Goodbye, Jameis Winston; hello, Teddy Bridgewater: A simple answer to the Buccaneers' QB question

NFL Buccaneers

With the start of 2020 NFL free agency approaching, the crowded quarterback carousel is spinning with plenty of conjecture on where several starters from last season are going to wind up. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers are getting most of the attention, but I’m also intrigued by what's going to happen in Tampa Bay.

If I’m Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians, I’ve seen enough of Jameis Winston, a big talent but an even bigger turnover machine. There's been speculation that Teddy Bridgewater could be Tampa Bay's prime target in free agency. That's the QB I'd want to bring in after his terrific job in relief of Drew Brees last season in New Orleans.

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Tampa Bay is coming off a 7-9 season, and if Winston had not thrown 30 interceptions and lost five fumbles, the Bucs likely would have been in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot. He threw nine more picks than the second worst in the category (Baker Mayfield) and posted the most interceptions in the league since Vinny Testaverde's 35 in 1988. Winston’s seven pick-6s set an NFL record, and his 84.3 passer rating ranked 27th among starters.

Those are some awful stats, and it’s not like 2019 was an anomaly for the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner who was drafted first overall in 2015. Winston’s career record is 28-42 with a passer rating of 86.9, and he has had only one season with fewer than 14 interceptions. His well-documented transgressions off the field go back to his college days at Florida State, and he was suspended by the NFL for three games in 2018 when the league office punished him for what they deemed inappropriate touching of a female Uber driver two years earlier.

Last impressions speak loudly in these cases, and Winston’s final two games last season left a foul odor in frustrating home defeats. He threw four interceptions against Houston and another two picks against Atlanta. (He did play through torn meniscus, which required recent surgery, and a broken thumb.)

While Licht understandably would hate to give up on the player he identified as a franchise QB, he has to realize that, with no playoff berths in his six seasons as GM, he is under pressure to quickly get the Bucs on an upswing.​ Arians, who wasn’t in Tampa when Licht picked Winston, doesn’t have the same attachment. At 67, the coach wants to do whatever it takes to win now, and a turnover-prone quarterback is not what he wants.

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Bridgewater makes sense for Tampa Bay in many ways, starting with his experience as a two-year starter in Minnesota. He has the pedigree of being a former Pro Bowler and playoff quarterback with the Vikings prior to his devastating knee injury in 2016.

Equally appealing to the Bucs and other potential suitors is Bridgewater's ability to protect the football. In his 5-0 stint as Saints starter last season, he threw only two interceptions and lost no fumbles. His work ethic is renowned from his days as a starter in Minnesota, his diligence in rehab after the injury and then as Brees’ backup. Coaches love that trait in a player.

Bridgewater's signing with Tampa Bay would mean a return to his home state since he is from Miami. The Buccaneers’ talented receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard should be attractive to him, and he would be excited to work with a coach in Arians who has helped develop the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.​

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Drafting a quarterback in the first round doesn’t seem to be an ideal option for the Buccaneers. Sitting at No. 14, they would have to pay a steep price to move into the top five or six, where they may or may not have a shot at Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. They could stay put and draft a lower-rated QB such as Jordan Love or Jacob Eason, but I doubt Arians wants to wait on a rookie quarterback’s development.

Licht and Arians need to use the upcoming draft and free agency (with their plentiful salary cap space; reportedly $80 million) to improve at offensive line and running back as support for whoever calls the signals in 2020. The O-line gave up 47 sacks last season, and the running game ranked No. 24 in the league. The Bucs also could use help in the secondary after ranking as NFL’s third worst team in pass defense last year.

What the Bucs football leade

rs should not do is talk themselves into putting the franchise tag on Winston at $27 million so they can buy another year to see if he becomes more consistent and less careless. They have an impending free agent in Shaq Barrett who led the league with 19.5 sacks — he is the guy to hit with the franchise tag so Tampa Bay can see if he can produce a repeat of his career year. And perhaps the Bucs can sign Bridgewater to a deal with a nice signing bonus that can give them a lower first-year cap number than Winston’s potential franchise tag amount.

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Along with the Bridgewater chatter, there have been Brady rumblings surrounding the Bucs. If the 42-year-old quarterback leaves the Patriots (which still would surprise me), I think he will sign with a team he thinks is closer to being a Super Bowl contender.

Yet if I were in charge in Tampa Bay, even if Brady had interest in playing for the Bucs, I would prefer Bridgewater, who is 15 years younger.

He also should be cheaper, and in his limited duty last season, he played better in New Orleans than Brady did in New England.

Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.