TAMPA, Fla. -- It's official. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will serve a three-game suspension to start the 2018 season, the result of an NFL investigation into his alleged groping of a female Uber driver in 2016.
As part of their contingency plan, the Bucs re-signed backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal in the offseason. Beyond that, there are major question marks surrounding Winston, who was drafted first overall in 2015, despite unwavering support from the organization.
"All members of our organization are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the Personal Conduct Policy of the NFL," the Bucs said in a statement released Thursday. "We are disappointed that Jameis put himself in a position that has been found to violate the policy and accept today's decision by the Commissioner."
Three seasons into his career, Winston's work on the field, not the issues off it, should be doing the talking.
And his work on the field has been average at best.
In his first three seasons, Winston has started 45 games with an 18-27 record, and the Bucs have yet to make the playoffs. If Winston can control his turnovers (44 interceptions and 15 fumbles lost in three seasons) and become more consistent as a pocket passer, there is every possibility he could become a top-10 quarterback.
And finding a franchise quarterback in this league is not easy. The Bucs, who started 10 different quarterbacks in the decade leading up to drafting Winston, are well aware.
Despite his shortcomings, Winston likely will remain a member of the Buccaneers through at least the end of the 2018 season. The team already owes him $3.89 million. The only way that might change is if they found a willing trade partner between now and the fifth day of training camp.
That's not to say general manager Jason Licht wouldn't cut a player owed money. The Bucs ate $7 million in dead money to cut underperforming Michael Johnson after one year in 2015. They also paid Dashon Goldson $4 million and Anthony Collins $3 million to go away.
But as first-overall draft pick and face of a franchise, Winston is different.
If they decide to re-sign him to a long-term deal now, they might be able to lower their cap charge in 2019. That would assist them in retaining other top players like linebacker Kwon Alexander and offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith. Instead, the organization has had to halt that process to await the league's findings.
If the Bucs decide they have grown tired of Winston, they could cut him before 2019. The team exercised his fifth-year option in May, meaning it would pay him $20.9 million in salary if he's still on the team in 2019. But they could still part ways with zero financial penalties if they cut him before March 13, 2019, when the new league year begins. That is, as long as he doesn't get hurt in the games he'll play in 2018, since that money is guaranteed for injury only.
But it's Winston's off-field behavior that likely will determine his future.
In a statement released Thursday, Winston apologized to the Uber driver, organization, teammates and fans, adding: "In the past 2 1/2 years, my life has been filled with experiences, opportunities and events that have helped me grow, mature and learn, including the fact that I have eliminated alcohol from my life."
In 2012 at Florida State, Winston was investigated for sexually assaulting a female student. He was not charged with a crime, which was enough for some to grant him a clean slate. Nevertheless, the Tallahassee Police Department was criticized for its handling of the investigation. FSU agreed to pay $950,000 to Winston's accuser and make a five-year commitment to awareness, prevention and training programs concerning sexual assault on campus. Winston also settled a civil suit with his accuser in 2016.
The Bucs' front office has demonstrated a willingness to give second chances but draws the line when there is a pattern of poor behavior, even if that pattern goes back to college. It happened with former Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a second-round pick by Licht in 2014. Sefarian-Jenkins, who served a day in jail after pleading guilty to DUI in college, was released by the Bucs after a DUI arrest in September 2016. He has since come out publicly and admitted to a problem with alcohol.
Right after he was drafted, Winston was asked what he'd say to those who had doubts about him and his character. He looked reporters in the eye and responded: "I look forward to earning their trust."
Now the Bucs must decide if he has lived up to that pledge. If they plan to re-sign Winston beyond the 2019 season, the deal could be in excess of $100 million, the going rate for top quarterbacks in today's league.
Given his suspension, the question the Buccaneers will have to answer is whether the risk is worth the reward if they sign Winston to a long-term deal.
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