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Why Buccaneers should give Jameis Winston at least one more year

Volatility.

It’s a word that makes coaches cringe when it comes to quarterback play, but it’s also a style that is embraced by many signal-callers around the NFL. No quarterback exemplifies volatility quite like Jameis Winston, who offers a smorgasbord of highlights and lowlights on a weekly basis. Winston’s play fluctuates wildly, as he’ll pepper the field with accurate downfield throws before misreading an underneath linebacker like a high-schooler.

There may not be a better breakdown of Winston’s play than this clip from “The Office.”

This season, the Bucs have gotten the full Jameis experience — from his seven games with at least three turnover-worthy plays (multiple quarterbacks have 10 or fewer turnover-worthy plays for the entire season) to his back-to-back 400-yard efforts and the fourth-highest point total in the league (416).

Jameis’ volatility matches his scouting report out of college, as he started his career with one of the most dominant stretches of play by a freshman in college football history before settling into his roller-coaster-like ways that led to a healthy dose of NFL-caliber throws and turnover-worthy plays.

When Winston and Marcus Mariota were the hot debate during the 2015 draft season, I leaned upon the analogy that Mariota was the safer choice who could get your team “on the green” more often (to the playoffs, but a longer shot to win it). Meanwhile, Winston was going to go full “Tin Cup” trying to put the ball right next to the hole — and he may miss a few greens (miss the playoffs) —  but when he hits it, he has a much better chance of sinking a putt (winning a championship).

The premise was that Winston’s volatility would lead to a number of seasons filled with high-end play but also high-end mistakes. If he could just cut down on those mistakes for one season or perhaps just one playoff push, he had the ability to carry a team and win a championship (see: Eli Manning).

We’re still waiting for that dominant season from Winston, and a deeper dive into the data suggests we may never get there.

Let’s take a look.

What does it take to have a “breakout” season?

If the goal is achieving a high-end, team-carrying season, it’s important to know just how common that is. Over the last decade-plus, there’s a clear consensus that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have been the best quarterbacks in the league — and the PFF passing grades back up their dominance. Since 2010, the quartet has accounted for 65% of the top 20 seasons by PFF passing grade. They make up 63.3% of the top 30, 57.5% of the top 40, and 53.3% of all grades of 85.0-plus. If Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan are added to the mix, those nine quarterbacks make up 93.3% of the top 30 and 86.7% of all grades of 85.0-plus.

Assuming Winston does not belong in the top-10 quarterback conversation at this point in his career, let’s take a look at the outliers to see if they match his profile. Among the quarterbacks with passing grades of 85.0-plus this decade, we see an intriguing group of one-year wonders and Patrick Mahomes, who will most likely become a mainstay on the list. The others include 2011 Eli Manning, 2012 Robert Griffin III, 2015 Cam Newton, 2015 Carson Palmer and 2016 Derek Carr.

To understand these outlier seasons, it’s important to note that our research shows that negatively graded throws are more stable than positives, meaning a quarterback “is what he is” with regard to decision making and hitting throws, but positively graded throws (those which move the chains and add value) can fluctuate from year to year. This makes sense intuitively, as we know that a quarterback’s supporting cast must account for a chunk of his production (actual passing stats), and the fluctuation in positively graded throws is a good way to identify similar changes in supporting cast (how often receivers get open, good/bad play-calling, offensive line performance). As we dive into those five outlier seasons from this decade, we see a consistent theme regarding an increase in positively graded throws.

NFL ranks in % of positively graded throws

 Eli ManningRobert Griffin IIICam NewtonCarson PalmerDerek Carr
20104th8th
20115th13th11th
20126th2nd13th22nd
201315th19th6th9th
20146th35th2nd21st33rd
201521st1st2nd19th
201627th10th9th8th
201728th6th11th24th
201830th12th29th
201920th
2011 Eli Manning

Manning was in the midst of a strong run in regard to positively graded throws, ranking fifth in the NFL during the 2011 season, but it was his ability to hit on big-time throws (second-highest percentage in the league) while avoiding turnover-worthy plays that made his second Super Bowl run so special — and an outlier. Manning ranked 12th at avoiding turnover-worthy plays that season, by far his best effort this decade, as his second-best finish came in 2012 when he ranked 22nd.

2012 Robert Griffin III

RG3’s rookie season is a different kind of outlier on this list, as the others had a baseline of performance that was exceeded, while he took the league by storm before tapering off. Griffin’s excellent season came down to his No. 2 ranking in positively graded throws — a ranking that fell to 19th and 35th over the next two seasons. The 2012 Redskins did a fantastic job of using play-action to create open throws, and RG3 took advantage to put together one of the biggest outlier seasons in NFL history.

