TAMPA ― What will the Bucs do with Jameis Winston?
Want the truth? They don’t know.
How could they?
“What’s door No. 2? Can we make the one (quarterback) we have better?’’ coach Bruce Arians said.
That’s where Arians has remained since the pick-six Winston threw in the overtime loss to Atlanta in the season finale.
One thing that may be telling is the Bucs want to see which quarterbacks may be available in free agency or through a trade before re-committing to Winston.
You know the list. It could include Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott and Case Keenum, among others.
At this point, the Bucs don’t appear inclined to use the franchise player tag on Winston, which would be about $27 million guaranteed for one season and could affect their ability to re-sign some of their 19 unrestricted free agents.
That’s a lot of money to spend on a sixth-year quarterback whose 30 interceptions and five lost fumbles in 2019 led to 112 points off turnovers.
The deadline for designating a franchise or transition tag to a player is 4 p.m. March 10. But March 16-18 is the legal tampering period, where teams can negotiate and come to terms with prospective free agents.
The Bucs may have a pretty good idea of the quarterback field before, but their priority remains on re-signing as many players from their defensive front seven on defense as possible, starting with linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
“You can’t get them all, but ... those young guys grew," Arians said. “We can’t let that go. I don’t care who’s my quarterback. We’ve got to have a defense.”
Right now, all the Bucs can do is consider all the scenarios they may face at the quarterback position. How it relates to their goals on defense will likely steer their decision.
Here are some options and related scenarios:
Re-sign Winston to a multi-year contract
This seems unlikely unless Winston is willing to take a below-franchise player annual salary of $27 million. It’s a hunch but the Bucs may be more willing to continue with Winston if his salary were closer to the $21 million he made in 2019. But why would Winston forgo free agency for what he would deem a below-market deal? The $30 million per year figure has been thrown around and never denied by Winston’s representatives. The Bucs won’t do that.
Apply the franchise tag to Winston
The Bucs may opt to use the franchise or transition player tag on Barrett. The franchise player tag guarantees a player a salary equal to the average of the top five highest-paid players at his position. The transition tag guarantees a salary of the top 10 highest-paid. The Bucs have both tags available to them.
It’s a firewall for the Bucs if they don’t find a better alternative at quarterback and can’t reach a more cap-friendly deal with Winston. They can bring Winston back for a second year in Arians’ system and see if he improves.
Drew Brees returns to the Saints
Brees has hinted at retirement and it’s clear if he plays a 20th season, it will only be in New Orleans. This would mean that the Saints, who have some control over quarterback Taysum Hill as a restricted free agent, would likely have to say goodbye to Bridgewater.
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At 27, Bridgewater isn’t the down-the-field playmaker Winston is. But he passed for 300 yards and four touchdowns with one interception against the Bucs in New Orleans. His 5-0 record as a starter in 2019 is impressive.
Arians has said he likes Bridgewater and believes he is an NFL starting quarterback. This would be a very good option for the Bucs if they are ready to move on from Winston. Overthecap.com has Bridgewater’s contract valuation estimated at $21 million.
Drew Brees retires
Brees has hinted that he may not return in 2020. He’s also expressed a desire to work as a broadcaster. A job on Monday Night Football or replacing Tony Romo at CBS could pay close to $10 million.
If he retires, that could remove Bridgewater as an option since he likely would want to remain in New Orleans where Sean Payton’s play-calling will continue to put him in good positions. Hill may remain for a year under this scenario as the No. 2 and still play spot duty at quarterback, running back and receiver.
Tom Brady leaves the Patriots
This is hard to imagine on many levels. But it appears Brady may at least take the free-agent tour. The Chargers and Raiders will have interest. Some, such as long-time NFL insider Peter King, believe Tampa Bay could attract Brady with offensive weapons like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The Bucs feel more like leverage for Brady. Two questions would have to be answered: What does Brady have left in the tank and is he a fit for Arians’ offense? Ownership, of course, would love this. The Bucs would have to explore it and commit to drafting a young quarterback.
If Brady were to sign with the Raiders, it would make Derek Carr available via trade.
Tom Brady remains with the Patriots
In this happens, the Chargers suddenly become a team that may be in the market for Winston. There doesn’t appear to be a ton of other markets if Winston makes it to free agency. Perhaps Carolina if the Panthers decide to move on from Cam Newton or the Dolphins if they don’t draft a quarterback in the first round, More may develop.
Sure, Rivers and the Chargers have agreed to part ways. He moved his family to the Florida panhandle. He has Hall of Fame numbers and at 38, he wants to continue playing. But Rivers isn’t very mobile and it’s uncertain the Bucs can protect him. He also threw 20 interceptions last season, tied for the second-most of his career and third in the NFL behind only Winston (30) and Baker Mayfield (21). All the same, the Bucs have to consider him while drafting a developmental quarterback.
Move up in the draft for a quarterback
Sounds like a plan, right? Except it depends on how much current and future draft capital the Bucs would have to use to get from No. 14 to at least the top three overall picks. It’s a hefty price. In 2017, the Bears swapped one spot with the 49ers, along with giving up the 67th, 111th and third-round pick in 2018 in exchange for the No. 2 overall selection they used for Mitchell Trubisky. The Bucs would have to mortgage several first-round picks and then some to take a quarterback like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. It’s more likely the Bucs select a quarterback on the second or third day of the draft.
Make a trade
Fantasy football players love this option, but it’s a lot harder to pull off in real football. The Lions have been rumored to be shopping quarterback Matthew Stafford, and with the No. 3 overall pick, they’re within striking distance of the top two passers in the draft. We mentioned Carr since Jon Gruden always has a wandering eye for quarterbacks. Newton may be on the move from Carolina. But how much of the Bucs future should they mortgage?
Keep in mind, no matter what happens, Arians and general manager Jason Licht will have to convince the Glazer family that their plan gives the Bucs the best chance to win and win soon. The Glazers, who have owned the team since 1995, are fearful that Winston ― like Doug Williams, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer ― would go somewhere else and win a Super Bowl.
It’s going to be an interesting month.