S.S. Mailbag: Many Tough Decisions

SSmailbag

With Jameis Winston potentially hitting free agency and coming off the first 30-touchdown, 30-interception season in NFL history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are devising a strategy for their quarterback position moving forward. In fact, it's likely the strategy itself is already agreed upon; now it's just a matter of attempting to execute it.

The options are clear: retain Winston, sign a veteran free agent or address the position in the upcoming draft. Or some combination of those three. In his final press conference of 2019, Head Coach Bruce Arians said the team's decision-makers would take a few weeks to evaluate Winston and the quarterback situation, and that was more than six weeks ago. Of course, Arians also pointed out that there would be no reason for the team to make its decision public in the interim.

So the waiting game continues for several more weeks, but in the meantime we can take a quick look backward. The Buccaneers are aiming to break a 12-year playoff drought in 2020, and after a 7-9 season that included a clear second-half improvement and a number of close losses there's plenty of reason to believe that would happen. So any new or returning quarterback would be expected to be part of a playoff-caliber team, not one in a rebuild. The Bucs have had six different quarterbacks start a playoff game for them in their history; what did those quarterbacks look like? Let's run them down.

Doug Williams. Drafted with the 19th-overall pick in 1978, Williams was Tampa Bay's first attempt to lock down a "franchise quarterback." And he certainly looked the part for five years. The Buccaneers made the playoffs in Williams' second season (the league's top-ranked defense and a strong running game helped an awful lot), and then again in 1981 and 1982. Williams started all four of the playoff games in that era, including a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979 that propelled the four-year-old franchise to its first NFC Championship Game. Williams had started 26 regular-season games before his first playoff contest. The Bucs were not trying to win with a big passing game in that era, but even so Williams' postseason numbers in Tampa were not good: 31.8% completion rate, two touchdowns versus nine interceptions and an 18.6 passer rating. Of course, Williams proved in the 1987 playoffs with Washington that he could be a prolific postseason passer, particularly in Super Bowl XXII. Williams was 24 when he started his first playoff game for the Bucs. He left after the 1982 season due to contract disputes with the team's previous ownership.

Trent Dilfer. After Williams' departure, the Buccaneers didn't make it back to the postseason until 1997, in Dilfer's fourth NFL season. The Buccaneers drafted Dilfer sixth overall in 1994; he was 22 at the time and 25 when he started his first playoff game. He had logged 50 regular-season starts by that point. Dilfer started every regular-season game from 1995 through the first six weeks of 1999 but his only playoff appearances for the Buccaneers would come in '97, when Tampa Bay beat Detroit in the Wild Card round at Tampa Stadium and then went on to play in Green Bay against a Packers team that was on its way to its second straight Super Bowl. That team also had a good defense and a reliance on the rushing attack with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, and Dilfer's playoff numbers were actually similar to what Williams put up: 38.7% completion rate, one touchdown versus three interceptions and a rating of 45.2. Also like Williams, Dilfer went on to start for a Super Bowl winner, helping the Baltimore Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV, a game coincidentally played in Tampa. Dilfer flipped his TD-INT ratio in that playoff run to 3-1 and had an 83.7 rating. He ended up in Baltimore after departing Tampa in free agency following the 1999 season.

Shaun King. King became the Bucs' third playoff quarterback starter due to an injury suffered by Dilfer late in the 1999 season. Dilfer, who had lost and then regained his starting job at midseason, briefly replaced by Eric Zeier, suffered a shoulder injury in a win in Seattle in Week 12. Zeier was also injured at this point and so the job went to King, a rookie who had been selected with the 50th overall pick that spring. King, who was 22 at the time, led the Bucs to wins in four of their last five games and a first-round bye. The Bucs started that postseason with a comeback win at home over Washington, followed by the memorable 11-6 loss in St. Louis to Kurt Warner and the high-powered Rams. King also got one more playoff start after the 2000 season after the Buccaneers went 10-6 and were sent to Philadelphia for a Wild Card game. In his three playoff starts, King completed 48.9% of his passes, threw one touchdown and three interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 55.1. He remained in Tampa for three more seasons after his last playoff start but was replaced as the starter by free agent signee Brad Johnson.

