When it comes to the Buccaneers’ future, the franchise is facing a big, broad, pressing question: Will Jameis Winston be the quarterback in 2020?
But heading into this week, Bruce Arians has bigger fish to fry. The fact that the first-year head coach in Tampa is going into an October showdown that could carry implications in January says what you need to know about where he is with the first overall pick from five years ago.
Is Winston the kind of player around whom Arians wants to build? “So far, yeah,” Arians said Wednesday afternoon. “But everybody’s contract’s up next year! You can get fired at any point, any time, whether you’re a player or a coach. We’re all playing for next year. Right now, we’re playing for this week. And this week, we’re playing for first place.”
Here, I’d normally write that we should know more about Winston four days from now, but you could’ve said that about the Bucs quarterback a week ago, ahead of Tampa Bay’s game against Los Angeles. Winston passed that test with flying colors, which explains, to some degree, how Winston has to keep proving that he’s broken through before most people will believe it.
So the best way to explain where Winston is right now is how Arians described it—so far, so good.
Welcome into the second quarter of the season. We’re going to get you your players to watch for this week, and then we’ll answer all your questions, including good ones on …
• 17 or 18 games a season
• Jalen Ramsey
• Hot head-coaching candidates
• The Bills’ 2019 ceiling
• The Redskins’ future
But we’re starting in Tampa with the hope the Bucs have for Winston’s next phase as an NFL quarterback.
With regards to contracts, Winston and Marcus Mariota are in an unprecedented situation.
Before this year, no first-round quarterback drafted under the 2011 CBA had played on his fifth-year option. Four of the 13 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2011 and ’14 were extended prior to Year 5. The other eight were off the teams that drafted them by then. And last year’s class has gotten to that decision point a year ahead, with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz extended already, and Paxton Lynch no longer in Denver.
That puts the 2015 first-rounders in a place where, if you follow the actions of their teams, they hadn’t done enough to merit a new contract, but were still getting to fight to get there.
For Winston, that fight started in one specific area—turnovers. Over his first four years, he had 58 picks and lost 18 fumbles, and Arians’ staff, upon arrival, didn’t shy away from saying it had to stop. Back in June, Winston’s position coach, Clyde Christensen, put it to me like this: “You’re a veteran guy now. Dumb interceptions are not OK, bad judgment’s not OK.”
Winston has clearly gotten the message, and that’s even though it might not have looked like it at first. In the opener, he threw three picks, and two returned for touchdowns accounted for the difference in a 31-17 loss to the Niners. Which wasn’t good, of course, but also wasn’t as bad it may have looked in a box score.
“Only one of them was his fault,” Arians says now. “You drop a ball that hits us right in the hands, and then a guy runs a route too deep and doesn’t turn around on the other one. He threw one interception, for me, in the game. I know what the statistics say, but that’s not what truly happened. He didn’t play that poorly, other than the screen pass at the end of the game. He’s been playing really, really well for us every single week – winning football.”
That much, we can all see now. He outdueled Cam Newton to score a road division win four days after the Niners game and had a game against Giants won in Week 3 too—clutch strikes to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in the game’s final minute got Tampa from its own 27 to the Giants 9— before Matt Gay missed a 34-yard field goal at the gun, which gave New York the 32-31 win.
And Sunday’s 55–40 win over the Rams in Los Angeles only provided more insight into how what Arians saw in Winston from the start has come alive.
I touched base with a couple of defensive coaches who’ve faced Winston this year, and a key emerged in what the Bucs have been able to do for him through four games—they’ve created clean pockets and clean looks, which allow for his talent for throwing the ball to shine through. Arians, for his part, says emphasizing getting the ball out of Winston’s hands faster and more judiciously has been vital to making it come off that way.
Then, there’s what Winston’s done on his own. First and foremost, if Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Christensen were going to build an offense for him (“That’s our job,” Arians says, “we don’t have an offense, we have players”), then the quarterback’s end of the bargain was going to be mastering that scheme.
“The biggest thing is to learn our offense, and what we expect from a quarterback,” Arians says. “Protection-wise, knowing when you’re hot—he’s playing really, really well right now against the blitz, which is something we take pride in—protecting the football, and taking your shots. And knowing when to take your shots.”
That showed up in a couple big spots at the Coliseum on Sunday.
One that impressed the opposing Rams came on Winston’s second completion of the day. It was a second-and-8, and Wade Phillips brought six. Winston identified it, and quickly dumped the ball off to Cameron Brate, in a hole vacated by blitzing Rams linebacker Bryce Hagel, before safety John Johnson could close on him. Brate picked up 13 yards and the first down, and the Bucs scored five plays later.
Another caught Arians’s eye. With 11:48 left, the Bucs faced a second-and-5 from their own 33, and Leftwich called a designed bootleg, which called for Winston to find OJ Howard dragging across the middle. But at the snap, Winston saw Rams safety Eric Weddle crashing towards the line of scrimmage, leaving Mike Evans all alone on Marcus Peters.
