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Jameis Winston suspension would affect Buccaneers little, hurt QB much more

Sporting News logo Sporting News 6/24/2018 Vinnie Iyer
a close up of Jameis Winston © (Getty Images) Jameis Winston

The outlook for the 2018 Buccaneers doesn't change with quarterback Jameis Winston staring at a three-game suspension. The only Buccaneer it hurts is Winston himself.

With solid proof from last season, Tampa Bay still has one of the league's best backups in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, it also has one of the league's toughest early schedules.

Tampa Bay opens at New Orleans, the reigning NFC South champion and heavy favorite to repeat. Then the Bucs host the Super Bowl-champion Eagles and AFC North-champion Steelers in back-to-back games. Ouch, ouch and ouch.

The Bucs' biggest problem against those teams — coming off a season in which they finished dead last in the league in total defense — will be facing three of the league's most balanced, explosive and prolific offenses. In other words, winning even one of those games would have been difficult with Winston.

MORE: Winston ban a plea deal?

Fitzpatrick started exactly three games in 2017 when Winston aggravated a shoulder injury, and he saw significant action when Winston was initially hurt in Week 6. As expected, there was some Fitzmagic in two of those games (Cardinals, Dolphins) and below-average play in the other two (Jets, Falcons).

That was enough for the Bucs to re-sign Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal in March. It was a no-brainer, given Winston had just missed games because of injury for the first time and also was dealing with an accusation that he groped a female Uber driver in March 2016.

The NFL appears to have found enough evidence (by its standards) in the investigation into the alleged incident to keep Winston from playing for (by its standards) a random amount of time.

This is a critical season for Winston, and his not playing out of the gate is a bad start. Although he has shown steady progress in each of his first three seasons working with head coach (and former offensive coordinator) Dirk Koetter, it's no longer a given the first overall pick in the 2015 draft will become the NFL's next highest-paid quarterback when he receives an extension beyond the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. He needs to go out and earn that money with consistently stronger play.

Winston arguably still has the highest upside of any QB in the league given his arm talent and pedigree. The Bucs' offense is set up to give him his best weapons yet, with tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin primed for second-year breakouts and rookie Ronald Jones III in the backfield.

The Bucs' early schedule was Winston's chance to reach the next stage of his trajectory while dueling Drew Brees, Carson Wentz (probably) and Ben Roethlisberger, regardless of whether the defense would (likely) cost his team all three games.

Fitzpatrick has always been overexposed as the NFL's top journeyman south of Josh McCown when teams needs him to be a regular starter, but he's good at coming off the bench for short stretches and leaning on the best talent around him. So there's a fair chance Fitzpatrick will play well in one or two of those games, only for that effort to be rendered moot.

The Bucs, playing in the division where every other team went to the playoffs in 2017, don't profile as contenders, and an 0-3 start is more of an expectation than a surprise. 

The key, then, will be whether Winston can bridge the gap from promising to great; that hope is a big reason why Koetter is still the Bucs' coach. Marcus Mariota (drafted one spot after Winston in '15), Wentz, Jared Goff and Deshaun Watson all look to be on faster tracks. Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky are on deck.

The suspension reportedly will be only three games, but that's a lot for a QB who is trying to live up to his lofty draft status.

Winston has a ton more to prove this year. It will be impossible to do that at the maximum level when his season will be incomplete from the start.

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