When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2015 NFL Draft, they were hoping to have secured a quarterback who would lead their franchise for the foreseeable future and to great success. As we fast forward five seasons later, Tampa has yet to win the NFC South in the Winston era and it appears like the club is on the doorstep of looking elsewhere.
After a frustrating season under center in 2019, the Buccaneers are re-evaluating the position as Winston just put a bow on his rookie contract and is slated to hit unrestricted free agency. Luckily for Tampa, it just so happens to be addressing the quarterback spot when there is a historically deep free-agent class about to enter the market and are in an offseason where quarterback trades are also poised to be prevalent. The fact that Tampa is armed with the third-most cap space in the NFL, already boasts weapons like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the roster, and plays in a quarterback-friendly Bruce Arians offense, the Bucs will be an attractive destination for a number of signal callers looking for a starting job.
As you'll see below, we've collected some of the quarterbacks that will likely be available either through free agency or via trade this offseason and ranked them by who the Buccaneers should bring in. To be clear, these options aren't exactly going to be in order of which quarterbacks are most likely to land in Tampa, but in the order in which the team should value them. Their first free-agent call should go to No. 1 on this list and work their way down. Get it? Good.
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With that out of the way, let's kick things off with the quarterback Tampa is most familiar with.
8. Jameis Winston
It's certainly possible that Winston ends back up in Tampa next season, but if we're being honest it feels like both sides have hit their ceiling together. Winston has proven he can lead the league in passing (5,109 yards) and throw 33 touchdowns, but it comes at the cost of 30 interceptions. It's just not a winning formula and a change would likely be the most productive option for all parties involved.
While this may seem like a bashing of Winston, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he lands on a new club, resets his career, and eventually lives up to his potential. He was a top overall pick and that talent is still in there somewhere. He just needs to reduce those critical turnovers. Winston could probably use a change of scenery and coach Bruce Arians seems pretty determined to upgrade the position in some way, shape or form.
Again, if both sides strike out in free agency, Tampa and Winston could find their way back to one another. With that said, it's certainly not a top option when you're ranking the possible scenarios for the Bucs going forward.
It would be a fascinating storyline to see the Bucs let Winston walk in free agency and replace him with the guy they passed up on at the 2015 NFL Draft in Marcus Mariota. He's almost the polar opposite of Winston. He won't wow you with a cannon arm, but he keeps his turnovers relatively low, can make plays with his feet and would likely give Arians a lot less stress in the process.
Similar to Winston, a change of scenery could do Mariota a world of good. He was subpar with the Titans before being benched for Ryan Tannehill, who took Tennessee all the way to the AFC Championship Game. If the Bucs were to pair him with weapons like Evans and Godwin in Arians' system, that would present a heck of an opportunity for both sides to try and tap into Mariota's potential. After all, he'll be only 26 years old at the start of next season and isn't far removed from a 2018 season where he completed nearly 70% of his passes. If he can regain his accuracy, get the ball into the arms of Evans and Godwin and allow them to make plays while not committing turnovers, Mariota could easily thrive in Tampa.
6. Ryan Tannehill
The only reason this Titans quarterback isn't higher on the list is because he's probably heading back to Tennessee and I wanted to have the top five of these options be somewhat more realistic and attainable for Tampa. However, if a scenario plays out where the Titans go ahead and sign Tom Brady, that could open the door for the Bucs to swoop in and sign a quarterback who was four quarters away from taking his team to the Super Bowl just a couple months ago. If that's the case, he flies up these rankings.
Tannehill was stellar for Tennessee last season after stepping in for Mariota, going 7-3 as a starter though the regular season and completed 70.3% of his throws for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns and just six picks. He led the league in quarterback rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6), so the Bucs would be getting an extremely efficient quarterback that -- unlike Winston -- would keep the turnovers to a minimum. Tannehill likely won't cost as much as some other elite quarterbacks, so the Bucs could, in theory, not only bring him aboard, but put even more talent around him.
5. Nick Foles
The Jacksonville Jaguars are reportedly looking to cut ties with Foles and ride with second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew just one year after handing Foles a four-year, $88 million contract. Most teams simply would not be able to take on Foles' contract, but the Buccaneers are one of the rare teams that could do it.
Heading into this offseason, they currently have a projected $84,989,175 in available space, so even bringing a contract like Foles' would not totally deplete their cap going forward into free agency. In 2020, Foles' cap hit is $22.2 million, rises to around $26.9 million in 2021, and hits $27 million in 2022. After next season, however, there is an out in Foles' contract that would gives the Bucs the ability to shave $14.4 million off the books. In this scenario, the Bucs would absorb Foles' contract via trade, still have enough room to add more talent, and, if it doesn't work out, they can get out from under his deal without critical damage to their cap in the long term.
