TAMPA, Fla. — It certainly is a surprise. It also feels like surrender.
Did Jameis Winston decide to join the Saints for a career reset? Or was it revenge to join a division rival?
Ultimately, the motivation doesn’t really matter as multiple reports surfaced Sunday that the former Bucs quarterback is finalizing a one-year deal with New Orleans.
No contract will be signed before 4 p.m. Monday, otherwise Tampa Bay possibly could be awarded a compensatory draft pick in 2021 for losing Winston to free agency.
Winston owes the Bucs nothing. The Saints owe them even less.
Here’s why signing with the Saints makes a lot of sense for Winston.
He gets to play for a winning franchise, one that has captured the NFC South three years in a row.
Drew Brees is 41 and entering his 20th season, likely his last in the NFL. The future Hall of Famer already has a deal with NBC to work as an analyst when his playing career is over.
Not only will Winston benefit by watching Brees on and off the field, the Saints’ Sean Payton is a Super Bowl-winning coach and one of the best play-callers in the league.
In a perfect world for Winston, he becomes the Saints’ starting quarterback in 2021 when Brees retires. Or he follows in the footsteps left by Teddy Bridgewater, who went 5-0 in relief of Brees last season and parlayed that into a three-year, $63 million contract with the Panthers.
Interestingly, the Saints re-signed backup quarterback Taysom Hill on Sunday to a two-year contract that could be worth up to $21 million, with $16 million guaranteed. He had been a restricted free agent with a one-year, $4.6 million tender. Mississippi quarterback Tommy Stevens signed as an undrafted free agent Saturday night, but his skill set lends itself to Hill’s role.
Hill, who also has played running back, receiver and on special teams in New Orleans, has been told he can compete for the No. 2 spot. But having a third quarterback such as Winston mitigates the injury risk for the Saints’ use of Hill at multiple positions, especially in short-yardage and goal line situations.
All three will be in uniform on game day, but let’s be honest. If Brees is injured, do you think Payton would go with the soon-to-be 30-year-old Hill, who has attempted only 13 passes in the NFL, or Winston, who already has thrown more completions to Saints players (10, as interceptions) than Hill (six), including several for touchdowns?
Here’s why it feels as if Winston should have been able to do better.
The No. 1 overall pick in 2015 out of Florida State is only 26 and led the NFL last season with 5,109 passing yards while throwing 33 touchdowns.
Sure, he threw a league- and career-high 30 interceptions and lost five fumbles last season, leading to 112 points off turnovers. But the Bucs haven’t sniffed the postseason in 12 years, and Winston wasn’t there for even half of them.
The Bucs believed coach Bruce Arians could fix Winston, and he couldn’t. Now Payton will take a shot at it.
But the Saints only have about $4 million in salary cap space as of Sunday, barely enough to pay for their draft picks.
Hill’s contract could create a little cap space, but Winston is not going to get paid top dollar there.
Winston made nearly $21 million last season. The Raiders gave former Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota a two-year, $17.6 million contract, with $7.5 million guaranteed. Winston’s contract could include an option year.
If you’re Winston, why not go to a team with a wobbly starter and be prepared to strike, the way Ryan Tannehill did with the Titans last season?
Tannehill led Tennessee to the AFC Championship Game after taking over for Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 behind Winston, and was rewarded last month with a four-year, $118 million deal.
First, we don’t know what — if any — offers Winston was considering.
But is going to a bad organization such as Jacksonville and waiting for quarterback Gardner Minshew to implode a better path to securing a starting job with long-term success?
It’s shocking to see how far and how fast Winston’s stock has fallen.
Surely there are not 31 other starting quarterbacks who are better than Winston. But that position is all about trust, which has eroded over the past five years in Tampa Bay.
As if Saints-Bucs wasn’t already a made-for-TV matchup with Brady versus Brees, imagine if it were Brady versus Winston.
Among the many motivational phrases Winston frequently repeats, include this: It’s a minor setback for a major comeback.
The setback feels larger than that for Winston. The comeback could be a nightmare for the Bucs.
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