INDIANAPOLIS — Before the 40s and the jumping and the throwing, Jameis Winston went through interviews with a number of teams. The results were, well, allow me to let one team's personnel man who was in the room with Winston explain.
"I think he's probably the smartest player I've ever interviewed," he told me.
"Ever," he responded. "Football IQ as good as I've ever seen."
Now, keep in mind, Johnny Manziel did well in interviews last year as well. He's a train wreck who fooled almost everyone, especially the Cleveland Browns.
But I'm told by three different sources who interviewed Winston, including someone who was part of the Manziel interview process last year, that Winston is no Manziel.
In fact, Manziel's name has come up here often as teams felt Manziel conned them. They went into interviews with Winston armed with a great deal of skepticism, but Winston, from what I'm told, has beaten down that cynicism. At least for now.
One scout described how Winston was so impressive with his knowledge of X's and O's that "there was a moment where we kind of looked at each other and said, 'Oh, okay, wow.'"
The comparison I heard several times was Peyton Manning.
Winston, I'm told, has been asked about everything: the crab legs thievery, the rape accusation, the on-campus outburst. One scout told me Winston answered those questions to his satisfaction.
None of this means Winston is a good guy or didn't make mistakes in college—possibly horrible, catastrophic mistakes. There's also the perception that if he is picked first by the Buccaneers, it means the NFL learned nothing from its Year From Hell. All of that is valid. I'm just reporting on the interviews and what some teams are telling me.
One of the other interesting aspects is that his competition for the top spot in the draft, Marcus Mariota, has also done well in interviews. That was expected.
Some of the news involving Winston isn't surprising because, clearly, he trained for the interview process. Yet the feeling some personnel men got in interviewing Winston is they were seeing the real Winston.
CollegeFootball 24/7 @NFL_CFB
Winston on whether interviews with teams were tough: "It wasn't tough at all. I was just being real."2015-2-21 19:46:53
This will not be a universal feeling among all of the people who interviewed Winston. That would be impossible, but I do believe it's most.
What Winston did on the field, in some ways, was almost irrelevant. Not totally, but NFL teams wanted to get a good feel for him as a human being. They will firm up those notions when he visits teams later in the draft process and they get hours with him instead of 15 minutes.
My belief, however, is that not only did Winston not hurt himself at the combine, but he also likely kept the lead on Mariota, if not widened it.
In cases like Winston's, teams look for reasons not to draft a guy. Is he a jerk? Is he a dummy? Is he uninterested? What Winston did was fail to provide reason for the Buccaneers not to pull the trigger for him.
So far, Winston is the top pick. So far. To me, he will emerge from the combine the winner between himself and Mariota. He will likely emerge from the combine the biggest winner of all.
On the field, neither player hurt himself in any way. Winston ran an unofficial 4.97 and 4.99. Mariota ran a blazing unofficial 4.52 on his first try and 4.56 on his second. Tom Brady ran a 5.28. The 40 means nothing unless you're Mike Vick, and neither of these guys are Vick.
Both Winston and Mariota threw exceptionally well. Both displayed gorgeous touch on the ball.
Winston's passes, however, seemed a touch more accurate. He looked more comfortable. This, too, was expected. It was still interesting to see it reinforced with actual combine throws.
We also saw that Winston leadership as he played cheerleader with the wide receivers. You could see scouts taking notice. To some, Winston comes off as cocky, but everything I'm hearing from NFL teams is that they like his energy. They don't see him as cocky.
I'm one of the few people who isn't totally buying the Buccaneers' public love for Winston. Coach Lovie Smith is a genuine, good man, but he has said plenty of things before publicly and done the opposite. That's a Smith trait. Not saying he lies. More like gamesmanship.
So when Smith declares public affection for Winston, it makes me wonder whether something else is in the works. Probably not, but who knows. I know the Buccaneers love Winston (absolutely love him), but a part of me wonders whether a regime in its early stages would want to go with the more clean-cut guy.
What's certain is that the combine's interview sessions made Tampa's decision at least slightly easier.
Maybe a lot easier.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.