Buccaneers face important decision of Winston’s future
Coach Bruce Arians reiterated Monday he’ll conduct a “full evaluation” before deciding the fate of the 25-year-old quarterback, who led the NFL in passing yards while also becoming the first player in league history to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.
The Bucs went 7-9, with Winston earning nearly $21 million in the final year of the contract he signed as the No. 1 overall pick in 2015 draft. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs for the 12th straight season. Determining whether to give Winston a new deal will set the tone for a busy winter and spring.
Part of the decision will be based on the availability of other quarterbacks, either in free agency or through the draft.
“What’s behind door No. 2? That’s the first question,” Arians said. “As you evaluate for the draft, that’s another question. Are they better than what you have?”
The decision also figures to impact how much the team can spend to try to retain NFL sacks leader Shaquil Barrett and a couple other key veterans on an improving defense: Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, who are set to become free agents in March.
A contract extension for Pro Bowl receiver Chris Godwin is a possibility, too, after a breakout season in which he had 86 receptions for 1,333 yards and nine TDs in 14 games.
“He’s earned it,” Arians said, who also conceded Barrett will cash in after leading the league with 19½ sacks after signing a one-year, $4 million deal with Tampa Bay in free agency.
“Hopefully we can get a deal done. We’ve got some very important free agents that I think want to be here, and we’ll have a lot of long, hard discussions this week – (general manager) Jason (Licht), myself, the owners – and see what we can iron out because I want to keep this defense together.”
The decision on Winston would be a lot easier if not for his propensity for making costly mistakes.
Although he threw for an NFL-leading 5,109 yards and franchise-record 33 TDs this year, Winston also led the league with 30 picks and had seven of them returned for touchdowns. In all, he had 35 of Tampa Bay’s league-high 41 turnovers.
“It’s frustrating to see,” said Arians, who was lured out of retirement last winter in hopes he’d be able to help Winston cut down on his interceptions.
Arians has also worked with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer during a long coaching career.
“The growth was great,” Arians said, “but to see the regression in some areas was very frustrating.”
But as Winston noted after throwing a pick-6 on the first play of overtime to lose Sunday’s season finale against Atlanta, there’s a lot on his resume to like.
Only one quarterback, Manning (20,618), has thrown for more yards than Winston’s 19,737 through the first five seasons of a career.
Winston had 11 games with at least 300 yards passing this year, and in Weeks 14 and 15 became the first passer in league history to go over 450 yards in consecutive games.
“I know the area that I have to fix, and I know the areas that I’m highly successful at,” Winston said, adding he’s determined to eliminate mistakes and fulfill his potential as a pro.
“I’m focused on how I can get better, because I know if I eliminate those, I’m going to be the best,” Winston added. “That’s bar none. … I eliminate those, I’m going to be the best.”
Arians was asked Monday if the Bucs are good enough to win with another quarterback.
“With another quarterback? Oh yeah,” the coach said. “We can win with this one (and) we can definitely win with another one, too, because we’re going to have this defense.”
RESTORING THE D
Arians inherited one of the league’s worst defenses, and the unit wasn’t much better during a 2-6 start. The main culprit was a leaky secondary that improved dramatically under the guidance of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles as the season progressed. Four rookies and a pair of second-year pros started the season finale and were instrumental in helping the team go 5-3 down the stretch.
“The growth in the secondary gives me so much hope because our front seven was so solid all year,” Arians said. “The way we started playing defense in the middle of November gets me excited. It really wants me to keep working this week.”
Godwin and Mike Evans, who had 67 receptions for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns before missing the last three weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, both made the Pro Bowl. Breshad Perriman took advantage of increased playing time in December, finishing with three consecutive 100-yard games.
“If we can keep the receiving corps together — which is going to be hard, but we’re going to try to do everything we can … because I think it’s one of the top in the league,” Arians said. “I think Breshad proved that in the last three weeks. When you put the three of them out there, it’s pretty spectacular.”
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
Winston’s future will be the focal point this offseason. By the spring, when conditioning and OTAs begin, eliminating costly mistakes will be the underlying theme.
“We will quit beating ourselves,” Arians said, “and then we’ll be hard to beat.”