Most if not all NFL contracts now contain a term that results in any suspension of the player wiping out future remaining guaranteed payments. For Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, his three-game suspension allows the team to avoid nearly $4 million in 2018 compensation, if he’s cut before a roster bonus becomes earned on the fifth day of training camp.
But with $20.9 million in 2019 salary currently guaranteed for injury only, Winston doesn’t have to worry about that guarantee evaporating. By rule, teams can’t undercut via individualized negotiation the terms applicable to the fifth-year option for first-round draft picks.
So the Bucs remain on the hook for $20.9 million in 2019, if any injury to Winston in 2018 keeps him from passing a physical before the payment becomes fully guaranteed in March. Likewise, as of March, the $20.9 million becomes fully guaranteed.
If anything, the looming balloon payment could make the team more inclined to consider moving on from Winston now, since that would ensure that $25 million will remain in ownership’s coffers. A decision to give Winston one more season to justify the fifth-year option or a long-term deal could blow up on the Bucs, especially if there’s an ACL tear or other serious injury in training camp, the preseason, or the regular season.
Regardless of whether the Buccaneers are willing to take a stand on principle when it comes to Winston’s transgressions with an Uber driver in March 2016, these business realities could push the needle toward making a decision that could be sold as doing “the right thing,” even if the driving force becomes doing the smart thing financially.
Then there’s a potential middle ground. The Buccaneers could extend Winston’s contract in a way that wipes out the injury guarantee for 2019, replacing it with (for example) a large roster bonus due on the third day of the next league year. This would ensure that Winston either will get the money or head to market early in free agency, and it would protect the Bucs against the worst-case scenario of a fluke training-camp injury costing them $25 million.
Why would Winston agree to give up his injury guarantee? If the “or else” consists of the Buccaneers cutting him, Winston would be thrust onto the market at a time when every other team is set at quarterback. Given his suspension and the potential P.R. fallout for any team that would sign him, Winston’s best play possibly would be to accept whatever alternative offer the Bucs put on the table, since it will likely be better than anything else another team would offer — and since the Bucs would be the only team offering a clear path to return as the starter after the suspension concludes.
In their 42-year history, the Buccaneers have never signed a quarterback the team drafted to a second contract. This would be an unusual way to make history, but it could be the kind of win-win that gives Winston a fair deal, that fairly protects the organization, and that potentially helps keep employed the G.M. who picked Winston over Marcus Mariota.