The start of the NFL's 2020 free agency period is just over a week away, and while teams still have one more day to apply franchise or transition tags that won't stop hundreds of players from hitting the open market. Last March, 541 players became free agents of some variety on the first day of the new league year, including 433 of the unrestricted variety.
Free agency begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 18 and, if form holds, many of the most coveted available players will quickly have new deals in place. That's possible due to the roughly three days teams have to discuss potential contract details with player agents, beginning on March 16. Other players who don't get in on the first wave of signings often find deals in next two or three weeks.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could contribute up to 19 players to that unrestricted free agent market, though there is still the potential of franchise tags or pre-deadline deals cutting that list down a bit. Whether or not the Bucs dive deep into the free agent pool, they have a lot of work to do in the month of March thanks to that long list.
As the weeks have counted down towards free agency, we've taken a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continue this week with the quarterback position.
January 15: Offensive Line
January 22: Safety
January 29: Running Back
February 5: Cornerback
February 12: Tight End
February 19: Inside Linebacker
February 26: Wide Receiver
March 4: Defensive Line
March 11: Quarterback
March 18: Outside Linebacker
2019 Output: All but four of the 630 passes the Buccaneers threw in 2019 belonged to Jameis Winston, and it's not inaccurate to call the resulting production "historic," even if it contained positive and negative elements.
Winston became just the eight quarterback in NFL history to top 5,000 yards in a season, leading the league with a franchise single-season record of 5,109 yards. Winston also broke a team record and placed second in the league with 33 touchdown passes. However, he also was picked off 30 times, becoming the first player in league annals to throw 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.
The final quarter of Winston's 2020 season offered a perfect example of the mixed bag of production that he brought to the table during Bruce Arians' first year as the head coach. In Weeks 14 and 15 he became the first player in NFL history to record consecutive games with at least 450 passing yards and four touchdown passes, and while he was also intercepted four times in those two contests he still helped the team to 38 points and victories in both outings. In Weeks 16 and 17, he was intercepted six more times as the Bucs narrowly lost their last two contests. His final pass was an overtime interception returned for a touchdown by Atlanta, the seventh pick-six of the season by Tampa Bay opponents. Arians expressed confidence in Winston when he took the Bucs' head coaching job last January and he surely expected to have a clear picture of what his future with the team should be by the end of 2019. However, at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Arians conceded that Winston is "an unknown quantity to me still."
Under Contract for 2020: The only quarterback currently under contract with the Buccaneers for the upcoming season is the one who threw the four passes not recorded by Winston in 2020. That would be Ryan Griffin, who spent the season as Winston's primary backup after Blaine Gabbert suffered a shoulder injury in August.
View pictures from the QB, WR and TE groups at the 2020 NFL Combine.
Griffin is actually one of the longest-tenured players on the Bucs' current roster, though those four passes were the first he had ever thrown in a regular-season game. He first joined the team as a waiver claim from New Orleans during the league's final round of cuts in 2015 and two subsequent contracts since have kept him in Tampa for five seasons, and possibly more. The deal he inked last March was for two seasons, though none of his 2020 salary is guaranteed.
Griffin's four passes against Indianapolis in Week 14 weren't particularly meaningful, but he has logged plenty of preseason experience and has generally performed well in those opportunities. This past summer, for instance, he completed 65.2% of his preseason passes, with four touchdowns, two interceptions and a 95.6 passer rating.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: For the first time since 2008, the Buccaneers finished a season with their primary starting quarterback on an expiring contract. (Josh McCown didn't return after his 2014 season with the team but he was under contract for 2015 before being released in February.) Winston was the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and as is the case with all first-round picks under the current CBA he got a four-year deal with a team option for a fifth season. That fifth year was 2019. If the Buccaneers do not use a franchise or transition tag on Winston, or strike a new deal with him by March 18, he will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his NFL career.
Gabbert is also due to hit free agency for the second year in a row. Like many of the free agents the Bucs landed last spring – including Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and Breshad Perriman – Gabbert came to Tampa on a one-year deal. He had previous starting experience under Arians in Arizona and was the favorite to serve as the primary backup to Winston before the injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Gabbert stayed on the active roster for the first three weeks of the regular season as he worked on his recovery but was eventually placed on injured reserve.
The Buccaneers kept a third quarterback on the practice squad for much of the 2019 campaign, first Nick Fitzgerald and then Chad Kanoff. Kanoff was on that practice squad to end the season but he was not one of the players the team brought back with a reserve/futures contract for 2020.
Potentially Available Free Agents: The following list should be presented with one very large asterisk. At first glance it looks like one of the most star-studded groups of quarterbacks ever to hit free agency at the same time. However, the real list of available passers on March 18 is not likely to look the same as it does with free agency a week away.
For instance, Drew Brees is on the list but he's already made it clear that he's returning to New Orleans, to the surprise of no one. Brees is 41, and the future Hall-of-Famer's only decision after the 2019 campaign was whether to return for a 20th NFL season, not where that would be.
Meanwhile, Dallas' Dak Prescott is only 27 and is at the moment a potential free agent. Given his position, performance and age he would be the single most coveted player on the open market but he's not likely to get there because Dallas seems certain to utilize a franchise tag on him if a new deal isn't in place by Thursday.
