Winston had wrapped up his best preseason as an NFL quarterback, completing 73 percent of his passes with zero turnovers. He then served a three-game suspension to start the season for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, stemming from an alleged groping incident involving a female Uber driver in Arizona in 2016.
As we enter Week 10, things have fallen apart for Winston on the field. He was pulled late in the third quarter after throwing four interceptions against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 28, and the previous week, he turned the ball over three times against the Cleveland Browns. It prompted coach Dirk Koetter to turn to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led the NFL with 1,230 passing yards and 11 touchdowns the first three weeks.
The Bucs will have to spend the remainder of the season determining whether Winston is part of their future. As part of his fifth-year option, they’ll owe him $20.5 million in 2019, which is guaranteed for injury only until March 2019.
Here’s a look at pros and cons of keeping him, and other options if the Bucs wish to part ways.
Reasons to commit long-term
The Bucs have already invested a first overall draft pick and four years into teaching Winston. Hitting the reset button could set the organization back a few years, and they don’t necessarily have that leeway after bringing in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard, and signing receiver Mike Evans, tight end Cameron Brate and guard Ali Marpet to long-term extensions.
Reasons to move on
Winston was an interception machine at Florida State, and he still struggles with turnovers. That’s always been a part of his game, which is high-risk, high-reward. He has almost as many turnovers (67 — 54 interceptions and 13 fumbles) as he does touchdown passes (75). His three-game suspension this season cost the team on the field.
Possible free-agent/fill-in options
Fitzpatrick, age 36: He isn’t the long-term solution, but he knows Koetter’s offense and has had success with it. His past two deals in Tampa have been one year each. If they can get a two- or three-year deal done, he could serve as a bridge quarterback, which would allow them to groom a long-term solution over the next few years without being pigeon-holed into choosing one in this year’s weaker draft class.
Teddy Bridgewater, 25: Bridgewater, who has thrown just two regular-season passes since 2015 because of knee problems, will be a free agent at the end of this season. But considering that the Saints traded a third-round draft pick to get him and Drew Brees‘ deal expires at the end of 2019, they’ll likely try to keep him around as a possible successor. The market for him should rise significantly after a strong preseason.
Derek Carr, 27: Carr is under contract until 2023, but given how coach Jon Gruden has dismantled the Oakland Raiders and there’s been talk of a “fractured” relationship with teammates, change could do Carr some good. The real question is, is he the same quarterback after leg and back fractures? If he was traded, the Bucs would be on the hook for the remainder of his salary — just over $78.5 million.
Marcus Mariota, 25: This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Koetter has said, on the record, that he wanted Mariota over Winston in 2015.
Possible draft candidates
Justin Herbert, Oregon: The 6-foot-6, 234-pound quarterback has arguably the best combination of size, athleticism and arm talent in this draft class.
Ryan Finley, NC State: He has the arm strength to run Koetter’s vertical passing attack, and he rarely turns the ball over, throwing 51 TD passes and 20 interceptions in two-plus seasons with the Wolfpack.
Jacksonville Jaguars‘ Blake Bortles: $34.947, $26.5 million guaranteed ($17,483.5 million average per year). Here’s an example of a team not wanting to make a long-term commitment and not wanting to use the franchise tag, either.
Feedback from industry insiders
“If I’m Jason Licht, if I’m Buccaneers management, considering the entire body of work, I am seriously considering moving on. I’ve said I’d have already moved on by this point anyway, just because of the trust factor. Simple as that. I just don’t know if this guy is willing to do the kind of things necessary to be the face of the franchise. … That is a big issue now. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m moving on,’ but what is your next, best alternative? Because Ryan is not the long-term [answer].” – ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick
“He knows what he has to do, and I’m confident he’s gonna take care of it and become the leader that this team needs. … I remember Michael Vick said, ‘I made some mistakes. I want to help young people not make those same mistakes. And part of it is going in and saying, ‘Here’s what I did wrong.’ Young people understand that. So you can [be a leader in the community] if you have the right heart and you’re determined to do that.” — Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy
Wait and see. There’s a strong possibility we will see Winston play again this season. “I know I’m going to be working my tail off for when my time comes again,” he said.
It’s not ideal to have Winston play, because if he gets injured, the Bucs could owe him the $20.5 million next season. At the same time, they need to find out what they have and make a decision based on that data.