TAMPA — When asked about Jameis Winston, Bruce Arians was clear.
“It’s his team.”
That was a year and 30 interceptions ago. These days, the Buccaneers head coach sounds like a man who has run out of patience.
“It’s a performance-based business,” he said Monday. “If you’re not performing, you get replaced.”
Arians has won with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. Heck, he has even won with Kelly Holcomb.
But what about Winston, who is on the verge of becoming a free agent? Can Arians win with him?
“There’s not going to be a decision made for a while,” he said.
It’s possible that Arians is taking care to not drive up Winston’s value. The Bucs are projected to have $90 million in cap space this offseason, but they’ll have to use it wisely. There’s much they want to accomplish, including keeping their defensive front seven and receiving corps together.
It’s also possible that Arians truly wants to weigh every possible option. At 67 years old, he can’t wait for the Winston breakout season that might never come. The time is now.
So what will the Bucs do? Let’s run through their options:
Nonexclusive franchise tag
Winston has completed the contract he signed as a rookie in 2015, so after the Super Bowl, he’ll be free to sign with whomever he wants, right? Not in the NFL. The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players association allows teams to retain their top players even after their contracts expire. One such method is the franchise tag, of which there are two types: the exclusive franchise tag (rarely used) and the nonexclusive franchise tag (more commonly used). Each team can use the franchise tag (exclusive or nonexclusive) on one player per offseason.
If the Bucs were to apply the nonexclusive tag to Winston, they would be offering him a one-year contract that pays him the average of the top five quarterback salaries, which is projected to be $26.7 million. Under the terms of the nonexclusive tag, Winston would be free to negotiate with other teams, but if he received an offer, Tampa Bay would have the option of matching it. If the Bucs declined, they would receive two first-round draft picks from the signing team.
The way Winston finished the season (six interceptions in the team’s final two games, both of which were losses), it’s hard to see Tampa Bay committing significant years and dollars to him, so this option is very much in play. The upside is that the Bucs can receive compensation if another team wants to pursue Winston. The downside is that if Winston signs the franchise tag tender, Tampa Bay will be overpaying him, unless it believes he is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Essentially, the Bucs would be buying themselves more time to evaluate Winston and come to the conclusion they’ve yet to realize is inevitable.
Exclusive franchise tag
The terms of the exclusive tag are the same as the terms of the nonexclusive tag except that the tagged player can’t negotiate with other teams. The team still could seek to trade the player.
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This would be the route the Bucs would take if they didn’t want to risk losing Winston, even for two first-round draft picks. The exclusive tag would be a way for them to keep him off the open market so that they could negotiate a long-term contract. In other words, it’d be 2019 all over again.
Instead of the franchise tag, Tampa Bay could apply the transition tag, which would be less expensive but more risky. Under the terms of the transition tag, the Bucs could retain Winston on a one-year deal that pays him the average of the top 10 quarterback salaries, which is projected to be $24.3 million. Like the nonexclusive franchise tag, Winston would be free to negotiate with other teams and Tampa Bay would have the right to match any offer. If the Bucs declined, however, they wouldn’t receive any compensation.
If the Bucs want to avoid the 2020 salary cap hit that comes with the franchise and transition tags, they’ll have to get creative. One way to do that is by offering Winston a short-term contract similar in structure to the one they gave left tackle Donovan Smith in March.
Had Tampa Bay applied the franchise tag to Smith, he would have received $14.1 million this season. Instead, he signed a three-year contract that paid him $12.5 million in 2019. His 2020 salary, however, jumps to $14.5 million, all of which is guaranteed. He’s due to make $14.3 million in 2021, but none of that is guaranteed.
In Winston’s case, the Bucs could offer him a contract that they could spin as a three-year pact worth up to $90 million but in reality would pay him only $30 million to $35 million. Such a deal could reduce Winston’s 2020 cap hit to something in the range of $20 million to $25 million on the condition that the Bucs guarantee a significant portion of his 2021 salary. In theory, such a framework would give the Bucs flexibility to part ways with Winston after 2020, but they’d have to absorb a hefty dead-cap penalty in 2021, much like the Ravens did this season for trading Joe Flacco.
Winston, though, might prefer a tag. On a one-year deal, he could rebuild his value in hopes of drawing a more lucrative offer next offseason.
A scenario that once seemed unlikely — the Bucs deciding that they’re better off without Winston — is now a real possibility. It doesn’t help Winston’s cause that the Titans, after a 2-4 start this season, benched Marcus Mariota in favor castoff Ryan Tannehill and rallied to make the playoffs.
It’s not as if Winston has proven that he is demonstrably better than every prospective free-agent quarterback. Might the Bucs prefer Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers? It’s unlikely that the Cowboys let Dak Prescott get away, but what do the Patriots do with Tom Brady? Cam Newton could be available, as could Alex Smith.
The Bucs can’t rule out taking a quarterback in the 2020 NFL draft, either. Right now, they own the 14th pick in the first round, which means they might have to trade up if there’s someone they want. What if Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (hip injury) slides? What do they think of Oregon’s Justin Herbert? Washington’s Jacob Eason?
For the Bucs, it’s not simply a matter of whether to bring back Winston. Keeping him sets off a chain reaction. They have to fit not only his salary under the cap but also his backup’s salary. There is no way they can head into 2020 without a credible No. 2. If they don’t watch what they spend at the quarterback position, they will have to make sacrifices elsewhere.