Where Does Jameis Winston Need to Improve Most in 2014?

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Where Does Jameis Winston Need to Improve Most in 2014?
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Jameis Winston enters the 2014 college football season as the savior of Florida State football, the returning Heisman Trophy winner and an Adonis-like figure at the quarterback position. But does all that add up to a solid NFL prospect?

The summer months are slow for an NFL draft evaluator, and it's during this time when extended film study of previous seasons are so important. Last summer, I sat down with every throw Johnny Manziel had made and walked away a believer in his potential. This week, Winston goes under that same microscope.

Where will Winston be selected in the 2015 or 2016 draft? It's way too early to tell.

But what can be done is a thorough evaluation of his 2013 season and his potential as an NFL quarterback right now. Much can—and likely will—change over the course of his college career. But taking what Winston put on the field (and off the field) in 2013, here's what he needs to work on most before he's ready to be a legitimate No. 1 overall pick.

 

1. Mechanics

When I was a quarterbacks coach before starting my career at Bleacher Report, the one thing I continually harped on was solid mechanics. After stepping away from coaching and devoting my time to film and player study, I've found that mechanics aren't always as important as coaches make them out to be.

When looking at a quarterback's delivery, base, follow-through and balance, you do want to see ideal skills, but the result of the play is also just as important (more important, maybe) as how the throw happened.

Player evaluators look at mechanics as a baseline for what works in the NFL, but there are exceptions. Brett Favre is a Hall of Famer, and his mechanics were downright awful at times.

The key is knowing when the passer can get away with poor mechanics and still get the job done. Winston seems to have that skill in college, but against faster, smarter NFL defenses, he may struggle unless he's able to fix two key areas.

 

A. Feet

Playing in an offense that is almost exclusively run out of the shotgun, Winston is not trained to take your classic three-, five- and seven-step drops. That's not as much of a hindrance in the NFL these days, as so many offenses are run from the 'gun, but what you do need—regardless of the pre-snap alignment—is smooth footwork in taking your drop and getting depth from the line of scrimmage or setting up to throw.

Winston, both under center and in the 'gun, has a bad habit of hopping to his throwing point. Ideally, the quarterback will slide his feet in a crossover pattern (right step, left crosses, right step, etc.) to generate depth after the snap. Winston does get good depth, but he's hopping to his point.

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Why does this matter? 

If Winston is blitzed or a defender breaks through the protection, he won't have a strong base to throw from if he's asked to throw early. A quarterback making a slide-step to his throwing point can make a throw at any time in his drop because his feet are rooted. Winston's are not, and it will cause him to make hurried throws without a strong base.

Throwing without a strong base is what causes passes to sail, and that's an interception in the NFL.

This is a very fixable mechanical issue, and Jimbo Fisher may already be on it for the 2014 season and beyond, but it's something Winston must fix and keep fixed under pressure.

 

B. Delivery

When Winston isn't winning national championships for the FSU football team, he's working as a pitcher for the baseball team. That crossover is popular among quarterbacks, but for Winston, the mechanics of baseball show up too often in football.

When you look at the cleanest deliveries of all time—Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady—you notice similarities. Those similarities among great quarterbacks become the bedrock for the basis of mechanics in scouting. When a player has differences, it's on the evaluator to see if those differences will affect the player's performance and if there are other successful quarterbacks with those same mechanics.

Winston has an elongated delivery, likely from his experience with baseball, which creates some concerns.

Winston's delivery is slow. The time between when his brain tells him where to throw the football and when he releases the ball is too long. This longer delivery time—created by a slow setup of his arm and then a very long delivery—allows defenders to read and jump his throws. That creates defended passes and interceptions.

This may not have happened often in college, but that's a credit to Winston not throwing into contested areas very often and also a byproduct of less-than-stellar defensive back play in the ACC last year.

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Looking at the above image, you see that the ball actually drops down below his elbow when he's winding up to throw with power. Coincidentally enough, when Winston is making a quick throw over the middle, he doesn't drop the ball so low in his delivery.

But when throwing farther than 10 to 12 yards, this happens. And that little delay—the ball dropping and his elbow coming over the top—will tip his passes to defenders and give them time to react.

Whether you love or hate Winston, the one area where he struggles that may not be coachable is his delivery.

Many quarterbacks before him—most notably Tim Tebow—have tried to change their delivery, and frankly, it's a waste of time. You can change where a quarterback holds the ball before they throw it (a la Aaron Rodgers), but the notion of when the pressure is on the muscle memory formed over his life of how to throw a ball will not be changed with a summer coaching session. 

You can coach a quarterback to change his footwork, enhance his balance and follow-through, and even improve his timing by moving his ball placement, but a passer's motion and delivery (in my experience) are unchangeable.

