The New Orleans Saints appeared as if they’d have the last laugh. Only two years after throwing 30 interceptions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, veteran quarterback Jameis Winston led the Saints, his former NFC South rivals, to a 5-2 start and looked sharp early in the 2021 campaign.
Then came a revenge game against those same Buccaneers on Halloween. Winston tore his ACL midway through the Saints’ 36-27 victory and missed the rest of the 2021 season. Despite coming off a severe knee injury, the Florida State product could become a trendy name on the free-agent market. Now feels like the best time to rank the teams that could pursue his services.
For this list, we ranked the best potential teams based on everything from the current roster and cap space to whatever else might attract the player in question. In Winston’s case, the possible appealing factors include a playoff contender and where he’d have the best chance of entering next season as the starting quarterback.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the best teams for Winston rank as follows.
5. Indianapolis Colts
If the Colts move on from Carson Wentz, the team needs to find someone who will either be as good or better. Unless one of Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, or Tom Brady becomes available, the odds are against that quarterback emerging anytime soon.
Is Winston as good as Wentz? No. Would the Florida State product be an adequate replacement? That one is up for debate. Should Winston be the top free-agent target, especially considering the Colts will almost certainly need to eat a substantial amount of money if they trade Wentz? Absolutely, which is why the Colts make our list, albeit at No. 5.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders are in a similar — but not identical, and that’s extremely important to note — position as the Colts. The three-time Super Bowl champions haven’t indicated they’ll trade Carr, who is entering the final year of his contract, this offseason.
If the Raiders do trade Carr, Winston makes perfect sense as either a stopgap replacement or someone who can serve as the long-term starter. But, if the Raiders don’t trade Carr, Winston still makes sense as a backup if Las Vegas intends to continue its strategy of having a legitimate, proven No. 2 behind the Fresno State product. Marcus Mariota, who is expected to join Winston on the free-agent market, has backed up Carr the last two seasons.
3. New Orleans Saints
At this point, there is no reason to believe the Saints don’t want Winston back in 2022. Before he injured his knee, the veteran quarterback completed 59% of his passes for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only three interceptions in seven games last year. That’s a 2,841-yard, 34-touchdown, 7-interception pace across a 17-game season.
If Winston is willing to run it back in New Orleans on another one-year contract, the Saints should strongly consider opting for continuity. The Super Bowl 44 champions aren’t in a position where they have the cap or draft picks to make a significant quarterback acquisition this offseason.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
So much of this potential reunion is dependent on what the Buccaneers are able to do after Tom Brady’s retirement. Blaine Gabbert is not a viable option and Kyle Trask, a second-round pick in 2021, is unproven. Conversely, Wilson would be a significant upgrade if the Seahawks made him available.
However, Winston is familiar with Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, and perennial Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans. But, and this is a major but, would the Buccaneers feel comfortable giving him the keys again? Winston had bouts of immaturity in his five years with the Buccaneers, and his history of turnovers speaks for itself.
If Arians and Leftwich believe Winston is a different quarterback and person than he was when he left the team two years ago, they need to strongly consider bringing him home. Otherwise, the Buccaneers would be wise to turn their eyes to a quarterback not named Blaine Gabbert.
1. Denver Broncos
The Washington Commanders’ exclusion might frustrate some fans who are still enduring the franchise’s nonsense. However, the outside expectation is currently that Washington will draft a quarterback and have that player compete with Taylor Heinicke throughout the upcoming offseason. Enter the Denver Broncos, a team also needing a quarterback.
Denver needed a franchise quarterback long before the Broncos hired Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Although Hackett didn’t call plays in Green Bay, he has extensive experience with Rodgers and Blake Bortles, each of whom raved about the veteran coach.
The duo of Hackett and Winston likely won’t be enough for the Broncos to emerge victorious in a loaded AFC West. However, Denver checks every box the veteran quarterback should have entering the 2022 offseason.