2015 Cam Newton

Newton is often the high-variance passer that I’ve used to describe Winston, and his consistency with negatively graded throws matches up well. Newton has ranked between 22nd and 34th at avoiding negatives every full season of his career, and that includes his MVP-caliber 2015 campaign. The difference that season was the jump in positively graded throws to first, and a drop in turnover-worthy throws that saw Newton finish ninth-best in the league. The Panthers' offense went from bigger, slower receivers to smaller, more dynamic playmakers in 2015, and Newton had more opportunities to create plays down the field.

2015 Carson Palmer

Palmer’s breakout coincided with Newton’s, and there was a similar sharp increase in positively graded throws, as he finished second. This was by far Palmer’s highest ranking of the decade. He never finished better than ninth in positives, and he also finished second in big-time throw percentage while his negatively graded throws remained static (finished between 11th and 13 in four out of five seasons). The 2015 Cardinals spread the field with speedy playmakers and uber-possession receiver Larry Fitzgerald, all leading to Palmer’s peak, MVP-caliber season.

2016 Derek Carr

The one outlier who may still have a chance to get back to prominence, Carr put together a standout 2016 season that does not match the rest of his career production. He ranked eighth in positively graded throws, and he’s never come close to replicating that performance, as his No. 19 ranking in 2015 is his second-best effort in that department. Carr appeared to be on the verge of taking the “next step” in his development, growing his chemistry wide reiceiver Amari Cooper. But Carr has settled into the more conservative end of the spectrum over the last two seasons, as he’s in the Alex Smith category of low positives and low negatives.

To recap: Each of these five outlier seasons featured career-best efforts in positively graded throw percentage, despite overall negatives remaining largely static (outside of turnover-worthy plays). So what does that mean for Jameis?

Has Jameis actually maxed out his potential?

Potential is an overused word in football, especially since it’s often used for players with good traits who have yet to show that they are good football players. Potential, from a data standpoint, is different — we can look at the data points that we feel comfortable in predicting from year to year while understanding that the unstable metrics can lead to both career years in one extreme or a benching in the other extreme.

Jameis Winston: Positively and negatively graded throws percentage rank
 Pos. graded throws rankAvoiding neg. graded throws rank
20154th35th
20163rd25th
20171st30th
20182nd31st
20193rd27th

For Winston, there may not be a path to duplicate the aforementioned career years, as he has already been at the very top end of positively graded throws. There’s little room for Winston to improve his value-adding positives, as he’s ranked in the top four in that department every year of his career and he’s No. 1 in positively graded throw percentage since entering the league.

As expected, the negatively graded throws have remained stable, with Winston ranking between 25th and 35th in his five NFL seasons. The most amazing part of Winston’s volatility, and what most scouts would call “inconsistency,” is his year-over-year consistency. Winston may be the most consistently inconsistent quarterback in NFL history.

Winston’s consistency is properly reflected in his PFF grades, as he’s finished between 69.9 and 73.7 in all five years of his career. While the raw stats have moved a bit over in each of those seasons and we’re currently seeing Winston trying to lead the league in both touchdowns and interceptions, he’s largely the same exact player. Winston may have the widest range of outcomes at a play or game level, but he also may be the most predictable player in the NFL at a season level. He is what he is.

Most Volatile QBs
Matthew Stafford2019
Jameis Winston2019
Jameis Winston2018
Cam Newton2017
Jameis Winston2017
Matt Barkley2016
Jameis Winston2015
Cam Newton2014
Jay Cutler2010
QBs who rank in top 20% in both positively and negatively graded throws in same season: (2010-19)

So what is he?

If we know what we’re getting from Jameis, let’s examine what that means for his statistical output. Ultimately, an offense wants to get positive production out of the passing attack. And while the quarterback is certainly the biggest driver of passing output, we know that supporting cast and play-callers also have a big impact, as well.

Using various metrics, we can assume some level of stability from the predictable Jameis, while looking at similar seasons of the past.

If Winston maintains his ranking in the top 20% of negatively graded throws…

Good result: 2019 Matthew Stafford

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Matthew Stafford201964.3%8.6195106.081.4

Look no further than Stafford’s downfield revival prior to his injury. He ranked second in positively graded throws and posted the second-highest percentage of negatively graded throws, but Stafford saw a huge increase in his big-time throw percentage, also ranking second in that department. It led to career highs in passer rating (106.0) and yards/attempt (8.6).