Tampa would likely also get him for a song as Jacksonville is simply looking to move off that contact and not have Minshew looking over his shoulder next season. If the Bucs landed the former Super Bowl MVP, they should consider that a win.
4. Andy Dalton
Similar to Foles, Dalton is being ousted by his current team as it makes way for a young quarterback. For Cincinnati, it's all about consensus No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow going forward, but it still needs to find a spot to trade Dalton. The Bengals have noted that they won't simply ship Dalton off to the highest bidder and instead give him a say in the process. If Dalton was wise, Tampa should be on his radar. Not only would he land with a team that features two dynamic wide receivers and a favorable offseason led by Arians, but Dalton would likely be on a club that can contend for a playoff spot upon arrival, especially if the new collective bargaining agreement is going to open up more postseason slots.
Let's be clear, however: Dalton was not good last season. His completion percentage (59.5) ranked 30th in the NFL, he had a yards per attempt of 6.6 that ranked 28th, and his 78.3 passer rating was dead last in the league. Of course, he was on the worst team in the entire league, so it's naturally hard to gauge how much those number reflect Dalton and how much they reflect the poor roster around him. In any event, he's an intriguing and cheap option that the Buccaneers should absolutely consider.
With Drew Brees slated to return to the New Orleans Saints in 2020, Bridgewater looks to be moving on to greener pastures and a starting job somewhere. For the Bucs, Bridgewater is kind of a best of both worlds option. He's still young (turns 28 in November), but has plenty of experience as a starter so he can come in immediately and produce. If he can turn into a viable starter, Bridgewater all of a sudden becomes someone that Tampa Bay can compete with over the long haul.
After all, he does have the pedigree. In his five starts for the Saints last year, Bridgewater went 5-0, completed 67.9% of his passes and had a passer rating of 103.7. He also averaged 241 passing yards and had nine touchdowns to just two interceptions. Even beyond that strong stint as a starter with the Saints in 2019, it does seem like some people forget that Bridgewater was once a first-round pick and on the path to stardom with the Vikings before suffering a career-altering knee injury. He has since clawed his way back from that ordeal in the summer of 2016 and can really look to become a face of a franchise.
Given that talent and his age, Bridgewater is likely going to fetch a pretty nice contract for himself and, if you're the Bucs, you should absolutely be hoping that you're the one writing his checks.
It would seem like Rivers is one of the favorites to land in Tampa as the Buccaneers starter this offseason. CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora reported in late January that there was "a lot of buzz" about the Bucs making a play for Rivers this offseason. Arians also said recently that Rivers and Brady would both be the types of quarterback's he would pick up the phone for in free agency, so their desire to at least speak with him seems concrete.
Rivers, who did recently move his family to Florida, would seemingly fit in just fine in Arians' system. The only true question, however, is whether he's just Jameis Winston wearing a mask. No, he didn't throw 30 interceptions, but he did throw 20, the third most in the NFL. His passer rating of 88.5 was nothing to write home about either and he struggled to pull the Chargers to victory this year as he was 2-9 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Very Winston-like.
With that said, Rivers admittedly isn't far removed from a 2018 season where he posted the fifth best passer rating and led Los Angeles to a 12-4 record. If that's the guy going to Tampa, the Bucs are going to be fun to watch in 2020.
1. Tom Brady
Brady is the offseason prize for every quarterback-needy team in the NFL and the Bucs are no exception. Listen, Arians, who will be 68 years old in October, likely doesn't plan on coaching forever. It's safe to assume that he wouldn't mind going all-in with Brady (or Rivers for that matter) to win now over the final handful of years in his career. There's already a strong foundation in place and that near $85 million in projected cap space can not only bring in Brady, but bring in more play-makers to really put them over the top. That's also not mentioning the plethora of aging veterans that would want to come along on the cheap to try and earn a Super Bowl alongside Brady, a luxury the Patriots have enjoyed throughout their dynasty.
Brady will be 43 years old by the start of the 2020 season and he can't exactly lift an inferior roster as well as he could have in the past, but the six-time Super Bowl champion has plenty left in the tank. His 60.8 completion percentage (27th in the NFL) and subpar passing numbers could partly be attributed to the lack of weapons on New England's roster. Despite that, he still threw 24 touchdowns and kept his interceptions (eight) low.
I personally believe this spot should be of high consideration for Brady as he makes his free agent decision, but I'm not quite sure that he'll ultimately end up here. Los Angeles, Vegas or even Nashville may have a little more pizazz for the greatest of all-time over Tampa. Still, the Bucs should make a hard press to at least make their pitch.