2019 NFL preview: Buccaneers still have the looming Jameis Winston conundrum

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

A year ago, the title of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ preview was: “Is Jameis Winston worth the trouble for the Buccaneers anymore?”

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The classics never die. Let’s ask the same question again, because 2018 did not provide the answer.

Winston has played four years and is still a mystery heading into the final year of his rookie deal. In 2018 Winston started with a suspension, came back, got benched, got another chance and then finished with just enough promise that cutting him loose wasn’t a realistic option.

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The best of Winston is intoxicating. He was an outstanding college player and the No. 1 overall pick. If you focused on the best of Winston on the field, the talent is obvious. Winston’s new coach Bruce Arians understands.

"I think he can win it all,” Arians told “The Rich Eisen Show” in January, via Greg Auman of The Athletic. “I mean, he has the intelligence, the toughness, and obviously the arm, ability to lead a team. We have to put the right pieces around him."

If you think Arians is just buttering up his new quarterback, how about Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe comparing Winston to future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?

"Jameis Winston is equally as talented as Ben Roethlisberger,” Sharpe said on “Undisputed.” “Bruce Arians got the best out of Big Ben. I believe he'll get the best out of Jameis."

The upside is clear. Yet, as we all know with Winston, the positives come with a healthy dose of questions.

Winston’s off-field issues, which go all the way back to a controversial past at Florida State, led to a three-game suspension last season. This being the NFL, in which teams often ignore checkered pasts if you can play, the Buccaneers probably would be fine giving Winston a nine-figure deal if he was playing at a Pro Bowl level. But it’s not just the off-field issues.

Winston makes some of the worst mistakes you’ll see from an NFL quarterback. Before the Buccaneers give Winston an extension — if they do — they’ll first want to rewatch last season’s Bengals game that got Winston benched. Every interception was a different type of mistake, and each one seemed worse than the last. It summed up Winston’s career pretty well:

• On a second-and-7 in the red zone, Winston ignored a wide-open underneath receiver, instead locking in on Mike Evans and throwing well over his head into the end zone, where safety Shawn Williams picked it off. It was a reckless decision with terrible accuracy.

• Late in the second quarter, with the Buccaneers in field-goal range, Winston was pressured, panicked and threw wildly to the middle of the field. He never saw linebacker Preston Brown underneath. Veteran quarterbacks shouldn’t make that type of undefined throw to the middle of the field, especially when a turnover takes potential points off the board.

• Winston had a wide-open Cameron Brate over the middle, but when he noticed the rush coming up the middle he shuffled his feet instead of stepping into his throw. His pass sailed a couple feet over Brate’s head and to safety Jordan Evans. A fundamental error.

• On Tampa Bay’s next series, Winston stared down Adam Humphries on a seam route and safety Jessie Bates easily broke on the pass and picked it off for a pick-six. Winston was benched.

Winston has been good, but not so great that the mistakes are worth living with. He has 58 interceptions and 38 fumbles in 56 games. Because he’s a quarterback and teams have no self-control when paying them, if Winston plays even fairly well he’ll probably get a nine-figure contract like many of his peers (even the mediocre ones), or Tampa Bay will start the franchise tag dance with him. Or perhaps Winston will go the way of Blake Bortles in his fifth season, bottom out and end up with a prove-it deal somewhere else next season. How can the Buccaneers know which way it will go with Winston? That’s why this story is still looming over everything the Buccaneers do.

That’s also why Arians is such an important hire. He’s a two-time NFL Coach of the Year and an offensive guru. He has done wonders for multiple quarterbacks. Presumably, the Buccaneers had to think that if Winston can’t thrive with Arians, it’s never going to happen and it’s time to find a new quarterback.

The Buccaneers probably won’t be good this season. The defense has a lot of holes, especially in the secondary. The running game is unsettled. The offensive and defensive lines look below average, especially with Jason Pierre-Paul’s status up in the air due to a fractured vertebra suffered in a car accident.