 

2. Pocket Presence

Most young quarterbacks have a tendency to feel pressure and pull the ball down in an escape move. Winston doesn't have that, at least not like some of the other mobile quarterbacks scouted over the years.

Instead, Winston has a similar problem to what has been plaguing Colin Kaepernick in the NFL these days—he's holding the ball too long while waiting for a receiver to get open.

The Florida State offense allows Winston to throw the ball to a lot of wide-open receivers, and it's an easy assumption to make after watching every one of his throws from 2014 that he's holding the ball while waiting for that space to be generated. This leads to sacks and pressures that he could otherwise avoid.

In the pocket, you'd like to see Winston handle pressure better with his eyes, too. He has a bad habit of locking on to one receiver or letting his eyes fall when he's asked to move away from his spot. That said, as discussed with mechanics, the result matters most, and he's done a good job finding the open man and making throws on the move.

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Winston is a big man, and a good athlete, so running is an option. But throwing the ball away is one too, and that's something rarely seen in his game film. Learning to be more aware of his time in the pocket—and taking more chances as a runner or throwing the ball away—is the next step of his development.

Knowing where to go—and taking the fewest amount of steps to get there—will help Winston greatly. He's shown improvement here over the course of the 2013 season, but he must continue to become more decisive with his movements.

 

3. Off Field

Winston was in the news regularly in the past offseason, and not always in a positive light.

December 2013: Winston is investigated, but not charged, after being accused of sexual assault. Two other Florida State players (Ronald Darby, Chris Casher) also faced charges in relation to the sexual assault accusation after they told police they witnessed Winston and the accused having sex. After the case, The New York Times released a detailed study into how Florida State botched the investigation. 

May 2014: Winston is cited after leaving a Publix store without paying for $32 in food. 

Winston's supporters will tell you he has never been arrested, but the investigation (and the questionable nature of it) and the citation for shoplifting will both be looked at as negatives by NFL scouts and general managers.

Will an NFL owner be willing to draft a quarterback who has been accused of sexual assault? Owners are hyper-aware of how their team's image could be portrayed, and Winston's off-field trouble will be his greatest hurdle as of this time.

We have seen troubled players drafted before, and the advice for Winston is the same as it was for Manziel, Janoris Jenkins, Tyrann Mathieu and so many more before him: Stay out of trouble. If Winston can keep his name off the police blotter until the commissioner calls his name at the NFL draft, he can go a long way in rehabilitating his stock with some teams.  

 

4. Positives

While the basis of this article was to point out where Winston must improve, it's worth noting that he does a lot of things well already.

Winston has ideal NFL quarterback size (6'4", 230 pounds) and is athletic enough to make defenders miss. He's also strong enough to withstand punishment in the pocket and absorb hits. His combination of movement and arm talent also allows him to hold safeties in coverage—something every quarterback must master.

Winston's football intelligence (or FBI) also looks to be very high when one studies the film. He goes to the correct read, and while he does have a tendency to stare down targets, he has shown the ability to work through progressions and get the ball to the right man. Rarely will you see him force a ball into traffic if a better option is available.

Timing and anticipation with his receivers scored very well in my report. Winston had great chemistry with Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, and he trusted his guys to make plays.

And perhaps the biggest positive for Winston, 20, is he's very young. His first year as a starter produced a Heisman Trophy, insane numbers and a national championship. He has at least one (maybe two) years of college football left and could easily develop into an elite quarterback prospect. 

 

5. Comparison

When watching Winston, it is very easy to see Steve McNair. Like McNair, Winston has a thick, solid frame that will stand up against NFL tacklers. He's also mobile enough to slide in the pocket or run for yardage and threaten a defense with his legs.

McNair may have had the edge in arm strength, but in playing style, potential and athleticism, the two are very comparable. And any NFL team would be glad to draft the next McNair in the first round if he checks all the boxes off the field.

CHRIS GARDNER/Associated Press

It's too early to assign a draft grade for Winston, but his potential talent grade is high. If he can fix the issues outlined here, there is no reason Winston cannot be a top-10 pick in the 2015 or 2016 draft. The keys for him are staying healthy, staying out of trouble and continuing to develop as a passer.

On the field, he has to speed up his delivery. There is no way around that one. He can be a Ben Roethlisberger-type passer if he's coached to quicken his motion and release. That's a tough change for any passer to make, so it becomes the focal point for his on-field play in 2014.

If there is anything that can derail Winston's promising future, it is the off-field question marks. NFL teams I spoke to haven't begun digging into his background yet, but we can all be assured that's his biggest test. 

Winston's combination of size, strength, FBI and potential are all impressive, but how NFL teams view him will be based largely on his background and character grade.

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