Bucs can overcome Jameis Winston suspension for playoff run, but contract issues now tricky

It is difficult to imagine a worse situation for an NFL team than gearing up for a make or break season, only to kick off the pre-training camp dead period by finding out their franchise quarterback is staring down the barrel of a three-game suspension for a violation of the personal conduct policy. Come on down, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you're the next contestant on the award-winning game show, "Your Worst Nightmare." 

In a weird way, though, the Jameis Winston suspension, which has yet to be officially announced by the NFL, might not actually damage the Buccaneers hopes of making a playoff run all that much. 

Our Sportsline projections disagree, giving the Bucs a six percent chance of making the playoffs, down from the nine percent before the suspension rumblings on Thursday. That's a substantial dip, but it's worth noting the projections are just down on Tampa in the first place, pegging them as a six-win team.

But two factors make me give this a bit of a shrug when I look at Tampa's hopes in a season that will determine the employment and contractual fates of several people within the organization. 

One, the schedule. Have you seen who the Bucs play the first three weeks of the season? It's literally the most difficult three-game stretch to open a season for a team in modern NFL history. 

The Saints, who return just about everyone and most certainly have Drew Brees under center, were a miracle play away from playing the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. The Eagles, you may have heard, are the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Steelers are going to have a dominant offense again. Put another way: the Buccaneers were not likely to be favored in these three games anyway -- they were seven-point dogs in New Orleans in Week 1 before the Jameis news to begin with -- and even with Jameis under center, it's entirely possible they were going to go 0-3 to start anyway. 

I'm higher on the Bucs season than the aforementioned Sportsline computer model, and picked them to go over their Vegas win total. But I was projecting 1-3 to begin with anyway, so I'm not sure much has changed. If anything, with Winston out, and the Bucs turning to Ryan Fitzpatrick, it might make Tampa a better value in terms of their over/under. I would expect it to dip down in the six-win range once the suspension is official (it's probably off the board until that happens). 

Fitzpatrick is the butt of plenty of jokes, but he's an above-average backup quarterback in terms of being someone who can step in and help manage an offense/win a game. He's not the type of guy you should plan on drafting in fantasy football -- check Jamey Eisenberg's full breakdown of the suspension situation from a fantasy angle here -- but he's a capable quarterback in a pinch. 

The Harvard grad (did you know?) started at least three games per season over the past five years, serving as both a starter and a backup. In three starts last year for Tampa Bay, with Winston out because of a shoulder injury, Fitzpatrick managed to go 2-1, throwing for about 250 yards per game with three touchdowns and just one interception. 

Tampa will need to lean on its running game and defense to pull off any wins while Winston is gone, but that was going to be the case anyway in these matchups. The addition of Ronald Jones in the draft should be a shot in the arm, and Jones, with his game-breaking speed and receiving prowess, is a viable weapon for a quarterback like Fitzpatrick. Dirk Koetter can engineer an offense around Fitz's strengths (decision-making) and weaknesses (throwing downfield). 

The pass rush and defensive line is better. It just is. Adding Jason Pierre-Paul (via trade), Vinny Curry (via free agency) and Vita Vea (via draft) to Gerald McCoy turned the Buccaneers biggest weakness into a strength. If the defensive line isn't improved or generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, whoever is under center for Tampa might be a moot point anyway in these games. 

If the makeover works and this group can blow up protections across the ball while stymieing opposing running games, Tampa can hang with top-tier opponents, even with Winston out. 

There's a subtle victory here for Koetter too. He was clearly one of the coaches facing a toasty seat heading into the year. And his schedule did him no favors. Start out the year 0-4 -- a very reasonable outcome before and after the Winston suspension, with Week 4's matchup in Chicago hardly a gimme -- and the Glazers might view the team's Week 5 bye as an opportunity for a knee-jerk reaction to the coaching staff. Mike Smith is the defensive coordinator; he'd be an easy promotion to interim if ownership was fed up.

Oddly enough, a Winston suspension makes such a move less likely. Losing your franchise quarterback to a suspension is a nice little built-in excuse for losing games, and if Jameis does end up missing games, Koetter should get a reprieve on that front. 

Tampa doesn't exactly get a reprieve on the schedule front, but things do get much easier when Winston gets back from suspension, and their playoff hopes should still be alive post-bye. If they can steal a game while Winston is suspended and beat the Bears in Week 4, 2-2 is where they probably would have been anyway. 

Three of their first four games post-bye are on the road, including divisional matchups against playoff teams from last year in the Falcons and Panthers. The Browns (home) and Bengals (road) are winnable games, though, and Tampa merely needs to split this set of four games as well. Treat each quadrant like a tiny little season and just tread water. The next set of games will be critical to what this team becomes: Tampa draws the Redskins (home), Giants (road), 49ers (home) and Panthers (home) from Weeks 10-13. 

That group of four games will ultimately decide if the Buccaneers are a playoff contender, and they will have Winston, presumably healthy and hitting his stride, under center. Go 3-1, or maybe even 4-0 and it could be enough to build on what Tampa hopes is a "hold the door" type of start to the season without its franchise quarterback. 

One more longer-term issue crops out of this: how do the Buccaneers handle Winston's contract situation. The former No. 1 overall pick heads into the final year of his four-year rookie contract in 2018. Tampa picked up his fifth-year option for 2019, a no-brainer move even at $20.9 million, because it's guaranteed for injury only. After that, things get very tricky. The franchise tag number for quarterbacks is extremely high, and even with a spiked cap these days, it can create salary management issues. Winston will want top-shelf quarterback money, but the Buccaneers could be reticent to give it out considering Winston is checking every box in the red-flag department: he struggled on the field for stretches of 2018, he was injured for multiple games last year and now he is facing a disciplinary suspension from the NFL. 

Winston had issues coming out of Florida State, to put it mildly, causing some to question if he was worth the gamble of the top pick. Talent won out for Tampa, as it always does in the NFL. But committing a first overall draft pick and committing more than $100 million to a mostly guaranteed contract are two different things. 

If the Bucs can overcome this suspension to make the playoffs this year, it's likely the contract situation will work itself out in natural fashion. If not, the latest off-field saga involving Winston may dramatically complicate his long-term situation with Tampa Bay. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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