“OJ was wide open,” Arians said. “But he saw the coverage, he saw Weddle come down, knew he had Mike one-on-one, and put a perfect ball out there for him.”
Sixty-seven yards later, the Bucs were up 45–27. And in both these cases, Winston recognized what the defense was doing quick enough to get himself, and the the team, out of trouble. Or, as Arians says, “get the ball out of your hands but know why it’s coming out.”
Winston didn’t throw a perfect game on Sunday. His pick-6 with 8:25 left got the Rams to within 5 points, at 45-40, and showed he’s still having his moments. But what happened next may have been even more telling. He converted a third down, the Bucs benefitted from a defensive holding call, and then, on a second-and-seven, he got the ball into a hole between Weddle and linebacker Cory Littleton.
“You throw a pick-six, and you’re at 45–40, that next drive is the biggest one of the game, and he threw a dime to Chris Godwin over the middle,” Arians said. “Right on the money. Right on time. Good read.”
And, as much as anything, it showed a young quarterback keeping his wits about him right after things came undone with a pick-6 on the road against the defending NFC champion.
“You’re playing with a five-point lead, that play doesn’t matter anymore,” Arians said. “You have to be able to move on from it. And the whole group just moved on from it, ate up four or five minutes of the clock. We’d have liked to have a touchdown, we got a field goal to get it to 8. Probably the biggest drive of the year so far.”
As a result, there’s a good chance an even bigger moment comes Sunday against the team that’s won the division the last two years. And Arians feels good about the guy he’ll have handling it for him.
It’s because of how he sees Winston’s teammates taking to him, and because of how he’s seen Winston as a grown up off the field – taking care of himself personally and professionally outside of the building—since the staff got there in January. All this, as Arians said himself, guarantees nothing going forward.
But at the very least, everyone’s in a good spot now, and that’s reflected in how Arians responded when I asked where he hope Winston is as a player in three months.
“Hopefully,” he said, “in the playoffs.”
“Well, we won’t be in the playoffs if he’s not playing good.”
Accordingly, winning Sunday would be a big step towards getting there, one the Bucs won’t be able to take if Winston isn’t the guy he has been over the season’s first month.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Buccaneers DE Shaq Barrett: A 9.0-sack quarter-season was ridiculous. The Bucs would love an encore in the Superdome.
Seahawks DE Jadeveon Clowney: He had a sack in Week 1, a pick-six last week, and here comes the kind of game Seattle for him for—with a chance to affect the NFC West race. How he and Ziggy Ansah fare against Rams tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein will be pivotal.
Cowboys WR Amari Cooper: The Dallas No. 1 slumped last week against the Saints, and has been hobbled, and that makes this week—with a likely matchup against Packers star Jaire Alexander on top—all the more interesting, especially with playoff seeding potentially on the line.
Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman: The rookie was held to two catches and nine yards against the Lions on Sunday, which slowed expectations that had run wild. The Chiefs see Hardman’s chance to get experience now as a silver lining in the Tyreek Hill injury situation. Getting to ride out that little bump would be part of it.
Browns QB Baker Mayfield: Forget the numbers. Much will be on Mayfield to escape pressure and manipulate what figures to be an often-collapsing offensive line around him. I think he’s up to the challenge. But Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and company will make him prove it.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Auburn DT Derrick Brown (at Florida, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): Brown’s return to campus for his senior year was a big surprise to NFL types—and by all accounts, he did it for all the right reasons. He wanted to get his degree, and play with his little brother (Kameron Brown is a freshman linebacker), and continue to serve on the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council, of which he’s now president. And he did it knowing he was pressing pause button on a likely eight-figure contract after an All-SEC junior year. “He’s got raw power, he’s a big, strong, athletic kid,” said one AFC exec. “And he’s good motor, he really is an effort player. He’s disruptive inside, got range outside, and can play a variety of roles. If there’s one thing to knock him on—he doesn’t have the sack numbers. But he effects the pass, he’s even rushed off the edge some. He was a Top 15 pick last year, easy.” Now at 6' 5" and 318 pounds, Brown’s off to a strong start, and registered two sacks as part of a dominating performance against Texas A&M two weeks ago. All of which is to say he’s got a great shot, health-permitting, at going in the first half of the first round in April.
