The dust has settled after a frenetic first few days of NFL free agency, and while Jadeveon Clowney is the biggest name left unsigned, there is another, equally intriguing player who's looking for his next home:
Jameis Winston, the man who had 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions last season with Tampa Bay.
New England, which signed Brian Hoyer, is apparently off the table for Winston. Same with the Chargers, who don’t seem interested, and Jacksonville seems committed to Gardner Minshew. There's not much of a market for Winston because he also threw an NFL-record seven pick-sixes in 2019.
Winston clearly isn't drawing interest as a starter, so I have the perfect destination for him: Pittsburgh. Don't laugh; he's a great fit for the Steelers.
With Ben Roethlisberger presumably healed from elbow surgery, Winston wouldn’t be the man in Pittsburgh. He’d get to experience the position from a different perspective, as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart. There would be less pressure for him in Pittsburgh, and he would probably be affordable.
Winston reminds me a bit of Ryan Tannehill, whose time in Miami ended with a trade to the Titans, and he cost Tennessee just $2 million last season. Through five seasons and 77 starts, the two have comparable numbers. Tannehill had 106 touchdowns and 66 interceptions, with a passer rating of 86.5. Winston had a passer rating of 86.9, 121 touchdowns and 88 interceptions, over a third of which came in 2019. If Tannehill was relatively inexpensive, Winston should be as well.
The Steelers are clearly in win-now mode, with a defense that has star power in T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and a deep cast of contributors that also includes Devin Bush, Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree. What they don’t have is a dynamic backup quarterback. Mason Rudolph was a disaster last year, and when he showed a faint flicker of promise against the Jets, he suffered a season-ending injury. Prior to that, he was so bad that he was rightfully benched in favor of undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges. As things stand, if Roethlisberger goes down, the Steelers’ chances go with him.
Winston would change that. Even with his turnover issues, he’s a major upgrade over Rudolph, who was so inept that he failed even as a game manager. Advanced statistical analysis of Winston arrives at one conclusion: He makes fantastic and terrible throws in almost equal measure. He was Pro Football Focus’ 26th-ranked quarterback in 2019, with a 68.4 overall grade. There is tangible evidence that as bad as his 30 interceptions were, things could have been much worse.
Still, he’s aggressive and likes to go deep, and when he gets hot, he can scorch quality teams. The Rams were 3-0 and had allowed only one of their first three opponents to top 300 total yards when Winston torched them in Los Angeles for 385 yards passing and four touchdowns.
If anything, Winston resembles an extreme version of an early-career Roethlisberger. The two are about the same size, and Roethlisberger had the same gunslinger mentality, one that remains to this day. There would be little to no stylistic adjustment for the Steelers if Winston had to step in as the starter.
That was not the case when Rudolph and Hodges took over last season. Each man’s limitations meant that the Steelers had to win with smoke and mirrors, and eventually it caught up to them. Their sad play cost the Steelers a playoff berth.
It's safe to say Winston will never throw 30 interceptions in a season again. His 2019 interception rate of 4.8 was the highest of his career by over a full percentage point. It was an outlier season.
A change of scenery might help him too. Winston would have the chance to play for Mike Tomlin, one of the most well-respected and well-liked coaches in the league. Pittsburgh’s structure could do wonders for him, and since he would be coming in as an obvious insurance policy, it stands to reason that Roethlisberger might be more welcoming to him than he was to the newly drafted Rudolph two seasons ago. And if Winston is pressed into duty and performs well, Pittsburgh may end up lucking into its quarterback of the future.
It might seem absurd at first, but the longer you think about it, the more it makes sense. Jameis Winston and the Steelers are perfect for each other.
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