Brad Johnson. The Buccaneers signed Johnson during the 2001 offseason, after he had already spent seven years in Minnesota and two in Washington, and he was 32 at the time, turning 33 in September. His two years in Washington had been prolific, particularly the 1999 campaign in which he started 16 games for the first time in his career and threw for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns. By the time he made his first playoff appearance for the Buccaneers he had logged 61 games and 44 starts in the regular season plus three postseason starts (including Washington's 1999 loss in Tampa noted above). Johnson's first Buccaneer playoff start was the same as King's last one: a Wild Card loss at Philadelphia. However, Tampa Bay went all the way the next year with Johnson at the helm, eventually beating Oakland, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII. Johnson overcame a back injury that caused him to miss the last two regular-season games to throw all but one of the Bucs' 99 passes in the playoffs. Including the 2001 Wild Card playoff game, Johnson completed 56.0% of his postseason passes with the Buccaneers, with five touchdowns, three interceptions and a rating of 66.5. Johnson held onto the Bucs' starting job for all of 2003 and the first month of 2004 but then departed and played two more seasons each in Minnesota and Dallas.

Chris Simms. Simms was a third-round pick in 2003, the 97th overall pick and the first quarterback drafted by the Bucs during Jon Gruden's tenure. He didn't take a snap in 2003 as Johnson threw for 3,811 yards and was backed up by King. Simms got his first start in Week Five of the 2004 season, replacing Johnson, but he got hurt in that outing and Brian Griese took over as the starter for most of the rest of that season. Simms did start the 2004 season finale but Griese was the starter again to start the 2005 season. That lasted until Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury after six games, giving Simms another shot. He helped lead the Bucs to six wins in their last eight games, though this was yet another Bucs team that had a strong defense (first in the yardage rankings) and a good running game (this time with rookie Cadillac Williams). Simms was 22 when he was drafted and 25 when he made his first playoff start at the end of the 2005 season, at home against Washington. He had played in 16 regular-season games and logged 12 starts by that point. That contest was an ugly defensive struggle in which the Buccaneers only allowed 120 yards of offense but lost 17-10. Simms did complete 25 of his 38 passes for 198 yards but he was picked off twice.

Jeff Garcia. After injuries caused the 2006 Bucs to cycle through Simms, sixth-round rookie Bruce Gradkowski and 2005 midseason trade acquisition Tim Rattay, Jon Gruden brought in the veteran Garcia to start in 2007. Garcia was 37 at this point and had already played 13 seasons of professional football, including the first five in the Canadian Football League. That was followed by a prolific five-year run in San Francisco in which he threw for 16,408 yards and 113 touchdowns, making three straight Pro Bowls from 2000-02. One year each followed in Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia before he joined the Bucs and regained his Pro Bowl former in 2007. Injuries forced him to cede three late-season starts to Luke McCown, but Garcia helped the Bucs to a 9-7 record and a Wild Card home game against the New York Giants. By that point, Garcia had played in 112 regular-season NFL games with 105 starts, on top of his five years with the Calgary Stampeders. He had also logged five previous playoff starts, winning two of them. In his one playoff start for the Bucs, Garcia completed 23 of 39 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 60.5 rating. The Bucs' defense only allowed 277 yards but a three-to-zero turnover ratio doomed the home team to a 24-10 defeat. Garcia would remain the Bucs starter for much of 2008 and help the team to a 9-3 start before four straight losses in December would knock it out of the playoff field.

Will the next Buccaneer playoff quarterback be a veteran with previous postseason experience, a rookie with very little NFL experience under his belt or a former draftee that has had several seasons to develop? That remains to be seen but the Buccaneers have done it all those ways in the past.

Now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

"Is offensive line or safety a bigger need right now?"

- @brendanblackwell_32, via Instagram

I'd have to go with offensive line because the Bucs only appear to have four players currently under contract for 2020 who you would reasonably expect to be starters. That's at least one too few, and ideally you'd like to have some starting-caliber depth, too.

I say that because incumbent right tackle Demar Dotson is a pending free agent who may not return, which would immediately create an opening that the Buccaneers could choose to address with a high draft pick. (Many mock drafts, including the one Carmen Vitali and I did last week, have the Bucs doing exactly that with the likes of Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton or Andrew Thomas.) In addition to Dotson, much of last year's depth is also on the team's long list of potential free agents, including Earl Watford, Josh Wells and Jerald Hawkins. Beyond that the depth candidates under contract for 2020 are Mike Liedtke, Aaron Stinnie, Anthony Fabiano, Brad Seaton and Zack Bailey. I'm not discounting any of them taking a step forward but it might not make sense to pin your front-line hopes on a group of young players who have two combined NFL starts between them (both belonging to Fabiano).