Iowa DE AJ Epenesa (at Michigan, FOX, Noon ET): An outstanding athlete, Epenesa had to wait his turn in Iowa City—this is his first year as a full-time starter. Despite that, he posted 10.5 sacks last fall, and has generally been seen as a first-round talent. Through four games this year, he’s got a single sack, and so going on the road against a ranked opponent, even if that opponent is wounded, should create opportunity for the 6' 6", 280-pounder. “He’s a really good player, he’s just not exceptional,” said one NFC scout. “He’s not in the class of those guys last year like [Nick] Bosa and [Rashan] Gary. And he played good, not great against Iowa State.” My thinking in picking this week to look at Epenesa? If he’s the talent some think he is a top-half-of-the-first-round kind of guy—this is a spot where he takes over. He’ll likely be matched mostly with a good-not-great tackle, in Michigan’s Jon Runyan, and against a vulnerable offense. So it’s there for him. We’ll see if he can deliver.
From Bryan Gnieski (@gnieskib): What’s the ripple effect of a 17- or 18-game schedule? Ex: Do salaries prorate to include six or 12%? Do TV and sponsorship contracts get ripped up and rewritten? Does the retirement kitty balloon? Etc.
Bryan, it probably wouldn’t have an effect on existing player contracts. There’s language in those that lay out a player’s salary and stipulate payment in “equal weekly or bi-weekly installments over the course of the applicable regular season.” The flip side is that this could affect incentives (which would become easier to reach) or the per-game roster bonuses that have become so popular. Unless, that is, the club protected itself beforehand.
Along those lines, in language from a Chiefs contract I got ahold of, the possibility of going to an 18-game season is addressed. It read: “Player will receive $20,000 for each game he is a member of the Club’s 46-Man Active Roster during the 2019 regular season. The maximum amount Player can earn under this Paragraph 27 in the 2019 regular season is $320,000. … If, during the 2019 League Year, Club participates in more than 16 Regular Season games, then Player will receive an amount for each game he is a member of the 46-man roster equal to $320,000 divided by the number of Regular Season games in the applicable League Year. For example, if Club participates in 18 Regular Season games in the 2019 League Year, then Players will receive $17,777.78 for each 2019 Regular Season game he is a member of the Club’s 46-man Active Roster.”
But really, because the players’ collective windfall is based on a percentage, you’d have to calculate most of the uptick in the players’ take flowing down from total revenue. There’s no question that the broadcast and streaming deals would be more valuable, as would potential gambling partnerships, with a larger schedule. Which means the players’ slice would be, in essence, be cut from a bigger pie.
That, by the way, is really where the divide between the players and owners is right now. The owners want more games, and status quo on the financial agreement. The players want a financial bump and status quo on the game count.
From Yams (@yammie1965): What’s your take on the Jalen Ramsey situation in Jacksonville?
Yams, I think it’s worth paying attention to ownership in this situation. If Shad Khan isn’t sure who’ll be running his football side next year, it’d make no sense to trade Ramsey for anything but a top return. Can’t get that? Ride it out, and let the next crew make a call on the Pro Bowl corner, or allow Tom Coughlin’s crew, should they survive, to trade him come the offseason.
Also, I don’t think the Jaguars’ asking price—two first-round picks or a first-rounder, another high pick and a player—is crazy. Laremy Tunsil, Odell Beckham and Minkah Fitzpatrick were all traded this calendar year for first-round picks plus. Ramsey’s as good as each of those guys, and plays a premium position.
From Tone (@TonyFrankovic) Who's the hottest offensive coordinator to keep an eye on as jobs start opening up in the next couple weeks?
Our Conor Orr wrote a piece just last week highlighting 15 coordinators and position coaches to watch for potential openings next season.
A few who I would add: Cleveland’s Todd Monken and Indy’s Nick Sirriani were all in the mix for jobs last year, and will be again if their teams keep winning. Minnesota’s Kevin Stefanski interviewed well in Cleveland last year, but will probably need his Viking offense to play a little better. And Jacksonville’s John DeFilippo could get hot again, if his quarterback keeps performing.
From Steven K Mark (@StevenKMark): Buffalo Bills’ ceiling for this year? Which WR will show marked fantasy improvement rest of season: Beckham or Schuster?
Steven, I love the Bills’ plan. They established a foundation in 2017 in making the playoffs. They ripped the Band-Aid off in 2018, cleaned up the cap, amassed assets, and invested in young players. And just like that, they’re an early contender in 2019. There’s now young talent on the roster – I believe Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver are legit cornerstones—and a strong, deep coaching staff.
In short, they’ve methodically carried out a plan that’s also included sensible, middle-class free agent additions (Mitch Morse, Trent Murphy, John Brown, Cole Beasley), and put older tone-setters (Frank Gore, Micah Hyde) on the roster. And yet, so much of this will boil down to what Josh Allen becomes as the team’s quarterback.
I think, for right now, he keeps that ceiling at around 10 wins. Maybe he grows up faster than I think. But for this year, I think that’s where the Bills are.
As for your fantasy question, I’ll have you know I’m on a two-game losing streak. But based on who the quarterbacks are for those two teams, go with Beckham.