Maybe the Buccaneers will shock everyone and be in playoff contention. Most likely, this season will be less about wins and losses and once again trying to figure out what to do with Winston. It’s the biggest decision the franchise faces, and time is running out for the elusive answer.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is in the final year of his rookie contract. (AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is in the final year of his rookie contract. (AP)

The Buccaneers waited until May to make their biggest move. They essentially swapped out Gerald McCoy for Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle, cutting McCoy after an uncomfortable offseason and signing Suh to a one-year, $9.25 million deal. It’s hard to say that’s a huge upgrade, if it’s an upgrade at all. The Buccaneers also traded DeSean Jackson, a great deep threat who never quite clicked with Winston. The Buccaneers didn’t add much. Receiver Breshad Perriman and linebacker Deone Bucannon, a couple of former high picks, are getting fresh starts. The Buccaneers lost linebacker Kwon Alexander and receiver Adam Humphries, though both were overpaid. The draft was mostly panned by experts, though No. 5 overall pick Devin White should be good at inside linebacker. White just plays a position that has been devalued in many NFL circles.

GRADE: D

It went a little under the radar because one quarterback didn’t end up with all the yards, but the Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards last season. Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick combined for 5,125 yards. Had one of them accounted for all of those yards and Tampa Bay’s 36 passing touchdowns, more people would have noticed. Tampa Bay’s 8.6 yards per pass were second in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs, so the Bucs weren’t just compiling cheap numbers with a million attempts. The Buccaneers have an explosive passing offense. Mike Evans is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, Chris Godwin is a great breakout candidate, O.J. Howard seemed primed for a big season and Cameron Brate is an excellent No. 2 tight end. Given Bruce Arians’ offensive acumen, the Buccaneers’ lack of a run game and the possibility for many high-scoring games, Winston could make a run at 5,000 yards.

Bruce Arians talked up the progress of veteran cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis and Ryan Smith, and included rookie cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean when he said the Buccaneers had five solid cornerbacks.

“So, yeah, I think what was earmarked as a problem back in January, that’s totally fixed,” Arians said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

We’ll see. The Buccaneers were horrible defending the pass last season. They allowed a 110.9 passer rating and a 72.5 completion percentage, and both were the second-worst single-season marks in NFL history, according to The Athletic. Their four projected starters combined for one interception last season (Hargreaves was injured for all but one game, though the former first-round pick has just one interception in 26 career games).

Totally fixed? If the Buccaneers are a significant step up from historically awful, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has done a good job.

Like he did in 2017, Jameis Winston finished last season strong. Maybe the Buccaneers would have paid his $20.9 million fifth-year option salary this season regardless — teams don’t always think clearly when it comes to quarterback — but his final six games gave the Buccaneers reason to hope for better days. After Winston was reinstated as the starter, he had 1,612 yards, 11 touchdowns, just three interceptions and a 97.7 passer rating in his last six games. As stated earlier, the best of Winston can be very exciting.

While inside linebackers aren’t going the way of running backs, they aren’t valued like they were even a decade ago. The game is changing, and the emphasis is on pass rushers and cornerbacks. Still, a true three-down stud linebacker can make a big difference. The Indianapolis Colts found out last year, when second-round pick Darius Leonard had an All-Pro season. So it’s not that LSU linebacker Devin White can’t help the Buccaneers. It’s just unusual for a middle linebacker to go fifth overall, ahead of someone like Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen or disruptive defensive tackle Ed Oliver. The positional value isn’t the same. But White should be a very good player. Top-five picks need to be the types of players who teams build defenses around, and perhaps White can be that. The Buccaneers need a tone-setter on defense.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Bruce Arians doesn’t have a history of featuring tight ends, which might scare fantasy owners off O.J. Howard. But the best offensive minds generally work players to scheme — not the other way around — so we suspect Howard can have a breakout year anyway.

“Howard was in the midst of that breakout season last year before a high-ankle sprain cost him the final six games. Howard led all qualified tight ends in YPC and yards per target; take that trivia to the local bar and drink for free all night. Howard’s target upside might be modest given that he’s a quality blocker — fantasy players hate to see their tight ends bogged down in the grunt work. But we’re also talking about someone who’s managed to score 11 touchdowns on just 60 pro receptions, covering two seasons. Howard is a walking splash play.