Obviously, the Buccaneers could re-sign some of those pending free agents or sign some similar players off the market, but you're still talking about one open starting spot if Dotson doesn't return. Or even if the veteran tackle is re-signed to a short deal, the Bucs would still be wise to start looking for an eventual replacement. They might also choose to bring in some competition for right guard Alex Cappa since he only has one season as a starter under his belt and may not have that spot completely locked down yet.

I do agree that safety is also a spot of uncertainty for the Buccaneers, and maybe something they would address with a mid-tier signing in free agency, but the available numbers are still better than at offensive line. While that latter unit has four starters under contract for five spots, the safety group has three players under contract for 2020 who have started games for the Bucs in the last two years: Justin Evans, Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards. The Buccaneers also have another possible option at safety in D'Cota Dixon, a 2019 undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin who was rapidly rising up the depth chart last summer before being lost to a training camp injury. In his last press conference of 2019, Head Coach Bruce Arians brought up Dixon without being prompted and noted that the then-rookie was seen as a possible starter before his injuries.

There are question marks there, for sure. Evans hasn't played since Week 12 of 2018 due to persistent foot issues. Arians said at the same press conference that Evans had undergone another procedure on his foot, and while it was a success there was not yet a timetable for his return this spring. Still, the 2017 second-round pick has shown some playmaking ability. Dixon may be promising in the coaches' eyes but he's still unproven, of course. And Evans, a third-round pick by Arians and company last fall, never locked down a full-time starting role as a rookie.

All that said, I still think the offensive line is a more pressing need than safety. It's essentially a spot that has to be addressed one way or another, while the Bucs could realistically think they already have the safety position covered with young players who are in house and under contract.

"Are Justin Evans and Kendell Beckwith still on the team?"

- @droc_uptop, via Instagram

Might as well drop this one in here since we're already discussing Evans. Yes, as of this date, both he and Beckwith are under contract with the Buccaneers. Across the league, all players who finish the season on reserve lists are automatically activated from those lists on the day after the Super Bowl, because the season is now complete. This year, that was February 3.

Evans was placed on injured reserve on September 10 and stayed there for the entire season. He now has one year remaining on his initial contract from 2017.

As for Beckwith, his unfortunate situation stems from an offseason car accident in 2018 in which he suffered an obviously significant ankle injury. He started that season on the reserve/non-football injury list (NFI) and tried to return in the season's second half. He had a three-week window in which he was able to practice with the team but at the end of that time it was deemed that he was not ready to return to game action and he remained on reserve/NFI.

Of course, that meant Beckwith was activated a year ago after the Super Bowl, but he was then subsequently designated as "reserve/non-football injury, not count against 90," which meant he did not occupy an offseason roster spot. Before the 2019 regular season started, he was moved back to the reserve/NFI list. When the 2020 offseason begins in March, Beckwith will count against the 90-man limit so the Buccaneers will have to make some kind of roster move if he is not going to return to the field.

"Who do you have going first in fantasy, Godwin or Evans?"

- @_chadthedad, via Instagram

Wow, that's a doozy! I have to admit I hadn't started thinking about fantasy football yet – maybe the results of the inaugural Buccaneers FANtasy Challenge League had me trying to forget – but that is absolutely a legitimate and difficult question.

Last offseason, Godwin was every fantasy player's favorite sleeper, until all that sleeper talk changed his status to "wide-awake." Already a popular pick as a breakout player in 2019, that talk went into overdrive when Arians speculated in March that Godwin could be a 100-catch player in his offense. That seemed like a bar that was maybe set a tad too high, especially given the presence of Evans, but in fact it was pretty on-the-money. (I guess Bruce Arians knows what he's talking about.) Godwin missed the last two games with a hamstring injury but had 86 grabs through 14 contests. If he produced at that right for 16 games he would have reached 98 receptions. Close enough.

Even without those two games, Godwin put together a monstrous season with 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. Evans, meanwhile, missed most of the last four games with his own hamstring injury but finished with 67 catches for 1,157 yards and eight scores. Fantasy owners were pleased with both, of course, but those who landed Godwin were the happiest because Evans was generally a second-round pick while Godwin was often had at least two rounds later.

That's probably not going to happen again. I'm expecting to see some drafts with Godwin going ahead of Evans, in fact. There's a lot of time left for this to shake out, but here in the early part of 2020 the only real consensus is that both should go high.

