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Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide to Buccaneers-Bengals: The case for (and against) trading Jameis Winston

Why would Tampa Bay ever consider moving its young quarterback? It’s not as crazy an idea as it seems.
 
Jameis Winston's salary cap hit is set to increase by $13 million in 2019. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Jameis Winston's salary cap hit is set to increase by $13 million in 2019. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Oct. 27, 2018|Updated Oct. 28, 2018

The NFL trade deadline is 4 p.m. Tuesday, and much of the talk to this point has been about what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might acquire. A cornerback? A running back? A guard?

What, though, could they ship out? A quarterback? Ryan Fitzpatrick perhaps?

Or … Jameis Winston?

It’s not going to happen, but whether the Bucs should trade Winston is a question worth asking — and one the team should carefully consider, now and in the months ahead.

Before you fire up your email, hear me out (Florida State fans, you should read this paragraph twice). It’s not as crazy an idea as it might seem. 1.) I’m not arguing that Winston is a bust, that he isn’t a good quarterback or that he doesn’t have the potential to be a great quarterback. 2.) I didn’t go to the University of Florida. 3.) No, I don’t hate him.

The case for a trade has more to do with timing and, of course, money. Let’s examine both sides of the question.

What is the case for trading Winston?

The Bucs might have missed a window of opportunity that the collective bargaining agreement, approved in 2011, provided for rebuilding teams. Rookie quarterbacks used to be a curse; they provided hope, but that hope was expensive. The CBA reined in the escalating cost of their contracts and made them much more affordable. It’s no coincidence that we saw the Seahawks win the Super Bowl in 2013 (and reach it again in 2014) and the Eagles win in 2017. Both were led by quarterbacks who were playing on their rookie contracts. Yes, Tom Brady’s Patriots have played in three of the past four Super Bowls, but Brady has had a below-market contract. (In 2016, when New England last won the Super Bowl, Brady’s salary cap hit ranked 18th among quarterbacks.)

Winston’s rookie contract doesn’t expire until after the 2019 season, but his cap hit will jump from about $8 million to $21 million. That’s not an albatross, not by any stretch; it’s the going rate for veteran quarterbacks. But that’s just 2019. The Bucs and Winston could negotiate a long-term extension between now and then, and you’d figure such a deal would include annual raises.

If there were no salary cap, the Bucs simply could pay the market rate. The cap, though, makes their calculation significantly more complex. They have to calculate not only Winston’s value but also his cost. In other words, as Winston’s salary increases, the Bucs will have less money to spend elsewhere. It’s not unlike the predicament the low-budget Rays find themselves in every offseason, a predicament that leads to the trades of star players and household names.

Consider the $13 million difference between Winston’s 2018 and 2019 cap hits. Think about what you can get with that money. The cap hit for Jason Pierre-Paul next season: $14.5 million. Gerald McCoy: $13 million. Cameron Brate and Beau Allen combined: $12 million. The Bucs can find that money somewhere — DeSean Jackson ($10 million) and Brent Grimes ($8 million) likely won’t be back — but the point is that Tampa Bay soon will have to be economical at other positions, especially after the big money it already has committed to Mike Evans and Ali Marpet. The Bucs should be able to navigate those cap challenges in 2019, but it’s going to get increasingly more difficult if and when they sign Winston to an extension.

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Look at the trouble the Ravens and Seahawks have had since winning their Super Bowls and giving extensions to Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson, respectively. They locked up their quarterbacks, but they haven’t been able to invest in their supporting casts. Baltimore has skimped at receiver (goodbye, Anquan Boldin), at offensive line (goodbye, Kelechi Osemele) and defensive line (goodbye, Haloti Ngata). Seattle has skimped at running back (never replaced Marshawn Lynch), receiver (goodbye, Golden Tate) and offensive line (goodbye, Russell Okung); last offseason, it finally had to dismantle the once-vaunted “Legion of Boom” secondary.

The Eagles are next. As of now, they already are projected to be over the 2019 cap, and Carson Wentz’ rookie deal is set to expire after 2020. Tick tock.

Let’s assume the Bucs sign Winston to an extension. The question then becomes: Can they build a quality team around him? They’ve had the money to do so in recent seasons, and though they’ve tried, they haven’t yet succeeded. What, then, would lead you to think that they will when they have even less money to allocate to other positions?

The best course, for Winston and the Bucs, might be to find a trade partner that believes it’s close to contention. There are a couple of catches: 1.) Tampa Bay might believe that it’s close. Last Sunday’s narrow win over Cleveland, a team that seemed to try to lose as much as it tried to win, didn’t provide convincing evidence. 2.) A trade hinges on negotiating a satisfactory return, which the Bucs might not be able to do so soon after Winston’s suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. I doubt they could land a pair of first-round draft picks, which is what the Broncos got from the Bears for Jay Cutler in 2009. (Denver, through additional transactions, acquired Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Robert Ayers with Chicago’s picks.)

Fans would worry that Winston would go on to have a successful career and maybe even win a Super Bowl, just as Steve Young, Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer did when they left Tampa Bay. As nauseating as that would be, it’s not reason enough to not diligently explore a trade. That fear of missing out is what behavioral economists call the endowment effect, which is the theory that we tend to think that something we own is more valuable than something we don’t own. We prefer the known — the status quo — over the unknown. In Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, he wrote about a trade that the NBA’s Raptors proposed to the Rockets: a first-round pick for backup point guard Kyle Lowry. The Rockets were about the reject the offer when an executive interjected. “You know,” he said, “if we had the pick we’re thinking of trading for and they offered Lowry for it, we wouldn’t even consider it as a possibility.”

