2018 NFL Preview: Is Jameis Winston worth the trouble for the Buccaneers anymore?

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Let’s ignore the mess Jameis Winston has created with his off-field issues for a moment and just focus on him as a player.

We know about the trust problems. We’ll hear a lot about how his contract issue looms over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There will be conversation about the NFL’s reported decision to give Winston a three-game suspension instead of six or zero, even though he wasn’t charged for allegedly groping an Uber driver.

All those topics are important, and have been discussed at length. What almost gets lost is there’s just as much uncertainty about Winston as a player.

Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in 2015. He was a fantastic prospect coming out of Florida State, good enough that the Buccaneers weren’t turned away by off-field red flags to pick him. Strictly football-wise, it was the sound move at the time.

And Winston has been … underwhelming. Decent. Just OK.

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Winston hasn’t been bad; if he was horrible it would make the Buccaneers’ decisions about his future much easier. But his great moments have been sporadic and his progression has been very slow. His interceptions per season, beginning his rookie year: 15, 18, 11. His touchdowns per season: 22, 28, 19 (he missed three games last year). Yards per game: 252.6, 255.6, 269.5. You get the picture. Almost any statistic you can look up, Winston has had minor improvement since his rookie season. He’s better than he was as a rookie, but not by much.

He has worked on his game, but he’s still the same reckless quarterback people thought he’d be coming into the NFL. Old habits die hard, and Winston still forces too many passes. No matter how much his coaches try, they can’t get him to eliminate the brutal mistakes. His decision making on the field is just as questionable as it is off the field. If you’re going to play that dangerous style then your positive production better remind people of Brett Favre, and Winston is nowhere near that.

The Buccaneers haven’t had any success with him either. They’re 18-27 in Winston’s starts. There hasn’t been a playoff berth. A quarterback’s “record” is a terrible stat because football is a team game. But it’s always going to come back to the quarterback.

“No one is going to blame Mike Evans for why we haven’t made the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

When Winston didn’t progress much last season, there was a reason behind it. He played through an injured AC joint in his throwing shoulder. The injury first happened in Week 3, according to ESPN’s Jenna Laine, though nobody knew about the injury until he was knocked out of a Week 6 game against the Arizona Cardinals. Winston showed up on the injury report for the first time in Week 7, but his velocity and accuracy were affected before and after that.

“We feel like we are very, very close,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “I know the season didn’t show that with five wins. But we had a quarterback who was in a lot of pain on a throwing shoulder. As we sit back and look at it now, a lot of throws he couldn’t make affected our offense. Jameis is a super-competitive guy.”

Late in the season, Winston looked healthy and played well. From Weeks 13-16, Winston had 1,221 yards, eight touchdowns and a 114.5 rating. The Buccaneers went 0-4 in those games (insert another rant about people citing a quarterback’s “record”), but there was some hope for the future after that stretch. Then Tampa Bay finished the season by beating the New Orleans Saints on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Chris Godwin with nine seconds left. If you wanted to talk yourself into the best-case scenario, that a healthy Winston showed he had turned the corner, it wasn’t crazy.

And now we’re back to the off-field stuff.

The Buccaneers can’t trust Winston anymore. Even before the suspension, teammates and coaches seemed to be tiring of his act and were imploring him to tone it down (the “eating a W” pregame speech is one of the most awkward things I’ve seen). His history includes some awful accusations against him. Yet, it’s unclear what the Buccaneers will do about him going forward because Licht, coach Dirk Koetter and practically everyone else with the team are unlikely to survive a reset. It seems hard to believe the Buccaneers would dump a 24-year-old quarterback with a respectable 87.2 career rating (Alex Smith is 87.4 and Andrew Luck is 87.3, for comparison) because — cynicism alert — NFL teams never ditch average young quarterbacks and most teams are fine ignoring off-field problems (the Buccaneers did three years ago with Winston, after all). What an NFL team should do and what it will do are often two different answers.

This is a wholly uncomfortable season for the Buccaneers. They struggled last season but still retained Koetter, and he’s unlikely to survive another bad season. Licht has gotten four years as GM, he’s 20 games under .500 and his crucial decision on drafting Winston looks worse by the day. The Buccaneers are already starting in a bad spot this season because their quarterback got himself suspended. Then Winston will return, after three weeks to let rust accumulate, and then will have 13 games to basically decide his NFL future.

It’s not like the Buccaneers don’t have talent. They overhauled their defensive line, young pass-game targets like O.J. Howard and Godwin look like keepers, Mike Evans is a very good No. 1 receiver and rookie Ronald Jones could boost the run game. But the Winston issue is a cloud over the organization. When he’s serving the suspension, the focus will still be on him. When he returns, it will be with a ton of questions about his future.

We don’t even know what we’re getting out of him in the present, either.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended for the first three games of this season. (AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended for the first three games of this season. (AP)

After recording just 22 sacks last season, the Buccaneers traded with the New York Giants for Jason Pierre-Paul, signed former Philadelphia Eagles end Vinny Curry and drafted huge defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round. For depth, they signed tackles Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen. That should fix the line. The Buccaneers hope running back Ronald Jones upgrades that position, and perhaps second-round cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis can help if needed. It was another splashy offseason for the Buccaneers, and I like what they did.

