Barnwell: Who can gain or lose (a lot) in the NFL’s second half

Nobody feels a good game or a bad game more than professional football players. The season-to-season attrition rate and the unguaranteed contract structure of the NFL mean that the vast majority of players are in perpetual contract years. One good game might be enough to get a player a look the following year. A skill-position player might only get a start or a handful of touches to prove himself before being buried on the depth chart.

With that in mind, there are plenty of players, coaches and executives with a lot riding on what happens in the weeks to come over the second half of the season. Think about someone like Case Keenum, who was nearly benched after throwing two interceptions against Washington in Week 9 a year ago. Keenum kept his job, won six of his next seven games, and earned $25 million guaranteed in the subsequent deal he signed with the Broncos during the offseason. Had Keenum been benched for Teddy Bridgewater, it might have been the former Louisville star earning the big contract and Keenum settling for a one-year pact.

Let’s look at the people around the league who have the most to gain or lose over the next few months. Many of those players were impacted by the games we just saw in Week 8. Let’s start with a quarterback who was banished to the bench on Sunday:

Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are three NFL teams in Florida. One has an injured starting quarterback. Another benched its disappointing young quarterback last week. The third Florida team did the same Sunday. I mentioned last Monday that the Jaguars were likely to restore Blake Bortles back to the starting lineup quickly, given that they didn’t really have a viable backup and already were priced into playing Bortles through 2019.

The Buccaneers might stick Winston back into the lineup for Sunday’s game at the Panthers, but they don’t have the same excuses for maintaining the status quo. In Ryan Fitzpatrick, they have a credible backup who was better in this scheme with these teammates as recently as last month. And while the Bucs once used the first overall draft pick on Winston and picked up his fifth-year option for 2019 before the season, the only thing that would force them to pay Winston after this season would be an injury. His contract status means that we have to think about Winston’s future differently.

Even given that Fitzpatrick was benched for Winston earlier this year, the two haven’t been remotely comparable. While they’ve split the pass attempts in Tampa close to 50-50, the Bucs have been far more productive with Fitzpatrick under center this season:

I don’t think the difference between the two would be this large going forward, but it’s reasonable to suggest that Fitzpatrick is the better quarterback of the two. Their numbers over the past four years have actually been virtually identical. Since Winston entered the league, he has posted a passer rating of 86.1 and a Total QBR of 56.5. Over that same time frame, Fitzpatrick has been good for a passer rating of 85.4 and a Total QBR of … 56.6.

With the Buccaneers, though, Fitz has posted a 101.6 passer rating and a 69.1 Total QBR, and I wonder if he’s the better fit for this offense, which is designed to scare teams vertically. He has been far more efficient on deep passes, completing 60 percent of his throws 16-plus yards downfield while averaging 20.1 yards per attempt. Winston is at 45.9 percent and 10.5 yards per deep pass.

The reason Winston was benched, though, was his turnover problem. The Florida State product has thrown at least two interceptions in each of his four appearances this season, which is impressive when you consider that he played only one half against the Bears in Week 3 and three quarters against the Bengals on Sunday. Winston has thrown 10 picks on just 148 pass attempts. He has fumbled four times, losing one.

Jameis Winston, right, now has six touchdown passes and 10 interceptions this season, despite being suspended for the first three games. Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Watch those 10 interceptions and you might be able to squint and make excuses. Winston has had two of those picks tipped by pass-rushers at the line of scrimmage. One pass bounced off a defender’s helmet and bounced 10 feet into the air. He appears to have played against linebackers with some of the best hands in league history, given how players like Aaron Lynch and Jamie Collins have managed to catch passes most linebackers would typically tip away or drop.

And yet, at the same time, you can’t hand-wave away these throws. Winston had an interception tipped at the line, but it came on a play in which he froze and seemed to be in a staring contest before getting rid of the ball. He has repeatedly struggled to recognize linebackers and edge rushers dropping late into his throwing lanes, which was a problem on the Lynch pick. Throws over the middle of the field have been an absolute crapshoot. By the third quarter Sunday, Winston was open missing receivers by nearly seven yards, as was the case with Cameron Brate per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

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