It was a decidedly mixed bag for the Buccaneers and Jameis Winston on Sunday. Tampa completed a dramatic comeback at home, rallying from down two scores in the second half, to defeat the Colts. As exhilarating as that win was for the Bucs, it meant little in the big picture, as they were eliminated from the playoffs thanks to the Vikings’ win over the Lions.
2019 was billed as a make-or-break season for Winston, who will be an unrestricted free agent in a fascinating QB market in the spring. Sunday’s stats were a perfect example of the good-bad Jameis Winston: 456 yards passing and four TDs, a rushing TD, and three interceptions (including a pick-six). On Sunday, Winston became the first quarterback since Daryle Lamonica in 1969 to throw 23 touchdowns and 23 interceptions through 13 games.
Those kinds of numbers are a throwback to a more freewheeling era in quarterbacking, when QBs let it rip, instead of the more measured offensive approaches we commonly see in today’s NFL. As a result, Winston in 2019 has crazy stats. He’s second in the NFL in passing yards (4,115) and tied for second in touchdown passes (26), but he leads the NFL in interceptions by a significant margin and has fumbled 12 times, tied for third most.
That can make for entertaining football, but more often than not, it’s not a winning formula, as the Bucs (6-7) can attest. Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs in each of the five seasons since drafting Winston first overall, and his 2019 interception figure is the highest of his career. Although Tampa is among the league leaders in points, the offense isn’t efficient. Football Outsiders’ metrics say the Bucs dipped from the 12th-most efficient offense in 2018 to 22nd this season. Winston can’t be blamed for the Bucs' awful defense, though his frequent turnovers only exacerbate the problem that requires him and the rest of the offense to put up tons of points to have any chance to win most weeks.
There’s still a possibility Tampa could retain Winston for 2020 and beyond, though his lack of development in a critical year for him, along with a reputation for poor conduct dating to college, means the Bucs are most likely going another route.
The field of quarterbacks available in 2020 is potentially robust, but the number of teams actively searching for an established veteran may not be. Along with Winston, Tennessee's Marcus Mariota -- picked behind Jameis in the 2015 NFL Draft -- is set to become an unrestricted free agent. According to ESPN’s Dianna Russini, the Titans are considering offering a long-term extension to Ryan Tannehill, who has performed admirably since taking over for Mariota at midseason. Tannehill’s career inconsistency is going to give some pause, but if he manages to rally Tennessee for a playoff berth, it would be difficult to argue going any other direction with their immediate future.
And that’s just the beginning of what the field could be if teams are willing to explore veteran quarterbacks. Unless Drew Brees retires, and he’s not talking like he’s going to, Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater could be available following an impressive showing in relief this season. Andy Dalton very well could have a new home, though there’s the possibility the Bengals may keep him around to be a stopgap starter early in the 2020 season until whomever they take high in the draft is ready.
The wild card is Cam Newton, who is technically still under contract with the Panthers for 2020. Carolina has indicated its desire to deal Newton if it can get a significant package in return.
But the fate of Newton, Winston, Mariota and potentially others is somewhat dependent on some still-shifting aspects of the market. If Tua Tagovailoa enters the draft, teams will think hard about that potential investment given the injury history of the Alabama star. The Chargers' Philip Rivers is showing signs of decline, and he’s made it clear he doesn’t wish to play well into his 40s, as Brees and Tom Brady have. There’s speculation Brady could very well play out his final years with the Bolts in view of his frustrations with New England’s offense, and the sense that Rivers is getting ready to go. But that seems like a pipe dream more than anything else.
The late-season rebound by Mitch Trubisky could also complicate things. He’s had a small resurgence recently, which is likely to make Chicago think a little harder about what it will do beyond 2019. If Trubisky is considered a lost cause, the Bears would be an intriguing possibility for Newton. Beyond the Bears for Newton, there’s Denver, a team that has tried veteran QBs before, including Joe Flacco earlier this season. Rookie Drew Lock's Week 14 performance against the Texans (309 yards passing, three TDs) gives the Broncos hope they may have found their guy for the long haul. Since Flacco still has guaranteed money remaining on his deal, it’s unlikely they will bring in anyone else.
Miami and Cincinnati face rebuilds and probably will draft quarterbacks high. Washington has not seen encouraging signs from Dwayne Haskins, but it’s way too early to abandon that project. If the Lions wish to make wholesale and drastic changes, Matthew Stafford could potentially be added to the mix, and Detroit could become an enticing vacancy, But it’s doubtful, aside from Newton, that any of the veteran quarterbacks available is clearly better than Stafford.
Tampa’s placement in the middle of the first round makes things tricky if it moves on from Winston. Perhaps Tagovailoa falls far enough in the first round to be picked there. The Bucs could put together a bunch of picks for Newton, and while their offense has tons of weapons, not having draft capital to address a struggling defense is a questionable approach. Because the quality of available quarterbacks will be so high, it’s possible that tweener quarterbacks who have been just good enough could be vulnerable.
Is Jacoby Brissett safe in Indianapolis? Will the Jaguars be comfortable enough to trudge ahead with Gardner Minshew, who has shown flashes as a rookie? There aren’t precise answers for these questions now, and conditions will likely shift further by the end of December. However they shake out, 2020 has all the elements of the most dramatic quarterback shakeup in a while.