“Exciting upside doesn’t come cheap, of course. Howard’s ADP is 51.9 in early Yahoo drafts (the fourth tight end off the board), though he’s 17 picks cheaper in the NFFC rooms. Basically he’s at the top of the second tight-end tier, if you want to semi-prioritize the position. Despite the Arians history card, we suspect Tampa’s new coach will unlock Howard in a way earlier coaches [including those at Alabama] haven’t been able to.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers]

The Buccaneers had five 20-yard runs last season. That was the worst in the league. They had zero 40-yard runs. Only three other teams didn’t have one. And Tampa Bay did nothing to improve at running back this offseason.

When Sports Illustrated ranked the NFL’s running-back situations, Tampa Bay was 31st. One could easily argue that the Dolphins, who were 32nd on that list, are better off with Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage than the Buccaneers are with Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. Barber led the Buccaneers with 871 yards and a 3.7-yard average. If Tampa Bay is going to improve a bad running game this season, it’s probably because Jones, a second-round pick last season, takes a big leap. But there was nothing in Jones’ rookie season to indicate that’s coming. Jones fell behind early and carried only 23 times for a horrible 1.9-yard average. Jones is not a great receiver either. He’ll need to take a big leap to help a Bucs running game that needs it.

WAS BRUCE ARIANS THE RIGHT HIRE?

First off, Arians is a good coach. He’s a two-time NFL Coach of the Year and what he did in his last season with the 2017 Arizona Cardinals, going 8-8 with Carson Palmer hurt for most of the season, was remarkable. We saw what happened to the Cardinals last season. Yet, it’s a bit of an odd fit for Tampa Bay.

Arians will turn 67 years old this season. He has well-documented health issues. He already retired once, only to come back for the Bucs. It’s hard to stay away. Hopefully Arians’ health issues are in the past, but even if that’s the case, how much longer will he keep coaching? It’s really rare to see someone coaching in the NFL into his 70s.

Because of the Jameis Winston question, the hire makes sense. Even if Arians gives the Buccaneers two seasons, and in those two seasons he turns Winston into a franchise quarterback, the hire is worth it (though ESPN’s Jenna Laine pointed out the hands-on mentoring of Winston seems to be offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s responsibility). It’s also realistic to believe the Buccaneers will have to start over at head coach pretty soon, no matter how good Arians is. That’s not ideal for a team that appears to be a few years away from serious contention.

We know the Buccaneers will be able to move the ball. This is a dynamic pass offense. Then perhaps the defense can improve. If Bruce Arians is right about his cornerbacks being competent, Devin White is an instant star like Darius Leonard was for the Colts and Todd Bowles’ blitzing style dramatically improves the pass rush, maybe the defense can be good enough to support the offense and the Buccaneers can be in contention. Let’s not forget that Arians is a very good coach.

While Bruce Arians is a brand-name coach, the Buccaneers offense was in good hands last season with Dirk Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Both are good offensive minds. And it didn’t matter as the Buccaneers went 5-11. It’s not like the Arizona Cardinals, where there’s a lot of offensive improvement possible with this year’s coaching change. If the defense isn’t much better, the Buccaneers probably won’t be either. Oh, and there’s that whole “Jameis Winston bottoms out and the Buccaneers have to start over as a franchise” scenario.

If it seems that 95 percent of this preview was about Jameis Winston, well, welcome to the Buccaneers’ world. If Winston proves that he can be a reliable, steady and productive quarterback, Tampa Bay will pay him and can start building a defense to go with what should be a pretty good offense. If Winston struggles, Tampa Bay will start rebuilding with a new quarterback. That’s a pretty big difference, and it really seems it could go either way. The best guess is Winston will be mostly productive with some inexplicable mistakes, and the Buccaneers will pay him because that’s what teams in the middle of the road at quarterback do. Tampa Bay won’t be very good this season. But for the health of the franchise going into the next decade, the Buccaneers need to hope that their quarterback plays well.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab


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