7 teams that could sign pending free agent QB Jameis Winston
The New Orleans Saints chose to retain offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael after spending a week or two searching for his replacement, and his return to that job should make it more likely that Jameis Winston re-signs with the team. But he’s still a pending free agent, and after playing for two years on a fraction of a starter’s salary (and suffering a season-ending knee injury in the process) Winston owes it to himself and his family to go looking for the best offer on the market.
Maybe the best offer comes from the Saints. But there are isn’t a dearth of quarterback-needy teams — far from it. Half a dozen or more squads may be starting new passers in 2022, and enough of them have enough money to throw around to where we shouldn’t assume Winston stays in New Orleans. If he’s at all open to leaving (or if the Saints instead choose to go in a different direction), he should have other options. Let’s explore:
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There’s next to no certainty in Pittsburgh as the Steelers enter the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mason Rudolph isn’t franchise quarterback material. Dwayne Haskins may not be, either. Joshua Dobbs is, at best, an unknown quantity. If Mike Tomlin isn’t interested in drafting a rookie, Winston would be highly appealing — and when he’s at his best, Winston plays a lot like Roethlisberger did in his prime as a hard-to-sack quarterback looking to stress defenses deep downfield.
And Pittsburgh has plenty of money to spend on a free agent quarterback like Winston. Over The Cap has them with $27.8 million in effective cap space (the amount that accounts for the league’s offseason top-51 rule). The Steelers could look at the improvements Winston made during his seven-game run with the Saints last year and make him an offer he might struggle to refuse. If they put a contract on the table averaging $27 to $29.5 million per year (which is what Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan are earning), Winston might be hard-pressed to say no. And the Saints might struggle to match it.
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The Colts badly need to resolve their issues under center — head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have been given too much time and accomplished too little with it. And they’re well-positioned to make a splash with the fifth-most effective cap space ($35.8 million) before they bail on the rest of Carson Wentz’s contract, which at this point feels like little more than a formality. They’re widely expected to have a new quarterback under center in 2022.
And Winston might be that guy. The Colts have a strong offensive line and a great supporting cast built around running back Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s reigning rushing leader. With a couple of nice receivers already rostered, Winston could immediately step in with more help than he may find in New Orleans. But you have to wonder if Indianapolis is interested. When Winston is at his worst and putting the ball in harm’s way, he’s indistinguishable from Wentz.
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The Broncos feel like the leader in the clubhouse to make a landscape-shaking move at quarterback. They’re flush with draft picks and $31.7 million in effective cap space. They’ve assembled a stellar group of pass-catchers and invested a ton of resources into their defense. And while they’ve built the best coaching staff possible to try and recruit Aaron Rodgers, he may not leave Green Bay. Russell Wilson might stay in Seattle. It’s possible Winston ends up being the best available quarterback as a free agent.
And it’s tough to envision many better fits for him. He’s got established weapons and a coaching staff installing a system that Rodgers has set all sorts of records in. And, hey, the thin air up in Denver might add a little more juice to his already-effective deep passing skills. Broncos fans may not be as excited to start Winston as they would a higher-profile quarterback, but this is a worryingly good match for him.
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Ron Rivera’s team needs a quarterback. They lost Ryan Fitzpatrick for the entire 2021 season with an injury. Taylor Heinicke may be frisky but he’s not someone you can start for an extended run. They’re in a good spot to draft a rookie, though, and that does give Rivera an opportunity to start fresh at the position. Does he have the interest in going that route, though?
He and Winston know each other well from their history in the NFC South, when Rivera coached the Carolina Panthers and Winston was throwing passes for Tampa Bay. Maybe that relationship helps bring a free agent passer and a quarterback-needy team together. Washington has a healthy $27 million in effective cap space to work with and can compete with any offers Winston receives.
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The Texans may be running a clown show, and Davis Mills may have played better than expected as a rookie, but they should very much be in the hunt for a quarterback (and no, Deshaun Watson won’t be playing for them again until further notice). It’s a long shot, but maybe Winston ends up in Houston?
That certainly doesn’t feel like something anyone is planning on. It would take the Saints choosing to move on from Winston and few of the other teams we’ve discussed making him a strong offer. Houston may not be his first, second, third, or even fourth choice. But if he wants to continue starting in the NFL, he may be driven there anyway.
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Speaking of clown shows: it would be very funny if the Panthers went and signed Winston after they inexplicably picked up Sam Darnold’s $18.8 million fifth-year option, right? That would just be the cherry on top of a directionless three-year run for Matt Rhule. But it makes sense, sort of. Carolina doesn’t know if Darnold will be their guy moving forwards. He didn’t do well starting for them in 2021, and naming him their starter for 2022 right away doesn’t serve anyone well. Bringing in some competition makes sense.
And if Winston isn’t able to lock down a starting job from the jump with some of these other teams, wouldn’t he like his chances with the Panthers? He can totally outplay Darnold in a head-to-head training camp battle. He can get more out of Carolina’s always-underrated (and occasionally mismanaged) receiving corps than his predecessors there. The Panthers only have about $11 million to work with in effective cap space right now, but if they’re bringing in Winston to push Darnold they wouldn’t be signing him to a big contract anyway.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Okay, okay, okay — let’s stop laughing and take a hard look at this. Bruce Arians made the decision to move on from Winston because of his historic turnover rate and, you know, the greatest non-Drew Brees quarterback of all time knocked on his door. Now that Tom Brady has stepped away from the game and a better coach than him helped Winston clean up some flaws in his game, a reunion shouldn’t be impossible to imagine.
Winston knows the offense. He knows the receivers and the line and most of the coaching staff, too. If Arians is committed to running it back and chasing another Super Bowl title, bringing Winston back where his NFL career began makes a lot of sense. It dramatically cuts down on the learning curve for all involved. Even if the Buccaneers are dangerously close to the cap right now, Jason Licht is a crafty enough general manager to make the money work. We can’t blindly rule this out.