Bad result: 2013 Eli Manning

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Eli Manning201357.5%6.9182769.470.6

Manning was coming off the two best seasons of his career, but his positively graded throws dropped from sixth to 15th, and he posted Winston-like ranks of 35th in turnover-worthy throw percentage and 33rd in negatively graded throws. It resulted in a passer rating of just 69.4 and a league-high 27 interceptions against just 18 touchdowns.

If turnovers are just a part of Winston’s DNA, and we assume at least 25 turnover-worthy plays in a season…

Good result: 2018 Jared Goff

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Jared Goff201864.9%8.43212101.184.3

The Rams went to the Super Bowl as Goff thrived in their play-action driven attack, despite him ranking just 25th at avoiding turnover-worthy plays. He offset the poor decisions with career-bests in positively graded throws (4th), big-time throws (9th) and avoiding negatives (17th). Those rankings are all achievable for Winston if he’s protected as much as Goff was in 2018.

Bad result: 2016 Cam Newton

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Cam Newton201652.9%6.9191475.869.4

Coming off his MVP season, Newton dropped back to 10th in positively graded throws while maintaining his usual bottom-third status in negatives. His turnover-worthy play percentage ranked just 31st that season, and it resulted in the league’s No. 31-ranked passer rating of 75.8 and a Winston-like 68.5 passing grade.

While PFF WAR is less style-driven and more about final production and value, we can use it as a proxy to find similar quarterback seasons.

Good results:

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Cam Newton201559.8%7.8351099.486.0

The top line is a favorable group of quarterbacks, as Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 13-win season. Newton’s 2015 MVP season shows up once again, while two AFC Conference finalists are also prominent in 2017 Blake Bortles and in 2014 Andrew Luck — although Luck did far more to carry his team while Bortles became a tamed gunslinger that paired with a top defense.

Bad results:

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Nick Foles201556.4%6.171069.058.9

There are a few ugly results on here, as well. Nick Foles struggled mightily with the Rams in 2015 (69.0 passer rating) and Sam Bradford posted pedestrian numbers in 2012. It’s also concerning that injury-riddled 2015 Andrew Luck and his 50.1 PFF grade showed up on the list.

Finally, using PFF’s clustering algorithm, we can use our grading criteria (positives, negatives, etc.) to look at similar passers with regard to style and performance. Winston annually lands in the volatile, yet productive, passers and the comparables land on the encouraging side for the Bucs.

Good results:

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Carson Wentz201760.2%7.5337101.984.7

Carson Wentz lands in a similar cluster as Winston during his 2017 MVP campaign. And like many of the outlier seasons, it saw Wentz rank third in positively graded throws and fifth in big-time throws despite finishing 23rd in negatives. We also see Winston’s 2018 teammate, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went on an excellent run last season, finishing with a passer rating of 100.4 and 9.6 yards per attempt despite YOLO-balling to the No. 34 rank in avoiding turnover-worthy plays. The other encouraging name is 2016 Marcus Mariota, who took a pedestrian 66.8 PFF grade and turned it into a passer rating of 95.6, 11th-best in the league. Mariota pulled this off despite a No. 28 ranking in negatively graded throws.

Bad results:

 YearComp%Yards/Att.TDINTPasser RatingPFF Pass Grade
Carson Palmer201761.4%7.49784.465.8

Winston’s comparables also include 2017 Carson Palmer, who posted a 65.3 PFF grade and 84.4 passer rating on his way to retirement.

Final Word

While it appears the Bucs have a difficult decision on their hands, especially given Winston’s recent uptick in play, the reality is that Winston finally caught back up to his previous baselines. The one new variable in the mix is head coach Bruce Arians, who claims an 11-to-12 week adjustment period for his offense, and that coincides with Winston’s recent success.

Regardless, there’s little room for Winston to change his PFF grading profile in the same manner that previous outlier-breakout seasons occurred. However, Winston's consistently inconsistent style results in a wide range of outcomes, from 2017 Carson Wentz to out-of-the league Carson Palmer. Winston’s volatility puts the onus on top-notch playmakers and some interception luck in order to produce at a high level offensively, and he just needs a defense that can cover well in inevitable shootouts. For that reason — and given the Bucs’ recent investment in the secondary that is finally starting to pay off — the franchise tag should be on the table for Winston. It would be one more year to see if they can hit on some magic, all while keeping a close eye on free agency and the draft for the next potential downfield passer in the Arians system.

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