourth-lowest average among safeties who have played 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Nick Foles: The Eagles quarterback, who considered signing with the Bucs before the 2017 season, is doing it again. Three weeks ago, Philadelphia was on the verge of elimination. Then came news that Carson Wentz suffered another potentially season-ending injury. Since coming to the rescue, St. Nick leads the NFL in completion percentage (77 percent) and passing yards (962) and is second in yards per attempt (8.5). Even during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, though, he never faced a defense as good as the one he’ll face Sunday. The Bears unit is the best the NFL has seen since the 2015 Broncos.

Contract figures are from Spotrac and Over the Cap. Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.

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