No rush on de­ci­sion on Win­ston

Orlando Sentinel - - NFL - By Thomas Bassinger

TAMPA — When asked once about Jameis Win­ston, Bruce Ari­ans was clear: “It’s his team.”

That was a year and 30 in­ter­cep­tions ago. These days, the Buc­ca­neers head coach sounds like a man who has run out of pa­tience.

“It’s a per­for­mance-based busi­ness,” he said Mon­day. “If you’re not per­form­ing, you get re­placed.”

Ari­ans has won with Pey­ton Man­ning, Ben Roeth­lis­berger, An­drew Luck and Car­son Palmer. Heck, he has even won with Kelly Hol­comb. But what about Win­ston, who is on the verge of be­com­ing a free agent? Can Ari­ans win with him?

“There’s not go­ing to be a de­ci­sion made for a while,” he said.

It’s pos­si­ble that Ari­ans is tak­ing care to not drive up Win­ston’s value. The Bucs are pro­jected to have $90 mil­lion in cap space this off­sea­son, but they’ll have to use it wisely. There’s much they want to ac­com­plish, in­clud­ing keep­ing their de­fen­sive front seven and re­ceiv­ing corps to­gether.

It’s also pos­si­ble that Ari­ans truly wants to weigh ev­ery pos­si­ble op­tion. At 67 years old, he can’t wait for the Win­ston break­out sea­son that might never come. The time is now.

So what will the Bucs do? Let’s run through their op­tions:

Nonex­clu­sive fran­chise tag

Win­ston has com­pleted the con­tract he signed as a rookie in 2015, so af­ter the Su­per Bowl, he’ll be free to sign with whomever he wants, right? Not in the NFL. The col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment be­tween the league and the play­ers as­so­ci­a­tion al­lows teams to re­tain their top play­ers even af­ter their con­tracts ex­pire. One such method is the fran­chise tag, of which there are two types: the exclusive fran­chise tag (rarely used) and the nonex­clu­sive fran­chise tag (more com­monly used). Each team can use the fran­chise tag (exclusive or nonex­clu­sive) on one player per off­sea­son.

If the Bucs were to ap­ply the nonex­clu­sive tag to Win­ston, they would be of­fer­ing him a one-year con­tract that pays him the av­er­age of the top five quar­ter­back salaries, which is pro­jected to be $26.7 mil­lion. Un­der the terms of the nonex­clu­sive tag, Win­ston would be free to ne­go­ti­ate with other teams, but if he re­ceived an of­fer, Tampa Bay would have the op­tion of match­ing it. If the Bucs de­clined, they would re­ceive two first-round draft picks from the sign­ing team.

The way Win­ston fin­ished the sea­son (six in­ter­cep­tions in the team’s fi­nal two games, both of which were losses), it’s hard to see Tampa Bay com­mit­ting sig­nif­i­cant years and dol­lars to him, so this op­tion is very much in play. The up­side is that the Bucs can re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion if an­other team wants to pur­sue Win­ston. The down­side is that if Win­ston signs the fran­chise tag ten­der, Tampa Bay will be over­pay­ing him, un­less it be­lieves he is one of the top quar­ter­backs in the league. Es­sen­tially, the Bucs would be buy­ing them­selves more time to eval­u­ate Win­ston and come to the con­clu­sion they’ve yet to re­al­ize is in­evitable.

Exclusive fran­chise tag

The terms of the exclusive tag are the same as the terms of the nonex­clu­sive tag ex­cept that the tagged player can’t ne­go­ti­ate with other teams. The team still could seek to trade the player.

This would be the route the Bucs would take if they didn’t want to risk los­ing Win­ston, even for two first-round draft picks. The exclusive tag would be a way for them to keep him off the open mar­ket so that they could ne­go­ti­ate a long-term con­tract. In other words, it’d be 2019 all over again.

Tran­si­tion tag

In­stead of the fran­chise tag, Tampa Bay could ap­ply the tran­si­tion tag, which would be less ex­pen­sive but more risky. Un­der the terms of the tran­si­tion tag, the Bucs could re­tain Win­ston on a one-year deal that pays him the av­er­age of the top 10 quar­ter­back salaries, which is pro­jected to be $24.3 mil­lion. Like the nonex­clu­sive fran­chise tag, Win­ston would be free to ne­go­ti­ate with other teams and Tampa Bay would have the right to match any of­fer. If the Bucs de­clined, how­ever, they wouldn’t re­ceive any com­pen­sa­tion.

Short-term ex­ten­sion

If the Bucs want to avoid the 2020 salary-cap hit that comes with the fran­chise and tran­si­tion tags, they’ll have to get cre­ative. One way to do that is by of­fer­ing Win­ston a short-term con­tract sim­i­lar in struc­ture to the one they gave left tackle Dono­van Smith in March.

Had Tampa Bay ap­plied the fran­chise tag to Smith, he would have re­ceived $14.1 mil­lion this sea­son. In­stead, he signed a three-year con­tract that paid him $12.5 mil­lion in 2019. His 2020 salary, how­ever, jumps to $14.5 mil­lion, all of which is guar­an­teed. He’s due to make $14.3 mil­lion in 2021, but none of that is guar­an­teed.

In Win­ston’s case, the Bucs could of­fer him a con­tract that they could spin as a three-year pact worth up to $90 mil­lion but in re­al­ity would pay him only $30 mil­lion to $35 mil­lion. Such a deal could re­duce Win­ston’s 2020 cap hit to some­thing in the range of $20 mil­lion to $25 mil­lion on the con­di­tion that the Bucs guar­an­tee a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of his 2021 salary. In the­ory, such a frame­work would give the Bucs flex­i­bil­ity to part ways with Win­ston af­ter 2020, but they’d have to ab­sorb a hefty dead-cap penalty in 2021, much like the Ravens did this sea­son for trad­ing Joe Flacco.

Win­ston, though, might pre­fer a tag. On a one-year deal, he could re­build his value in hopes of draw­ing a more lu­cra­tive of­fer next off­sea­son.

Good­bye

A sce­nario that once seemed un­likely — the Bucs de­cid­ing that they’re bet­ter off with­out Win­ston — is now a real pos­si­bil­ity. It doesn’t help Win­ston’s cause that the Ti­tans, af­ter a 2-4 start this sea­son, benched Mar­cus Mar­i­ota in fa­vor castoff Ryan Tan­nehill and ral­lied to make the play­offs.

It’s not as if Win­ston has proven that he is demon­stra­bly bet­ter than ev­ery prospec­tive free-agent quar­ter­back. Might the Bucs pre­fer Teddy Bridge­wa­ter or Philip Rivers? It’s un­likely that the Cow­boys let Dak Prescott get away, but what do the Pa­tri­ots do with Tom Brady? Cam New­ton could be avail­able, as could Alex Smith.

The Bucs can’t rule out tak­ing a quar­ter­back in the 2020 NFL draft, either. Right now, they own the 14th pick in the first round, which means they might have to trade up if there’s some­one they want. What if Alabama’s Tua Tago­v­ailoa (hip in­jury) slides? What do they think of Ore­gon’s Justin Her­bert? Wash­ing­ton’s Ja­cob Ea­son?

For the Bucs, it’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of whether to bring back Win­ston. Keep­ing him sets off a chain re­ac­tion. They have to fit not only his salary un­der the cap but also his backup’s salary. There is no way they can head into 2020 with­out a cred­i­ble No. 2. If they don’t watch what they spend at the quar­ter­back po­si­tion, they will have to make sac­ri­fices else­where.

DUANE BURLESON/AP

The Bucs must de­cide how they want to pro­ceed with Jameis Win­ston.

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