As they look ahead to the offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face one of the most peculiar quarterback conundrums in recent memory.
Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, has completed the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The debate over whether or not the Bucs should bring him back for the 2020 season and beyond is a complicated one.
The Bucs have multiple options to retain him, but they're all expensive.
The simplest move would be placing the franchise tag on Winston, but that's likely to cost in the $27 million range just for next season. That would be around $6 million more than Winston made this season. The transition tag would be more economical, and would still allow the Bucs the opportunity to match any offer another team would make for Winston, but would provide Tampa Bay no compensation should they choose not to match the offer.
A short-term extension could make sense, with guaranteed money front-loaded over the first couple of seasons, and potentially a third-year option to give the team some flexibility. Even if Winston signed a long-term extension, Bucs general manager Jason Licht has a track record of structuring contracts in a way that doesn't hamstring the team long-term with hefty guarantees over a number of years.
But the multi-million-dollar question: Should the Bucs bring Winston back at all?
Winston's career prior to this season was quite the roller-coaster, filled with some impressive highs and some head-scratching lows. He was the first player in NFL history to start his career with back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, and he quickly stormed to the top of the team's passing records in every major category. He also turned the ball over more than any other quarterback in the league over those four seasons.
For the 2019 season, Winston took that frustrating dichotomy to a whole new level.
In Sunday's season finale, Winston became just the eighth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, finishing the year with 5,109 passing yards. His 33 touchdown passes were a career-high, and second in the NFL this season, trailing only MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson.
On the other side of the coin, Winston also became the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season with a pair of picks Sunday. He threw his 30th and final interception in devastatingly dramatic fashion, throwing a walk-off pick-six on the first play of overtime to end their season with a losing record for the eighth time in nine seasons. Winston's 30 interceptions were double-digits ahead of the next-highest number in the league this year.
Winston hasn't just thrown a ton of interceptions this year. He's also throwing them at the worst possible times, and they're leading to defensive touchdowns at a ridiculous rate. Winston threw an interception on the opening drive of six different games this season, and he's thrown seven pick-sixes.
Only Mike Evans and Chris Godwin caught more touchdown passes from Winston than opposing defenders did this season.
Think about that.
Winston had 10 multi-TD passing games this season, throwing for three or more touchdowns in five of those games. He also had nine multi-INT games, throwing three or more interceptions five times, as well.
"It just gives you ambition, a desire to continue to get better," Winston said after Sunday's loss. "I know the area that I have to fix, I know the areas that I'm highly successful in, but you've got to find a way to fix them, and find a way to eliminate them."
"If you look at the numbers, I'm balling," Winston continued. "I've got to stop giving the ball to the other team. It's not a trick question. I know if I eliminate those [interceptions], I'm going to be the best, bar none."
All of these numbers will make for some interesting negotiations between Winston's representatives and the Bucs this offseason. While Winston's camp will no doubt tout his historic accomplishments for the franchise, the Bucs can attempt to drive the price down by highlighting the negatives. Both sides may even agree that Winston is most likely to play his best football in Tampa Bay rather than elsewhere, which could lead all parties to a solution that works for both sides and ends with Winston returning to the Bucs next season.
All season, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians hasn't missed an opportunity to point out that not every interception has been Winston's fault. Eli Manning always said every interception has its own story. Arians is also well aware that his offense is complex, and requires much of its quarterback, making the first season in the scheme understandably challenging.
It's possible that Arians, who was lured out of a brief retirement to return to the sidelines for the Bucs, wouldn't want to start over next season with a brand new player under center. He could easily prefer to wait and see if Winston could make a positive jump in his second year in the offense.
And know this: Winston doesn't turn 26 years old until Jan. 6.
But it's also possible that Arians is tired of seeing Winston's costly turnovers making life more difficult on the rest of his team.
"That's just it," Arians said following Sunday's game. "There's so much good, and there's so much outright terrible. So, we've got to weigh that, and see what happens."
But to end the season with another pick-six sent Arians into the offseason with that as a lasting memory. It will factor into the equation.
"Well, it doesn't help, that's for sure," Arians said. "There were a lot of good things. Ran a great two-minute drive just before the half. There's a lot of things to evaluate, and we'll take our time and evaluate it."
Tampa Bay has a pair of Pro Bowl receivers in Evans and Godwin, and a defense that showed huge improvements throughout the season under one of the league's best coordinators in Todd Bowles. They had the NFL sack leader in Shaquil Barrett (who could also be a candidate for the franchise tag), one of the league's most promising rookies in middle linebacker Devin White, and arguably the most underrated defender in the NFL in inside linebacker Lavonte David. Jason Pierre-Paul racked up 8.5 sacks in 10 games after returning from a neck injury.
All season long, Winston's turnovers have put Tampa Bay's defense in difficult sudden-change situations, forcing them to defend short fields at a moment's notice. They've done quite well in that department, forcing plenty of field goals instead of allowing touchdowns, but it's not something Arians will want to keep asking of his young and blossoming defense.
There's a lot going for this Bucs team right now, and while Winston's positives have been a big part of their success, his constant turnovers, many at the worst possible times, have been the biggest thing keeping the team from reaching their full potential.
That said, if the Bucs let Winston walk, what would their solution be to replace him?
With Sunday's loss, the Bucs are now locked into the No. 14 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Early projections appear to have a consensus that this year's top three quarterback prospects (LSU's Joe Burrow, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon's Justin Herbert) will all be off the board in the top 10. That would leave the Bucs reaching for the fourth-best passer in the draft, or waiting until the second round to draft a more developmental prospect that might not be able to start right away.
That scenario could leave the Bucs looking for a veteran free agent as a stop-gap solution while they develop the next quarterback of the future. Will Arians have the patience to develop a young quarterback in this offense? Will any of the available free agents give the Bucs a chance to build on the positive momentum from this season and lead them to the playoffs?
As fate would have it, Winston's first career throw as a Buccaneer was a pick-six against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 of his rookie season. If he ends up playing elsewhere in 2020 and beyond, his final throw as a Buccaneer will also be a pick-six.
Winston's NFL career has been one of the most puzzling of any quarterback in NFL history. The Bucs face a difficult and complicated decision this offseason, and one that will have a seismic impact on both the present and future of their franchise.
There's no easy answer to this one, and no matter what decision the Bucs make, there will be a domino effect across the rest of the roster.
"Winston Watch" is officially on.