Jameis Winston and the Bucs might be stuck with each other

We’re in the midst of an unprecedented array of free-agent quarterback wealth this offseason, a range of potential options stretching from the immortal (Tom Brady) to the barely serviceable (names withheld to protect the incompetent). Somewhere on that spectrum lies Jameis Winston, a quarterback so maddeningly inconsistent that even after five years, his own team has no idea what to do with him. 

Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent the last half-decade locked in this awkward dance. Winston is a gothic cathedral; his ceiling stretches so far overhead it’s almost out of sight, and his floor runs so far below the surface of the earth that you could get lost down there. His talent is undeniable, but so are his mistakes. 

Check this resume from 2019: Winston threw the ball 626 times (most in the NFL, tied with Jared Goff), completing 380 passes (fifth) for 5,109 yards (first) and 33 touchdowns (second, behind Lamar Jackson). Those seem like borderline MVP numbers until you throw in Winston’s interceptions (30, nine more than second place), fumbles (12, five lost, both ranked fifth) and Tampa Bay’s never-even-in-the-hunt 7-9 record. 

Jameis Winston and Bruce Arians still aren't seeing eye to eye. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Which is the real Jameis Winston? Or are they both? If you’re Tampa Bay, can you turn away from that talent, knowing he could be around for another 15 years? Or can you afford to shackle yourself with an enormous contract that Winston doesn’t earn, torpedoing your salary cap for half a decade?

Winston will command at least $20 million a season. That’s just market value, plain and simple. The Bucs could lock him up with a franchise tag of $26.9 million — unlikely, the pundits are saying — or a transition tag of $24.4 million with the right to match any outside offer. But would there even be any outside offers? Are the Bucs just bidding against themselves?

NBC’s Peter King worked the room at the NFL combine and found no takers for Winston. That’s not surprising, given the wealth of other options. Seriously, try this little experiment. Let’s take Tom Brady off the table and consider some of the other marquee names on, or potentially on, the market. Would you rather have:

...and, in a fun coda to the 2015 draft, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota?

King believes it’s “likely” that Winston will leave the Bucs, and also likely that Winston won’t have a starting job. That stands to reason; there are many more reasonably effective quarterbacks than there are available starting positions in the NFL right now. 

About two months ago, The Athletic rounded up a series of possible destinations for Winston, ranging from possible to very unlikely. By The Athletic’s reckoning, 21 teams are set at QB, leaving 10 possible destinations. Some seem highly questionable (Saints, Patriots), some seem theoretically possible (Panthers, Bears), and some would go for Winston only if Brady’s not available (Chargers, Raiders, Titans). 

The questions around Winston have only swirled higher because of Tampa Bay’s coaching situation. The Bucs lured Bruce Arians out of retirement in part because of his rep as a QB whisperer, but Arians, so far, hasn’t been able to whisper Winston into anything resembling consistency. At the combine, Arians addressed his frustration in no uncertain terms

“I loved him and I hated him,” Arians said of Winston’s play in 2019. “More love, I mean, you throw for 30-something touchdowns and 5,100 yards, there’s a lot to love. The mistakes sometimes, you scratch your head ... He’s one of those guys that wants to go out and win the game by himself sometimes. Let the other guys help you.”

Huge upside, huge downside. Welcome to the world, and maybe the short-term future, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What would you do with Jameis Winston?

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