ZMI ALPHA:‘Perfect’ or puzzling? PFF eyes Jameis Winston as Patriots free-agent fit

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ZMI ALPHA:‘Perfect’ or puzzling? PFF eyes Jameis Winston as Patriots free-agent fit

In its latest NFL free agency primer, Pro Football Focus lists a veteran quarterback as a “perfect fit” for the New England Patriots. And that signal-caller is not Cam Newton.

PFF’s Seth Galina points to former No. 1-overall pick Jameis Winston as an option for the Patriots to bring in once the new league year begins March 17. Though the Patriots reportedly don’t love this year’s crop of free-agent quarterbacks, Galina argues a free-agent signing like Winston is the only guarantee for upgrading New England’s quarterback room given the dubious availability of the 2021 NFL Draft’s top prospects.

“Dak Prescott is the best choice,” he writes, “but the chance of him becoming available is pretty slim. So this move really comes down to Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston. If it’s Fitzpatrick, then it’s a stopgap until they find their next true quarterback. With Winston, Bill Belichick might believe he can be the one who molds him into a real NFL quarterback.”

Signing Winston would certainly provide a level of upside the Patriots didn’t have last season, their first without Tom Brady in 20 years.

The former 2015 first-overall pick spent last season backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans, though he was famously passed over for a chance to start in favor of Taysom Hill when Brees went down with an injury.

But Winston’s still just 27 years old and threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2019, his last season as a full-time starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In that campaign, PFF ranked him fourth in the league with 31 “big-time throws,” which are passes defined by “excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” His arm strength and aggressive play would, in theory, challenge defenses down the field more than Newton was able to do consistently.

However, the “high-reward” portion of Winston’s scouting report comes with at least equally high risk.

He threw a whopping 30 interceptions in 2019, and he could have had even more, according to PFF’s attributing 40 “turnover-worthy” throws to Winston that year. For perspective, Brady and Newton’s worst single-season interception totals in New England topped out at 14; Winston has thrown more picks than that in three of his five seasons as a starter.

The former Buccaneer also has a history of off-the-field issues, including sexual assault allegations in 2012 while he was still at Florida State University and in 2016 while in Tampa Bay — the latter led the NFL to suspend him for three games in 2018. That said, he has had no documented issues since that point, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has shown a willingness to take on players with off-the-field issues in the past.

But the biggest obstacle to the Patriots possibly bringing Winston on board is the Saints’ apparent desire to re-sign him themselves if Brees retires. Saints head coach Sean Payton told media outlets during Super Bowl that New Orleans would like to re-sign Winston “sooner than later,” praising the veteran’s arm talent and saying the team has a plan to develop both Winston and Hill.

It’s also worth noting that a one-year deal for Winston ($7 million) would be more expensive than for Newton (one year, $5 million), as projected by PFF cap analyst Brad Spielberger. And though the Patriots have plenty of cap space to use this offseason, it’s worth wondering if the relatively lower-risk and likely lower-cost Newton — who already has spent time in New England’s system — might be more appealing than the more volatile Winston.

In short, while a team might indeed “pay big money to try to fix” Winston, as Gallina prognosticates, it is far from guaranteed that the team in question will be the New England Patriots.

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