GRADE: A-

There’s a lot of talent in the offense, even when Ryan Fitzpatrick runs it during Jameis Winston’s suspension. Mike Evans is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Chris Godwin, a third-round pick last year, looks like a great breakout candidate. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are as good as any tight-end duo in the NFL. Ronald Jones was an early second-round pick for a reason. DeSean Jackson had no chemistry with Winston last season, but we know he’s one of the best deep threats in league history. Tampa Bay’s offense might be really good.

Tampa Bay’s secondary wasn’t helped by the lack of a pass rush last season, but it had its own struggles. Vernon Hargreaves, a 2016 first-round pick, has been a disappointment. Brent Grimes is entering his age-35 season, and that’s long past the expiration date for most cornerbacks. Second-year safety Justin Evans has promise, but the other safety spot is likely to be manned again by either Chris Conte or Keith Tandy, who are unimpressive. The Buccaneers passed on safety Derwin James to draft defensive tackle Vita Vea, which they might regret down the line. The Buccaneers gave up the most passing yards in the NFL last season, and the secondary will be mostly the same this year.

At least the Buccaneers have a backup they can depend on. Ryan Fitzpatrick has to be considered one of the league’s best backup QBs, even at 35 years old. Tampa Bay won two of Fitzpatrick’s three starts last season when Jameis Winston was injured. In six games, Fitzpatrick completed 96 of 163 passes for 1,103 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He was a reasonable replacement, and he has been solid through a long career. The Buccaneers would rather have Winston for the entire season, but they should feel they can win with Fitzpatrick (though, we’ll get to the schedule in a moment).

Gerald McCoy doesn’t get as much attention as some other defensive stars, but he has been an amazing player. McCoy is what all NFL teams want, a defensive tackle who can get a pass rush up the middle. And unlike last season, McCoy will have some help around him. The Buccaneers added multiple defensive linemen, which should take some pressure off McCoy. He had six sacks, his lowest total since 2012, but it’s hard when opponents know they don’t need to worry about any other lineman. With actual NFL talent up and down the line this season, McCoy should have a big season.

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “Fantasy owners continue to wait for a feature back to emerge in Tampa Bay, and the latest hope is rookie Ronald Jones, whom the Bucs drafted with No. 38 overall pick. Jones was a track athlete at USC and gives the team a much-needed home run threat they’ve sorely missed, and there’s upside in this offense given the young talent at the skill positions (at least once Jameis Winston returns). But Jones’ workout metrics were average, and he needs major improvement in the passing game, both as a receiver and in protection. It’s certainly possible he ends up sharing backfield duties with Peyton Barber and Charles Sims, limiting his fantasy upside, so Jones’ current average-draft position (RB25) seems just about right.”

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The Buccaneers gave up 6 yards per play last season. No other team allowed more than 5.7. Not only were the Bucs last in that category, they were last by a mile. Tampa Bay wasn’t good against the run or pass; the Bucs’ defense ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. I like what the Buccaneers did to fix the defense this offseason, but they had a long way to go just to reach mediocrity. And remember, Tampa Bay plays in the same division as Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. That’s scary.

WHAT WILL BE THE BUCCANEERS’ RECORD AFTER JAMEIS WINSTON’S SUSPENSION? 

Winston’s three-game suspension couldn’t have come at a worse time in the schedule.

Here are the Buccaneers’ first three opponents: at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh. No big deal, just the defending NFC South champs, the Super Bowl champs and the AFC North champs, all of whom were at least in the divisional round of the playoffs last season.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is capable, but that’s a tough road for any quarterback. Let’s assume the Buccaneers will be significant underdogs in all three games. That doesn’t mean they can’t win one or two games (3-0 is unlikely but would be interesting from a “Does Winston get his job back?” aspect). But an 0-3 start is probably the most likely outcome. If that happens, the Buccaneers will be in a massive hole before Winston even makes his 2018 debut. You’d have to wonder about Dirk Koetter’s job at that point, too.

It’s possible, given that the Buccaneers get the Eagles and Steelers at home, that 2-1 with Ryan Fitzpatrick is on the table. If that happens, the Buccaneers could get on a roll. The defensive improvements were significant. If the steps Jameis Winston made on the field late last season stick, and his head is on straight when he returns, the offense could be fantastic. A lot of people picked the Buccaneers for a playoff spot last season. Maybe it was just a year early. Last year Tampa Bay finished 1-4 in games decided by three points or less, and that doesn’t count a six-point overtime loss at Green Bay. They might not be too far off. A lot, however, depends on their record coming out of those first three games.

It already happened when Jameis Winston’s suspension was announced. It’s one thing to have questions about a contract extension for a quarterback who hasn’t played that well; it’s another for a quarterback with Winston’s off-field history and his so-so NFL resume. The level of uncertainty about what to do will be the only story that matters for the Buccaneers until Winston gets a contract or the team cuts ties. And yes, on the field, a team that went 5-11 last season could be just as bad or worse, especially if it starts 0-3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick.

When this team preview series started, Jameis Winston’s suspension wasn’t known. Therefore, the Bucs’ ranking is a little inflated. This team could have been fun had Winston not gotten himself in this mess. The offense has exciting pieces and the defense was going to be better. Winston’s suspension changed the entire outlook. It’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay making the playoffs, and if that’s the case you have to wonder if Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht are retained. It could also lead to the Buccaneers changing course at quarterback. Make no mistake: Winston’s poor decisions off the field will affect a lot of people, not just him.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins

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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!

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