From Jonathan Leach (@jonny_leach): Can the @redskins do anything to salvage this season?
Jonathan, the Skins are catching the Cowboys and Eagles in the East, even if they find a way to climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. And with the assumption that this is Jay Gruden’s last year in D.C.—I’d argue Gruden’s done way more good than bad as the coach there, and more to kill the franchise’s circus elements than anyone in the Snyder Era—the rest of the year has to be about setting the table for 2020.
So first and foremost will be the development of Dwayne Haskins, and making sure that whenever he’s out there for good, the elements around him are right. Then, it’s about assessing the rest of the roster, and putting younger players like Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Montez Sweat, Terry McLaurin, and Derrius Guice in the best spot to, like Haskins, grow towards next year.
There’ll be tough calls to make. One will be whether to give Kevin O’Connell – very highly regarded in the building – a shot to audition for the HC job. More will come on the futures of players like Ryan Kerrigan, Brandon Scherff and Josh Norman. The good news is there is that handful of young guys worth keeping around.
From danieljlai (@danieljlai) What’s the feeling in the Rams building after their loss to the Bucs? Along those lines, the NFC feels wide open: which teams are you confident about and worried about, and who are your dark horses?
I’m not concerned with the Rams … yet. The defense didn’t look good, and Jared Goff was shaky. But that’s one week, and we’ve seen Sean McVay’s team show its mettle in these sorts of spots in the past.
In 2017, the Rams lost ugly to the Vikings in November, and came back to beat the Saints the next week, then rebounded from a heart-breaking loss to the Eagles with a blowout of the rival Seahawks. Last year, they lost consecutive regular season games for the first time in the McVay Era, then didn’t lose until the Super Bowl.
So things aren’t perfect? I think that staff will figure it out.
From Nick Castillo (@ballinnickcast): Could John Elway’s job be in danger? Is the leadership in Denver capable of firing him and hiring someone else?
Nick, one of the issues with hiring an icon like Elway is that if the time comes to move on, it can be really, really hard to do so. And you can add to that the fact that Elway hasn’t exactly been a failure as an executive—he’s been to the Super Bowl twice, won the AFC West five times and captured the franchise’s third world title (after quarterbacking the team to it first two) over his nine years in charge.
That said, the team is 8-24 over its last 32 games, the team’s quarterback situation has been in flux since Peyton Manning retired, and much of the hope for the future there is tied into the last two draft classes. And the best player out of those groups, Bradley Chubb, just tore his ACL.
So the Broncos’ situation is complicated, to say the least. That’s before getting to the fight over ownership being waged within the Bowlen family ranks. Which means blowing up the football side of the football could be tough right now.
From Jerry (@jerry_joslin): Chances Patriots sign Antonio Brown back after Tom Brady complains loudly enough and offense becomes more stagnant?
Nope. That bridge was napalmed with Antonio Brown’s gameday tweet on Robert Kraft.
From Joe Scalleat (@chiefinpa): Do you think the chiefs will eventually have enough of a defense to get to the Super Bowl or do you think a trade is coming deadline time to add to the chiefs defense tks big fan
Thanks, Joe. The Chiefs have taken positive steps this year—the group is more disciplined, has more playmakers, and is showing upside under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Frank Clark and Chris Jones are going to be a handful to deal with, especially as they get more experience playing together.
And yes, I think they’re open to a trade. I actually think Kansas City would be one of Ramsey’s preferred destination, and the Chiefs do have an interest. We’ll see if that adds up to anything tangible in the coming weeks.
From EJ Fentom (@EFensham): In the time of the young offensive coach phenomenon, the defensive coord are being seriously under appreciated. Saleh, Allen etc. who are the hottest right now and who’s in line for a HC gig? (understanding that some have already had a shot)
EJ, I like both those names. Dennis Allen was in an impossible situation over his two-plus years as Oakland’s head coach, and is now showing why he was considered such a bright prospect in the first place. He’s effectively ended the Saints’ long-standing problem on defense, and help to develop young stars like Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Marcus Davenport. He absolutely deserves a second shot.
As for Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, if the San Francisco keeps playing as it has, you’ll hear more about him – and it doesn’t hurt that his old right-hand-man, Jeff Hafley, has completely turned around the Ohio State defense with his system in the college ranks. Saleh’s got the presence and temperament to lead a team, and the Niners keeping up this pace will only call attention to that.
Indianapolis’ Matt Eberflus is another name to watch, Green Bay’s Mike Pettine could elicit a second chance, and New England’s Jerod Mayo is a name to watch going forward.
From Sconie Guy (@GuySconie): What is it going to take for the Pack to get AJ Green? A 2nd rounder at best.
In a word, Sconie, no. I’d be surprised, anyway. The Bengals really haven’t conducted fire sales in the past and I don’t think they will now. And I think Green Bay’s going to be fine with Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling as its two receiver.
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