The Next Step for Jameis Winston: The NFL Draft

Is Jameis Winston an elite pro talent?

That question now needs to be answered by either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Tennessee Titans, after Winston (and his dad) decided to take their talents from Tallahassee to the next level on Wednesday.

There is no doubt that Winston’s arm strength and pocket presence make him a first-round talent worth rolling the dice on. The biggest question for Winston, both on and off the field, comes down to one word: decisions.

On the field, the biggest question for Winston is his decision making when it comes to forcing the ball down the field. It is impossible to overlook that Winston threw 18 interceptions this season and 10 last season. However, more of the Florida State offense was expected to be generated by the passing game. Winston attempted over 80 more pass attempts in 2014 than he did in his Heisman winning season in 2013. Many of these interceptions this past season felt like forced throws when Winston was just trying to do too much. With a more balanced offense, he would have taken fewer chances.

Off the field, the transgressions for Winston have been well documented by every media outlet. There is no question that Winston has a lot of growing up to do, but combined with the structure that could be provided by most NFL coaches and franchises, the learning curve could come quickly.

The common comparison with Winston that has been mentioned often and will continue to surface is the one to Johnny Manziel. This is popular because of the attention that surrounds each player. It will also certainly get overhyped due to Manziel’s struggles this season. However, the ESPN hype and attention is where the comparison stops. Manziel never faced anything anywhere near what Winston did (a rape accusation and everything that flowed from it).

Another main difference is the way teammates look at each player. While Jimbo Fisher likely won’t exchange Christmas cards with him, it is clear that Winston’s teammates love him and would run through a wall for him. On the other hand, does anyone really think that the 10 other players in the Cleveland Browns’ huddle look at Manziel and his Bieber-like lifestyle and take him seriously as a leader?

Sure, either can grow in the right situation with the right leadership and structure. Look at Cam Newton. With Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers, Newton has grown into one of the faces of the game and has led the Panthers to the playoffs two years in a row with back-to-back division titles. Another aspect of Newton’s game reminds me of Winston as well: his throwing mechanics. When coming out of college, Newton’s throwing motion was a question mark. Winston, a fellow Heisman winner, has been subjected to some of the same criticisms. Again, that can be re-taught, even before the draft.

Many or all of the shortcomings for Winston can be taught, in fact. This is similar to the way it was with Newton. The only question is whether he will be as receptive.

Though there are some questions about Winston, he has the ability to be a good starting NFL quarterback. Most of the time Winston is quite accurate when he is not trying to unwisely force the ball into traffic. He is also extremely strong when moving to different levels within the pocket, but he also has the ability to get out of trouble when needed. He makes good decisions on when to run and when to scramble.

If Marcus Mariota also comes out and the debate comes down to Winston versus Mariota, it is a tough one. While it is not a Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning situation from 1998, the personality discussions are not that different. One thing is clear: Winston would be much easier to plug into an NFL offense right away, due to that pocket presence.

Whether he goes first or second, Winston will likely be expected to play from day one. Look at his competition: Zach Mettenberger (Tennessee) or Josh McCown (Tampa Bay). While he should plan on taking his lumps and throwing plenty of interceptions in his rookie season, Winston will also show flashes of what will make him special.

Another quality that will make Winston a good candidate to play from day one is the combination of confidence and fearlessness he displays on the field. There were times in which he struggled this season and the ‘Noles had their backs against the wall. No matter how many turnovers he committed and what the score looked like at halftime, though, his demeanor never changed. That is necessary in an NFL signal caller. To go along with this, he is simply a winner, losing one game in two years in Tallahassee with all eyes on him.

The jury is still out on whether Winston will be elite or not. While I doubt that he will ever be Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, Winston has all the tools to be a good pro quarterback and lead an organization in the right direction. Only time will tell if he matures, but there is no doubt that the skill set is there.