TAMPA — Since he walked off the field in the final game, his last pass intercepted and returned for a winning touchdown by the Falcons in overtime, Jameis Winston has worn a cast on the broken right thumb of his passing hand, undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and had LASIK surgery to repair his near-sightedness.
But nothing may compare to the hurt Winston could feel Monday now that the Bucs appear ready to move on from his as their starting quarterback after five seasons.
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL in sacks with 19.5 last season, will be designated the team’s franchise player by Monday’s deadline. Barring an unexpected agreement on a new contract, that means Winston could enter the three-day legal negotiating window at noon and would be free to reach a deal with any team.
The new league year still is set to begin at 4 p.m. Wednesday, when Winston would become an unrestricted free agent.
Coach Bruce Arians was being prescient when he said that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere,” but called Winston an “unknown quantity” despite leading the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and resetting the club mark with 33 touchdowns in 2019.
Unfortunately, his 30 interceptions and five lost fumbles that resulted in 112 points off turnovers resulted in Arians wanting to look behind what he calls Door No. 2.
The search for a new quarterback is expected to begin with 43-year-old Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl winner is a free agent and the Bucs will make a hard run at him with deep pockets: $80 million of salary-cap space and a big cache of offensive weapons.
The Chargers, Raiders and Bucs all may have an interest, but his options appeared to be narrowed a bit Sunday.
The Titans, once considered the likeliest landing spot for Brady if he left New England since his former teammate, Mike Vrabel, is the head coach, reached an agreement on a four-year $118 million contract extension for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Multiple reports Sunday said that the 49ers planned to stick with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
In fact, Pro Football Talk analyst Chris Simms said Sunday that it’s a two-team race for Brady — the Bucs and Patriots.
“From everything I’ve heard, it’s down to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots, and I don’t think that the New England Patriots are going to be willing to give Tom Brady $30 million a year type of money," Simms said. “As we know, Bill Belichick, he drives a hard bargain, he treats it like a business no matter who it is, even if it’s the GOAT."
Simms says he expects the Bucs to be willing to spend more money on Brady, who will count $13 million against the Patriots’ salary cap whether he plays there or not.
“I think ultimately he will wind up back with the New England Patriots for a very favorable contract like he’s always done so they can sign more players and maybe make one more run at this thing so Brady can get seven Super Bowl rings," Simms said.
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If the Bucs swing and miss on Brady, they are expected to quickly pivot. Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, in that order, are next on their free-agent list.
None of those talks would preclude the Bucs from continuing a dialogue with Winston, 26, the club’s all-time passing leader in yards (19,737) and touchdowns (121), and second only to Vinny Testaverde in interceptions (88).
Barrett, 27, did the unthinkable in leading the league in sacks after signing a one-year, $4 million contract after five seasons in Denver. The franchise tag for outside linebackers is about $16 million.
Surely Winston saw this coming. In a video while rehabbing his knee after surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., Winston compared his plight to that of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whom he met at the facility 14 years earlier.
“The ironic thing about this, this year, Year 5 for me going into Year 6 and it’s free agency, this same time, 14 years ago, I was here doing rehab with this guy, who was in free agency," said Winston, nodding to a jersey of Brees over his right shoulder. “So now it’s ironic that we’re working with the same team, that this is where he rejuvenated his career at this same location (Champion Sports Medicine facility).
“This is my sixth year, my free agency year, and I’m in the same place, 14 years later, so it’s amazing."
While all the other major sports leagues have suspended operations due to the coronavirus, the NFL decided to soldier on. Players voted to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement by midnight Saturday. On Sunday, the league reasoned there was no need to delay the start of the new league year since free agency does not involve crowds, deals can be done without visits and things could potentially get worse in the weeks ahead.
And like the Bucs did by discarding franchise quarterbacks Doug Williams, Steve Young, Testaverde and Trent Dilfer, the 2020 season could begin with an ending to their five-year investment in Winston.