Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston a useful case study if Lions look beyond Matthew Stafford

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Allen Park — With many fans clamoring for change again with the Lions organization, most of the chatter revolves around the coach and general manager.

Meanwhile, quarterback Matthew Stafford temporarily quieted many of his critics with a strong start to the season before a back injury knocked him out of the lineup for the first time since 2011.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has thrown 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions this season.

But if the Lions make bold moves at the top of the organization, it’s worth wondering if a new regime would want their own signal caller. Or, if coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn are retained, maybe Stafford could serve as the fall guy for a season unraveled.

Even if the Lions elect to keep Stafford this offseason, there’s a case to be made for the Kansas City and Baltimore models of using a high draft pick to nab a quarterback of the future. With quarterback being such a crucial position for the league, it’s worth asking once again: If not Stafford, then who?

Across the way at Ford Field on Sunday, Tampa Bay (6-7) likely will feature another first overall pick at quarterback in Jameis Winston, the top selection in 2014.

Winston’s up-and-down career mirrors Stafford’s in some ways. Both are prolifically talented quarterbacks who haven’t lifted the franchise in the way fans had hoped.

The Florida State product hopes to play Sunday despite a thumb injury, but even when healthy this year, it’s been more of a rocky road than you’d hope for from your franchise QB.

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With 26 touchdowns and a league-high 23 interceptions, there’s an outside chance the fifth-year starter becomes the first player in NFL history to throw 30 apiece in one season.

Winston is dealing with a new offense under coach Bruce Arians, who has brought in former NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich as offensive coordinator.

Arians said he expects interceptions for a quarterback in the first season of a new offense, but said he’d prefer more of a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio than something like 1:1.

With 81 career interceptions in his five seasons, Winston has learned to bounce back.

“That’s one of his strengths is going on to the next play,” Arians said. “Good, bad or indifferent he’s on to the next play, and it’s like water off of his back, and it doesn’t bother him. I really like that about him.”

Winston's career is a peek into the boom-or-bust nature of blue-chip quarterbacks.

The Lions will be picking in the top 10 next spring, and there’s always a chance you find the next Patrick Mahomes or Andrew Luck.

But consider this: Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 since 2010, only six have started and won playoff games for the teams that drafted them, the primary knock on Stafford, who has not in Detroit.

In addition, only Jared Goff and Cam Newton, both first overall picks, played in Super Bowls for the teams that selected them. Two teams, Jacksonville and Arizona, have selected quarterbacks in the Top 10 twice since Stafford was picked.

It’s impossible for fans to know if LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa are more Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, but based on the track record, it’s not much more clear for front offices.

Eight quarterbacks were picked in the top 10 in five drafts starting in 2010 — the year after Stafford went first overall — and only one started a game for his drafting team this season.

As for Winston, the Buccaneers are 27-40 in games he’s started. But his 4,115 passing yards are already a career high, and his 316.5 passing yards per game are nearly 50 yards better than his previous high.

The Lions, however, are tied with Dallas for worst in the NFL with just five interceptions.

"They've got a strong-armed quarterback that's willing to throw the ball. He's throwing interceptions because he's not scared to throw the ball," safety Tracy Walker said. "He's coming out there with a game plan to air it out on us, and come up with those same plays they've been doing.

"If the plays come, we going to make those plays. If he decides to make mistakes, we're going to capitalize, of course."

Stafford signed a five-year extension in 2017 and three years remain on the deal. His salary cap hit is $31.5 million next season with a $26 million cap hit if he’s cut.

By throwing 19 touchdowns with five interceptions with a career-high quarterback rating of 106.0, the Lions also likely would have trade suitors for the quarterback.

But with erratic play at times for highly drafted quarterbacks, with the successes somewhat few and far between, it’s worth looking across the field on Sunday at what could lie ahead.

Seller beware.

QB or not QB

Since Matthew Stafford went first overall in 2009, the same year Mark Sanchez went fifth overall the New York Jets, 20 quarterbacks have been drafted in the Top 10. They are:

2010: Sam Bradford (No. 1 overall), St. Louis

2011: Cam Newton (1), Carolina; Jake Locker (8), Tennessee; Blaine Gabbert (10), Jacksonville

2012: Andrew Luck (1), Indianapolis; Robert Griffin III (2), Washington; Ryan Tannehill (8), Miami

2013: None selected

2014: Blake Bottles (3), Jacksonville

2015: Jameis Winston (1), Tampa Bay; Marcus Mariota (2), Tennessee

2016: Jared Goff (1), Los Angeles Rams; Carson Wentz (2), Philadelphia

2017: Mitchell Trubisky (2), Chicago; Patrick Mahomes (10), Kansas City

2018: Baker Mayfield (1), Cleveland; Sam Darnold (3), New York Jets; Josh Allen (7), Buffalo; Josh Rosen (10), Arizona

2019: Kyler Murray (1), Arizona; Daniel Jones (6), New York Giants

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.