RELATED STORY: Bucs film review: On Jameis Winston, the run game and 59-yard field goals

What is the case against trading Winston?

A trade makes no logical sense, especially if you’re a Bucs employee. The people in charge are invested in Winston. The general manager drafted him. The head coach got a promotion because of his work with him. If the Bucs were to trade Winston now, it would be an admission of failure, and managers don’t like to fess up to bad decisions. They pass the blame. That’s Management 101. The only people who could make this decision are people who have job security, and the general manager and the coach don’t have it.

A trade would be an incredibly difficult sell to a disgruntled and desperate fan base. After witnessing 10 seasons without a playoff appearance and 15 without a playoff win, no one has the patience for another rebuild. Plus, the organization has gone all-in on making this plan work. They’ve invested millions upon millions of dollars not only in the roster but also in marketing. Those aren’t roots you just pull up on a whim. At the same time, you don’t want to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. “We paid a lot to make this work, so we might as well ride it out” is an irrational line of thinking.

It seems impossible to make such a transition. The organization already alienated some fans by drafting Winston despite sexual assault allegations. It alienated more fans by keeping him despite another round of sexual assault allegations before this season. If it were to trade him now, it would alienate the only fans left — the loyalists, the fans who are loyal either to Winston or to scarlet and pewter. The already-alienated fans might not come back, either. “Told you so,” they’ll say.

Then there’s the actual football part, which Winston’s actually quite good at. He’s a volatile quarterback — not just from one game to the next but from one play to the next — but overall he has shown improvement each season, by traditional and advanced metrics, and he hasn’t even turned 25 yet. In 2017, he posted career highs in yards per attempt and passer rating. He has increased his efficiency as well, climbing from 16th in Football Outsiders’ rankings as a rookie to 12th last season. One of the most promising trends is his rate of passes that have resulted in first downs. He ranked 10th in 2015, seventh in 2016 and third last season. This season, he’s on track to lead the NFL.

There’s reason to believe that the Bucs can win with Winston, but he’s not Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. That’s a ridiculously high, and probably unfair, bar anyway. Maybe he will be one day. I can’t see the future, though, and I trust that the people in the offices at One Buc Place can, at least with more clarity than a sportswriter.

What Winston needs, and arguably hasn’t had yet, is a more well-rounded team, a team in which the 53rd player on the roster is better than the 53rd player on most other teams’ rosters. As great as Brees has been — the Saints have won seven or more games in every season since he joined them in 2006 — he has needed at least a not-awful defense to carry New Orleans to the playoffs. If the Bucs have aspirations for anything more, such as a second Super Bowl championship, they likely need to complement Winston with a defense (and special teams unit) closer to average. That’s never easy to do, but it’s easier when the quarterback is less expensive. By keeping Winston, the Bucs might be limiting his — and their — ceiling.

Tampa Bay doesn’t have to make a decision before Tuesday. The Bucs could play out the season and reassess. By then, they might have more information about what kind of quarterback Winston will be. If they’re not sure before the next draft, the best thing to do might be the hardest thing to do: Move on.

RELATED STORY: Will the trade winds blow for the Bucs?

The Bucs have won four straight games in Cincinnati. [Associated Press]
The Bucs have won four straight games in Cincinnati. [Associated Press]

What to watch for: The weather

It should be a chilly and wet afternoon in Cincinnati. What will that mean for the Bucs’ and Bengals’ passing attacks? Rein in expectations for a shootout. Colder temperatures usually mean a drop in passing efficiency, particularly for visiting teams, according to an old Advanced Football Analytics study. Look for the kicking games to be a factor. For Tampa Bay, Chandler Catanzaro has made 80 percent of his field goals but has made just 1 of 3 from 40 yards and beyond. For Cincinnati, Randy Bullock also has made 80 percent of his field goals but has made 3 of 4 from 40 yards and beyond.

Bengals receiver A.J. Green has caught 40 passes this season for 611 yards and five touchdowns. [Associated Press]
Bengals receiver A.J. Green has caught 40 passes this season for 611 yards and five touchdowns. [Associated Press]

Key matchup: Bucs cornerbacks vs. Bengals receivers

Conventional wisdom says that football games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. An extension of that: A defense’s pass rush will help its defensive backs. Sunday, however, might be an occasion where the Bucs’ secondary needs to help the pass rush.

Tampa Bay likely will have trouble consistently pressuring Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who has one of the quickest releases in the NFL. He takes an average of 2.35 seconds to throw, which is the second-quickest average among quarterbacks who have dropped back to pass at least 100 times. The NFL average is 2.53 seconds; Winston’s is 2.43 seconds.

In holding the Browns to 186 passing yards, the Bucs are coming off their best defensive performance of the season. The Bengals, however, feature a much deeper receiving corps, which includes seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green and the emerging Tyler Boyd. Both are on pace to catch 90 passes and gain more than 1,000 yards.

Last Sunday aside, opposing quarterbacks have shredded Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks. By passer rating allowed, rookie Carlton Davis has been the best in a shaky group. His 95.6 rating allowed is about twice as much as the NFL’s leaders (Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals, for example, has a 39.9 rating).

RELATED STORY: Carlton Davis draws another tough assignment in A.J. Green

Prediction

L 48-17. L 22-17. L 32-18. L 43-28. L 24-21. What’s the significance of those scores? They’re the results of the past five games the Bucs have played the week after they’ve played in a game that has gone to overtime. Maybe that won’t mean anything. Maybe that’s like picking a winner based on jersey colors. The Bengals’ unis, by the way, are ugly, but the Bucs’ are uglier. The pick: Bengals 27, Bucs 24.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference and Spotrac. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.