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  1. Sports

Why Bruce Arians still considers Jameis Winston ‘an unknown quantity’

The Bucs head coach on Winston’s 2019 performance: ‘It wasn’t what I was hoping to see.’
In this file photo, Bucs coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Jameis Winston walk off the field after a season-opening home loss to San Francisco. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

INDIANAPOLIS — He called Jameis Winston “an unknown quantity.” He brought up the 30 interceptions. He said the five games in December with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions wasn’t what he was looking for.

“As a head coach, you have to decide. Is there a better option?” Arians said Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine.'’

The only way to do that is to wait until March 16, when teams can start negotiations with free agents.

But the deadline to designate a franchise player is four days earlier. That would seem to indicate the Bucs won’t be applying the tag to Winston.

With all that in mind, does it really sound like Bruce Arians prefers Winston as his quarterback in 2020?

Look, this could all be a smokescreen wrapped in negotiating leverage and topped with fertilizer. It’s possible that the plan all along has been to bring Winston back.

Or we could we look at what Arians said about Gerald McCoy at the NFL scouting combine a year ago.

McCoy had three more years left on his contract and was due $13 million in 2019, none of it guaranteed. Arians sounded like he was longing to stray.

"He’s not as disruptive as he was four years ago,” Arians said of McCoy. “But he’s still pretty disruptive. He’s still a good player.”

When asked why there’s so much uncertainty about McCoy, Arians said, “Probably a better question for (general manager) Jason (Licht) because the financial is a big part of it.”

We all know what happened next. The Bucs liked what was behind Door No. 2, which turned out to be Ndamukong Suh. McCoy was released and signed a one-year deal for $8-million with Carolina.

On Tuesday, Arians offered his strongest rebuke of Winston yet.

He made it clear the priority is retaining linebacker Shaquil Barrett as a free agent over Winston during a media session with reporters who regularly cover the team.

Ask about Barrett, who is also set to be a free agent, and Arians will say definitively that “he ain’t going anywhere.” The only way to ensure that is to either reach a new deal with Barrett, the NFL sack leader with 19.5, or apply the franchise player tag to him.

“Yes. One is the sack leader. They’re hard to find and I know he wants to be in this defense,” Arians said. “The other is an unknown quantity to me still. Five thousand yards and (33) touchdowns is awesome. Thirty interceptions ... can we win with Jameis? Hell yeah. There’s no doubt.

"As a head coach you have to decide ‘is there a better option?’ ”

Winston is among a slew of starting quarterbacks who are available in free agency, a list that includes for the moment Tom Brady and Philip Rivers.

“I really don’t know who’s available,” Arians said, adding that Licht "can talk to agents now so we’ll find out hopefully in 36 or 48 hours.

“When those dominoes start falling, other guys are going to be on the market. I don’t want to drag it out very long. It’s one thing I want to get done soon.”

Are there examples of quarterbacks Arians would consider if they indeed become free agents? "Tom Brady. Philip (Rivers) is another guy. We’ll see,” Arians said.

Teddy Bridgewater is a free agent and likely on the move after Drew Brees decided to return to the Saints, who also control the rights to Taysom Hill as a restricted free agent. If Brady were to leave New England and go to Tennessee, Ryan Tannehill would be free. If he went to the Raiders, Derek Carr may become available in a trade. If the Bengals draft LSU’s Joe Burrow, Andy Dalton could be on the move.

And so on.

"Door number two, number three and number four,'' Licht called it.

One thing is clear: it’s impossible to mask the disappointment both Arians and Licht felt for not being able to fix Winston.

Yes, he got better in certain areas like throwing the deep ball.

"Obviously it didn’t go the way you want it this year,'' Licht said. "But people can improve.

"Nobody wants to say that they had six pick-sixes and seven interceptions on the first possession. Of course, that’s disappointing.'''

At this point, you expected Pinocchio from the GEICO commercial to start talking about Winston’s potential.

Arians said the Bucs looked at all of Winston’s interceptions, but this time wouldn’t say how many were the quarterback’s fault.

“Oh yeah, we got a lot of clarity,” Arians said.

Was Arians disappointed in Winston’s performance last season?

“It wasn’t what I was hoping to see," Arians said. "During the season? Oh yeah, a little bit. But in December, it wasn’t what I was hoping to see.”

Here’s what we know. Arians would like to get a quarterback somewhere in this draft, but it’s very unlikely they would use the No. 14 overall pick on one. But for the first time since taking Winston No. 1 overall, they’re heavily scouting the position.

"If it’s the right guy at the right time,'' Arians said. "I don’t think we want one that’s going to be sitting on the bench for three years. If he is, he’s got to come at the right time in the draft and I think there’s some guys like that. Big upsides.''

Whether that’s Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Washington’s Jacob Eason, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or someone else may not matter. The position needs an increase of talent behind their starter.

But first things first. Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg must meet with Winston’s agent Joel Segal and Barrett’s agent Drew Rosenhaus while in Indianapolis.

After meeting with the media Tuesday, Arians did a segment for the NFL Network.

"We know what we’re going to do, and we still just got to see who else is available because you have to do your due diligence because you don’t always know if there’s a guy on the market,'' said Arians, adding he had not spoken to Winston this offseason.

You wonder where Winston’s head is when he listens to Arians talk about him like a consolation prize.

McCoy didn’t react well to it. The quarterback has to know the entire organization is behind him. The job is too tough if it is not.

In fact, Arians’ rhetoric may sour Winston on even playing for the Bucs.

As mentioned before, if the Bucs struck a deal with Barrett, they could use the franchise player tag of $27 million on a one-year deal to prevent Winston from becoming a free agent while still lustily looking around.

Unless Winston rushed in to sign the offer sheet, the Bucs could retain his rights and rescind the tag if they get their man.

That would not be operating in good faith, but it’s within the rules.

Winston may remain with the Bucs, but everything else feels different.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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