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We’re about to discover if we’ve been too harsh on Jameis Winston

John Romano | The Bucs quarterback is now a free agent, and 31 other teams will decide whether he’s a franchise quarterback.
Five years ago, the Bucs decided to build their future around Jameis Winston. On Monday, they allowed Winston to become a free agent while they pursued other options at quarterback.
Five years ago, the Bucs decided to build their future around Jameis Winston. On Monday, they allowed Winston to become a free agent while they pursued other options at quarterback. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020
Updated Mar. 17, 2020

TAMPA — Just about 10 weeks ago, Jameis Winston told the world he was on the verge of being a great quarterback.

We’re about to find out if the world agrees.

The Buccaneers gave Winston what he craves Monday, an opportunity to prove himself. He hit free agency at midday and was available to any team willing to throw tens of millions of dollars in his direction.

Related: Signing Brady would be gutsy. Thrilling. Adventurous. And maybe crazy.

It has been talked about around here for so long, it almost seemed like a non-event when the noon deadline passed and the Bucs decided to use their franchise tag on pass rusher Shaquil Barrett.

But the truth is, this is a rare occurrence.

Good quarterbacks do not often hit the open market. Certainly not with their prime years ahead of them.

Look around the NFL. The guys running the offensive huddle are usually drafted by that team. Coaches spend their whole careers looking for the right quarterback, and they’d prefer to hold on to one too long rather than risk losing him too soon.

Typically, any quarterback in free agency has some kind of warning label attached to his equipment bag. Too old, too fragile, too mediocre, too something.

Which begs the question:

Related: Bucs make hard pitch for Tom Brady while securing their pass rush

Are the Bucs making a mistake, or is Winston overestimating his value?

By the end of the week, we should have some clarity. Either some team will see a quarterback who averaged nearly 320 yards passing per game last season and offer Winston $90 million or more for a multi-year contract, or every team will fret about the high interception rate and Winston will have to consider taking a one-year, prove-yourself contract.

Of all the free-agency story lines for quarterbacks, Winston’s is the most interesting.

We know Tom Brady is going to get big money for 2020 because Bucs coach Bruce Arians abandoned his poker face a long time ago. So if Brady doesn’t take the money to come to Tampa Bay, he should at least be able to parlay that flirtation into a final ransom from the Patriots.

Related: Not even the Bucs can avoid the playoffs under these new NFL rules

And we’re pretty certain Teddy Bridgewater will come out of this week a richer man. Maybe he doesn’t get as much as Kirk Cousins did in Minnesota in 2018 or Nick Foles in Jacksonville last season, but his short tenure in New Orleans helped rehab his reputation.

Even Philip Rivers’ future seems somewhat predictable. Like the Bucs with Brady, the Colts are convinced they are postseason contenders if they can get a veteran quarterback on a short-term deal.

Winston is the great unknown, which is fitting because that pretty much describes his five years in Tampa Bay.

Even Winston alluded to his crush-or-crash propensity the last time we saw him in a postgame setting. Following his NFL record seventh pick-six of the season in the overtime loss to Atlanta in the season finale, Winston challenged everyone to “check your sheet" in an apparent reference to his touchdown totals and passing yards.

For a player who had always walked a thin line between confidence and humility, it was the most defiant Winston had ever appeared.

“I know if I eliminate (turnovers), I’m going to be the best," Winston said. “That’s bar none."

And here’s the crazy thing:

He’s right.

He’s big and durable. He’s well-liked in the locker room, and works as hard as anyone on the roster. He can throw the deep ball. He’s adept at improvising and he’s fearless on the field. In a lot of ways, Winston is the dream quarterback.

If he eliminates the turnovers.

When you think about it, this story has come full circle. Five years ago, Winston was coming out of college and available in the NFL Draft. The Bucs grabbed him with the No. 1 pick before any other team had a chance.

On Monday, the Bucs chose to give every team a chance to sign Winston.

Do you think they will regret it?

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.