It remains to be seen whether the looming suspension of Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston compels the team to release him. While that’s still an unlikely outcome (the NFL’s specific findings against Winston will become a major factor, along with the possibility of further unexpected developments), it’s safe to say that the suspension will become relevant to whether the Bucs make Winston the first quarterback ever drafted by the team to get a second contract.
Which means that the Bucs could decide to move on from Winston after the 2018 season, especially if the Bucs move on from G.M. Jason Licht and/or coach Dirk Koetter. Indeed, a new regime would be untethered to Winston, and it would be much easier for someone with no ties to him to make a detached, unbiased decision about Winston’s future than Licht and Koetter.
But here’s the risk for the Bucs, if they choose to kick the can until after the 2018 season and to decide on whether to keep Winston before his $20.9 million base salary for 2019 becomes fully guaranteed in March. Because the money is guaranteed for injury in 2018, and because the guarantees applicable to the fifth-year option don’t evaporate due to a suspension, the Bucs will be on the hook for the full $20.9 million if Winston suffers an injury during the 2018 season that keeps him from passing a physical before the amount becomes fully guaranteed in March.
The Jaguars welcomed that risk in 2017 with Blake Bortles. Washington refused to do so in 2015 with Robert Griffin III, putting him on ice for the entire season. While the risk of owing Winston $20.9 million next year likely won’t be a deciding factor on the question of whether to cut him, it could become relevant to the analysis if the specific findings the NFL makes against Winston create enough of an outcry to make it a close question.
In other words, if the NFL paints an ugly picture about Winston’s interactions with the Uber driver and/or if other unsavory witnesses have unflattering things to say about Winston, the ability to sidestep a $20.9 million gamble could be enough to get the Bucs to make a decision driven by principle, not by winning.