For instance, ESPN's Eric Karabell has Evans as his fifth receiver in PPR leagues for 2020, with Godwin seventh, and those two ranked 10th and 15th overall regardless of position. CBS Sports has listed 2020 receiver rankings, too, and has one link with five different experts ranking their top 10. Godwin comes in sixth, fifth, fourth, eighth and eighth on the five lists, while Evans is seventh, seventh, sixth, sixth and seventh. There's more variance on Godwin, as you can see, but he's ahead of Evans on three of the five lists.

So I have to choose, right? It's tough, but I'll go with Godwin by a hair because I think he's more likely to give you consistent results from week to week. Some of that has to do with the fact that he plays with Evans and certain defenses like to focus on taking Evans out of the picture first. But Godwin only fell below 50 yards three times in 2019 while having six games in which he topped 100.

Of course, Evans had three games in which he topped 180 yards and he scored a total of six touchdowns in those three contests. Those are the types of games that can carry your team to victory even when the rest of it underperforms. Man, ask me again in a month and I might say Evans. But, hey, that's a good problem for the Bucs to have, right?!

"Will you keep Scotty Miller?"

- @vmerf34, via Instagram

It would be strange if the Buccaneers didn't keep Scotty Miller on the roster in 2020 (and probably beyond). A sixth-round pick out of Bowling Green last spring, Miller has only played the first year of the standard four-year contract that all players drafted in the second round and beyond get. The Bucs don't have to do anything to keep him on the roster in 2020, and he doesn't carry any kind of big cap hit.

Now, it would be fair to say that sixth-round picks are no locks to make a roster, but I think we've already cleared that hurdle. The Buccaneers had some openings on their receiving corps in 2019 after the departures of Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, and Miller got one of them and showed some promise in the season's second half as a speedy downfield threat. A couple hamstring injuries cost him four games near the end, so he'll have to prove that's not a recurring issue, but he did average 15.4 yards per catch. I think the Bucs are just getting started with Scotty Miller and I would expect his spot to be safe in 2020 unless there is a big influx of receiving talent. And when you may soon have two receivers with big contracts in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin (headed into the last year of his rookie deal), it's not likely that you're going to be paying a lot of high-priced free agents at the position.

"Which defensive player who will become a FA should we focus on resigning?"

- @bucsmike1, via Instagram

Well, first of all I appreciate the wording of the question because it means I can eliminate the quarterback position, which is such a tricky situation right now. So thanks for that, Mike.

After that, the first answer seems very obvious: outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. I just don't see how you can let the NFL's sack leader get away, especially when he seems so motivated to remain a Buccaneer. Both he and Arians have repeatedly spoken confidently about Barrett remaining with the team in 2020 that I've got to believe it's going to happen, one way or another. Depending upon how negotiations progress in the next couple weeks, that may necessitate the usage of the franchise tag, but that won't necessarily mean that Barrett will be playing on another one-year deal in 2020. The tag is often a tool to help a team extend its exclusive negotiating status with a player it definitely wants to sign to a long-term deal. The negotiations could then extend past March 18, if necessary.

But I feel like that answer is the easy way out. Let's just hypothetically put the tag on Barrett and declare that I have to pick another defensive player. Here are the other 10 defenders on the Bucs' list of pending unrestricted free agents, in alphabetical order: OLB Sam Acho, S Andrew Adams, DL Beau Allen, ILB Kevin Minter, OLB Carl Nassib, DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches, OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, CB Ryan Smith, S Darian Stewart and DL Ndamukong Suh.

I think I can pare that list down to a top three of Nassib, Pierre-Paul and Suh, again in alphabetical order. In this scenario, we already have Barrett back and we still have rising-star defensive lineman Vita Vea in place. So if I can have only one do I want another edge rusher or do I want to keep Vea's running mate on the inside in place?

It's a tough call, and ideally the Buccaneers will be able to keep at least one of each, but I think I'll put Suh next on the list. Pierre-Paul and Nassib had the better sack numbers – and, again, I really would like to keep them too – but Suh's impact in the trenches went far beyond his numbers. He's a big reason the Buccaneers had the NFL's best run defense and the best run defense in their franchise history, and the double-teams he often attracted was clearly helpful for the guys rushing off the edge. I want to keep that interior presence intact, and if I lose a pass-rusher in the process than hopefully we can replace those contributions in the draft or with a bigger role for second-year man Anthony Nelson.

Of course, we're only taking this ranking approach because the question required me to pick one guy. There's no reason the actual Buccaneers couldn't take just as hard of a run at keeping two or even three of those guys.

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