NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and New Orleans Saints backup Jameis Winston are not exactly where they were expected to be at this point in their careers.
Both won a Heisman Trophy and were the No. 1 overall selections of their draft classes. Neither is with his first NFL team.
“I don’t like comparing anybody’s story because every story is a little different,” Mayfield said. “But yeah, similar in the aspect of being the first pick (and) not having it exactly go as you wanted it to, but then getting opportunities to have a fresh start.”
Mayfield is with his fourth club since being drafted by Cleveland in 2018. Winston, who entered the league with Tampa Bay in 2015, is with his second team, but lost his starting job in New Orleans three games into last season.
Winston has said he believes he could be a starter again — and might get a chance to show why when the Buccaneers (2-1) visit the Saints (2-1) on Sunday.
Saints starter Derek Carr missed two practices this week because of a shoulder sprain and was listed as questionable after practicing on a limit basis Friday. Coach Dennis Allen said the medical staff would see how Carr’s shoulder feels Saturday before further updating his playing status.
Winston took first-team snaps this week with the prospect of returning to the lineup against the team that let him go in 2020.
“I’m prepared,” Winston said, but stopped short of confirming he would play. “I’m grateful for this opportunity. I know this is Tampa and they drafted me, but at the same time, this is a division opponent and we have to be ready.”
The game could be labeled the “Bust Bowl” by those who had far higher hopes for Mayfield and Winston.
But Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, now in his 13th season, said it’s tough to tell whether a player has plateaued in the NFL — or still has potential.
“It just depends on where your peak is,” Jordan said. “If all you ever hear is, ‘he’s got potential,’ you can potentially be out of a starting job.”
Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. noted that Drew Brees, who shattered every New Orleans passing record that mattered, had a difficult start to his pro career with the San Diego Chargers.
“He was benched a few times, but then all of a sudden it just clicked,” Carmichael said. “That can be unique to every guy.”
The Saints see evidence that Mayfield — who captivated fans with his brash, gunslinger persona as a college player at Oklahoma — is refining his approach.
“I do see a mature Baker,” said Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu, who faced Mayfield during the regular season in 2018 and in the AFC playoffs two seasons later.
“Early in his career, he just tried to do a lot,” Mathieu said. “Now he’s trying to make the best decision. … It’s much more under control from what I’ve seen lately.”
Mayfield’s statistics bear that out. He leads the NFL in third-down completion rate (78.1%) and has one turnover in three games.
Winston has never taken a team to the playoffs, but has been prolific at times. He passed for 5,109 yards and 33 TDs for the Bucs in 2019 — but also threw 30 interceptions.
“He’s had success in this league. We’ve got to find a way to put him in those positions to do the things that he’s had success with,” Carmichael said. “I’m very comfortable with him.”
Bucs coach Todd Bowles said he considers the return of Alvin Kamara from his three-game suspension a bigger development for New Orleans’ offense than a quarterback change would be.
“It’s going to be a chore because he’s the most athletic of all the running backs they have,” Bowles said, noting that Kamara’s return also will make it tougher to beef up coverage of speedy wideouts Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed. “They’ll have a bit more juice in the backfield to go with the speed they have outside.”
The Bucs had the worst rushing attack in the NFL last season and are averaging just 78 yards per game on the ground so far this season.
Philadelphia limited them to 41 yards on 17 attempts Monday night, with Rachaad White accounting for most of that (38 yards on 14 carries).
Bowles offered a blunt assessment of the running attack against the Eagles.
“We didn’t have one,” Bowles said. “We’re not going to sit here and sugarcoat anything.”
More than once, these teams have engaged in after-the-whistle melees that resulted in ejections and suspensions.
On two occasions, matchups between Bucs star receiver Mike Evans and Saints star cornerback Marshon Lattimore were at the center of the scuffles.
“You know Marshon will be ready,” Kamara said with a grin. “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do, it just is what it is. If something happens, we’ll address the issue, but it is what it is. Y’all know how this game goes.”
Bowles’ defenses have been among the NFL’s best at forcing turnovers since Tampa Bay hired him as defensive coordinator four years ago and promoted him to head coach in 2022.
The Bucs have five interceptions through three games, tied with San Francisco and Dallas for second in the NFL. The Saints are tied for fifth with four.
Tampa Bay has seven takeaways overall, tied with Philadelphia for third-most in the league behind Buffalo (nine) and Pittsburgh (eight).
Bowles expects the turnover ratio to be pivotal in New Orleans.
“The winner of this game usually has the margin of turnovers on their side,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.