So I guess it is now decision time in Tampa Bay. When Jameis Winston began his career things looked great for him and the Buccaneers organization. He finished his rookie year with over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. His sophomore campaign was similar and the team was in the playoff hunt finishing with a 9-7 record. The last two years have been a disaster. In 2017 Winston struggled with an injury, tried to play through it and finished the year with a more pedestrian 3,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. He didn’t mesh at all with hired gun DeSean Jackson and the Bucs finished with a disappointing three wins. He missed three games this year due to suspension and was benched mid game after his fourth interception. Now the Bucs have a big decision to make.
Tampa has struggled for some time now. Their last playoff appearance was in 2007. The team has finished last in their division in seven of the last nine seasons and five of those years have seen the team win five or less games. The team has been aggressive in trying to improve the team via trades and free agent signings for years but it hasn’t paid off like they would have hoped.
From a contractual standpoint this is expected to be a winning team. They have over $759 million in contracts on the team, 5th highest in the NFL. Their average player contract ranks 8th in the NFL. They have the 6th highest valued roster in the league with about $196 million per year in player contracts. They have the 4th most players in the NFL earning over $10 million a season. This is a team that is built to and expected to win now.
Despite today’s turn of events the season is not lost. The team is 3-4 which means they are still in contention. The defense is awful but the offense is capable of putting up close to 30 any given Sunday. The question is do they do it with Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick. With a critical game against Carolina next week they cant waste time evaluating options since they have to win next week. A loss next week and the year may be over.
The decision likely impacts what path the team takes in the future. Winston is at the point in his NFL career where the team has to begin to make a decision about his future. Winston’s salary has averaged $6.3 million per year over the first four seasons of his career, essentially the salary of a high level backup QB. These are the years where teams hope to reap the rewards of a cheap player but for the Bucs that benefit period is gone. Winston’s salary balloons to $20.922 million in 2019 and the financial benefit of the rookie salary is finished. Now the Bucs will be on equal footing with the rest of the NFL.
If they move to Fitzpatrick that is likely admitting that their run with Winston is finished. Given the type of money QBs command that could cause a fractured relationship that can’t be repaired. If Fitzpatrick bombs, as he has done in pretty much every NFL stop, that really puts Tampa back at square one. They didn’t make the playoffs this season and they will need to find a new QB. At least if they bust with Winston they can probably still try to get something out of him next year.
The Buccaneers may have also already decided that the long term investment in Winston isn’t worth it. The ceiling isn’t high enough and the floor is pretty low at times. The going rate for a bad QB that you anoint as a starter is around $18 million (Blake Bortles). Winston should be far more expensive probably in the realm of $25 million. I’m not sure how you can justify extending a player who you have benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick at any point in his career for that kind of coin.
If that is the case then you start to need to evaluate how to best protect him as a tradeable asset. Though there are going to be people calling for his release next year and benching him to prevent his salary from being guaranteed (if Winston suffers a serious enough injury his $20.9 million 2019 salary is guaranteed) players like Winston carry too much value to cut. Benching him does ensure he would be healthy for a trade and also prevents him from further meltdowns. Right now there are probably more than a few teams that will view Winston’s benching as just bad circumstance and still a viable starter that they are willing to sign to a 3 or 4 year deal. The job for the Bucs is to maximize that market as best as they can.
What you do not want to do is to get into a Kirk Cousins situation in Washington where you pay him a bunch of money even though you didn’t see him as a long term future and then get little in return when he finally walks away. Likewise you don’t want a Blake Bortles situation where you keep him just because you don’t think there is a better option and end up looking to bench him a few weeks into the season while he is eating up a good chunk of your budget.
It’s an interesting and important decision for the Bucs. They probably don’t have a lot of time to waste making it and the decision will say a lot about where they are headed in the future with Winston as the face of the organization.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.