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A case for exploring Colin Kaepernick in Tampa Bay

John Romano | The Bucs still have not committed to Jameis Winston as their quarterback in 2020 so taking a flyer on the one-time 49ers star may not be a bad idea.
There was a time when Colin Kaepernick was a beloved player in San Francisco. He took the 49ers to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season and reached the NFC Championship Game the following year. If, after sitting out for three seasons, Kaepernick still has NFL-caliber skills, the Bucs should seriously consider signing him. File photo [Times files]
There was a time when Colin Kaepernick was a beloved player in San Francisco. He took the 49ers to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season and reached the NFC Championship Game the following year. If, after sitting out for three seasons, Kaepernick still has NFL-caliber skills, the Bucs should seriously consider signing him. File photo [Times files]
Published Nov. 15
Updated Nov. 15

TAMPA — From the moment the NFL announced its hasty plan for a Colin Kaepernick workout this weekend, the questions have been flying.

After all this time, why the sudden rush? Did some team request this? How many general managers will show up? Is this simply a ploy for atonement by the NFL?

Yet, around here, a more important question needs to be asked:

Can Kaepernick help the Buccaneers?

It’s an interesting and legitimate question with, at this point, no clear answer. Kaepernick has not been in an NFL uniform in nearly three years so it’s worth wondering if his skills have atrophied. That means the workout in Atlanta is no mere formality.

Michael Vick once missed two full NFL seasons and returned to play another seven years, taking the Eagles to the playoffs and posting better passing numbers than he had in the first half of his career. But Vick’s hiatus was a year shorter, and he was 29 when he returned. Kaepernick just turned 32.

For the purpose of this conversation, however, let’s assume Kaepernick’s workout goes well and scouts agree he still has NFL-caliber talent.

If that’s the case, the Bucs should at least be interested.

Forget the political argument. It may be big news at his first press conference, but would hopefully be a diminishing issue after that. Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to bring attention to social justice issues was not a crime and did not hurt a soul. Even if you vehemently disagree with his method of protest, you should at least understand that his heart was in the right place.

And if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we all need to be more tolerant of each other’s point of view.

That leaves the question of whether signing Kaepernick is a good football decision. And, if he can still play, it could be a low-risk, high-reward gamble.

Jameis Winston has seven games remaining on his contract, and we still do not know whether he will return as quarterback in 2020. Head coach Bruce Arians seems to lean a little more in that direction on a weekly basis, but it’s telling that he has not yet committed fully to the idea.

Arians’ reluctance is prudent because there are still three major issues that need to be considered with Winston.

1. How does he play the next two months? For a quarterback whose most recognizable trait is inconsistency, a shaky finish could reinforce the narrative of an unreliable quarterback.

2. How much will it cost to sign him? If the Bucs put a franchise tag on Winston, they’re looking at a one-year deal in the $22 million range. That’s a lot of money for a quarterback who currently leads the NFL in interceptions.

3. What would it mean for attendance to bring Winston back? Whether it’s unfair or not, Winston is the face of Tampa Bay’s struggles and there are thousands of empty seats to reflect that.

So, while it’s still the most likely scenario that Winston returns in 2020, it’s nowhere near a sure bet.

That means the Bucs have to consider other options for next season, and that’s where Kaepernick comes in.

The upcoming class of free-agent quarterbacks is not terribly inspiring unless you have a thing for old, mediocre, unproven quarterbacks or Teddy Bridgewater. Maybe the Panthers cut Cam Newton loose, but there are health and performance questions there, too.

And while Kaepernick’s reputation on the field took a beating in 2015-16, it would be a mistake to completely ignore San Francisco’s playoff runs in 2012 and ’13. If nothing else, Kaepernick was a passer who took care of the ball. From 2012-16, the only starting quarterbacks with a lower interception ratio were Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith.

But Arians pointed out Friday that Kaepernick is older and has had shoulder issues. He also hinted that Kaepernick needs to be in the right system to be effective, and didn’t make it sound like Tampa Bay’s game plan was a match.

Even so, there is little downside to offering Kaepernick a balloon-like contract for the rest of this season and next. If it appears Winston is returning in 2020, Kaepernick could be cut loose to find another job. If not, Kaepernick could give Tampa Bay an intriguing fallback plan.

The biggest concern is what it would do to Winston’s psyche. The Bucs went out of their way to make sure he did not have competition on the roster this year, and they have tried to deflect the blame for a lot of his recent turnovers.

But if you’re still worrying about a quarterback’s self-worth in the final weeks of his fifth season, doesn’t that say everything you need to know about his chances of succeeding in the NFL?

Of course, all of this is prefaced with the idea that Kaepernick puts on an impressive show Saturday. If age and inactivity have diminished his once-formidable skills or if another team offers him a better chance to compete as a starter, Bucs scouts can leave the workout knowing they did their due diligence.

What’s the harm in finding out?

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampbay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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