On the other hand, the Chargers have announced that they will not be re-signing their long-time starter, Philip Rivers, meaning the sixth-leading passer in NFL history (59,271 yards) will have a new home in 2020 after 16 years in San Diego/Los Angeles. Rivers threw for 4,615 yards last year, his sixth straight year over 4,000, but his 23-20 TD-INT ratio was his worst since he became a starter in 2006. He is a career 64.7% passer with an overall passer rating of 95.1 and an average of 260.0 passing yards per game.
And, of course, there's the elephant in the room: Tom Brady. Brady's most recent contract automatically voids the 2020 season at the start of free agency and includes a clause that the Patriots cannot use the franchise tag on him. That means that, if he chooses, the player many consider the greatest quarterback in history can hit unrestricted free agency for the first time at the age of 42 (turning 43 in August). Brady's career statistics don't need enumeration here, though his six championship rings are always worth mentioning. Brady's passing yards per game have dropped for four straight seasons to a nine-year low of 253.6 last year, but he still threw 24 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions. Given his fanatical health and training regimen, he believes he can play until the age of 46 or 47.
NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah breaks down this year's draft.
Depending upon what the Buccaneers do with Winston, the first two picks of the 2015 draft could hit the market for the first time together. After the Bucs started that draft with Winston, the Titans followed with Marcus Mariota, and he's likely to move on after he was replaced by Ryan Tannehill as the starter midway through last season. Speaking of Tannehill, he had impeccable timing in 2019. After being acquired from Miami in an offseason trade, the former first-round pick got another chance to start seven games into the season and proceeded to play his best stretch of football yet. Tannehill led the Titans to a 7-3 record in his starts, getting them to the playoffs while leading the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating. Any suitors would need to be convinced that Tannehill will continue to play near that level after he had a career 87.0 rating in six years with the Dolphins, but it might be a moot point anyway. Tennessee could choose to tag their new starter to keep moving in what appeared to be a positive direction in 2019.
Brees isn't the only New Orleans passer who is currently without a contract for 2020. Teddy Bridgewater is a pending unrestricted free agent and is likely to be looking for a starting opportunity elsewhere after Brees chose to return. Taysom Hill will be a restricted free agent as soon as he gets a qualifying offer from the Saints, and he will reportedly get a first-round tender. If so, any team choosing to sign him to a contract will know that if New Orleans chooses not to match it they will have to send a first-round draft pick back as compensation. That probably will keep Hill from leaving New Orleans in 2020, which in turn makes Bridgewater's exit more likely.
Bridgewater got to start five games while Brees was dealing with a thumb injury last fall and in doing so he made himself into a more attractive option on the free agent market. The Saints won all five of his starts, during which he had a 9-2 TD-INT ratio and a 99.1 passer rating. The former Viking and first-round pick was seeing his first meaningful action since a knee injury robbed him of his 2016 season and most of 2017. He has a career 22-12 record as a starter and a fine career interception rate of 2.3%
As usual, there are a number of available quarterbacks who will provide some value as backup options, either with useful NFL experience or possibly untapped potential. The Buccaneers could be in the market for such a passer, depending upon if Gabbert returns and/or they choose to add a developmental option in the draft.
Several of those options are quarterbacks who have already spent a good amount of time as NFL backups, such as Drew Stanton (36 years old), Matt Moore (36), Chase Daniel (33), Case Keenum (32) and former Buccaneer Mike Glennon (30). Stanton could have a slight edge in that group in that he has played for Arians before and even won nine of the 13 starts he made during that four-year span (2014-17). However, he didn't play in 2018 and he was on the Browns' injured reserve list all of last year. Keenum is the most experienced in that group, though, having started 62 games with five different teams. Moore had a couple of good starts in place of an injured Patrick Mahomes last year and, perhaps it's worth mentioning, has beaten the Buccaneers on a couple occasions in the past.
There are also some younger options in that group, including the 26-year-old Nate Sudfeld, who was most recently in Philadelphia. Sudfeld has only thrown 25 regular-season passes, but he's completed 20 of them with a passer rating of 106.0. The 27-year-old Brett Hundley was in Arizona last year but he got nine starts with the Packers in 2017. Trevor Siemian suffered a season-ending ankle injury in his only start for the Jets last year but was the starter for most of two years in Denver (2016-17), throwing for close to 5,700 yards in 24 games, with a 30-24 TD-INT ratio.
Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate to High
This would definitely swing towards "high" if the Buccaneers do not re-sign Winston. If no franchise or transition tag is placed on Winston by Thursday, then Tampa Bay would have to at least prepare for the possibility that Winston will not be back. And if one simply combines a free agent-to-be Winston with the rest of the free agency quarterback field, then the Bucs almost necessarily are buyers. Even if they decide to use their first-round draft pick on a quarterback they would almost surely want to have a veteran option, too.
This is why Arians has been waiting to find out what's behind "Door Number Two," as in the possible quarterback options that have to be evaluated and weighed against the option of moving forward with Winston. As certain dominoes begin to fall – such as Brees returning for another season and thereby possibly making Bridgewater more likely to hit free agency – a clearer picture will emerge as to what those options are. That is obviously true for every team that is currently considering its options at the game's most important opinion.