Breaking Down Jameis Winston: Is QB's Game Cause for Concern?

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterApril 17, 2015

USA Today

Jameis Winston has a pro-style skill set at the quarterback position. Just look at the size, the mechanics, the NFL arm and the anticipation he shows in identifying his targets when working from inside the pocket.

The former Florida State star was taught in a system that emulates NFL offenses, from the route tree to the footwork to the progression reads. And there is a lot to like on Winston's tape when watching him challenge secondaries. He isn't a "plus" athlete in terms of testing numbers, but his game absolutely meshes with the style NFL scouts search for.

In my opinion, Winston is a gamer, a quarterback who can handle pressure situations and play his best ball under adverse conditions on the field. When it was time to make a play during his two seasons in Tallahassee, he showed up. That's what you want at the position. That's leadership in the huddle, from a football perspective.

But with all the positives that surround Winston on the field as the possible No. 1 overall pick to Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the upcoming NFL draft, there has been a lot of talk recently about his flaws: namely, his interceptions and decision-making during the 2014 season.

Maybe this is a situation where "draft fatigue" has set in. And that does happen the longer this process rolls on. The negatives on the tape become the story, and we tend to forget about the talent base—the true skill set that projects to the NFL game. 

I would agree that Winston had better tape in 2013 as a freshman when the Seminoles won the national championship. And the off-the-field concerns surrounding the quarterback are real. Those have to factor into the grading process for Winston.

So the question is: Looking at his 2014 numbers, how much stock should we put in Winston's 18 interceptions? Are they enough to drop him off the top line, to slide him below Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota for the No. 1 spot at the position? 

To try and figure this out, I went back and looked at the interceptions Winston threw this season and focused on some of the questionable decisions he made on the field when attempting to fit (or force) that ball into tight, sometimes non-existent throwing windows.

Let's look at some examples…

 

Florida State vs. Oklahoma State

Smash (Slant)-7 (Corner) vs. 2-Deep

Credit: Draft Breakdown

With the Seminoles in a two-on-two Doubles "Exchange" formation (slot receivers on the ball), the idea here is to clear out the top of the defense on the 7 (corner) routes.

This allows the No. 1 receivers (count outside-in) to run the smash routes (shallow drive and slant) inside of the numbers. Winston has the opportunity to read the seam-hook defenders in Cover 2 to target the underneath options with the running back on the swing route.

Credit: Draft Breakdown

Oklahoma State is only rushing three (drop defensive lineman to underneath hole) while putting a tent on top of the secondary to protect the end zone. With the middle linebacker removed, Winston's read to the play side is the linebacker. If he drops into the throwing lane, Winston can come back to the open side of the field and target the swing or the shallow drive route.

The issue in this situation is Winston's inability to identify the linebacker (seam-hook defender). The quarterback targets the slant and fails to use his vision on the linebacker sinking into the throwing lane.

That's a critical mistake given the field position inside of the red zone. Winston needed to come off this read or wait for the slant to clear the linebacker before releasing the ball. It was too easy for the linebacker to play through the eyes of the quarterback and go finish.

 

Florida State vs. Notre Dame

TE Seam/7 vs. Cover 1 "Lurk"

With Florida State aligned in a slot formation versus Cover 1, Winston feels pressure, gives ground and panics. The result is a forced throw into coverage.

Credit: Draft Breakdown

As we can see here, the ball has to come out. Winston must target an underneath option here or slide to the edge of the pocket to toss this ball into the stands. Instead, the Seminoles quarterback panics and makes a questionable decision to toss this throw in the middle of the field off his back foot.

Given that the middle linebacker is the "lurker" (zone up and read quarterback), this turns into a jump-ball situation for the Irish defense, a free one for Notre Dame based on a poor decision by Winston that should have been avoided.

At worst, eat the ball, take the sack and live to see another down. But don't put air under the throw in the middle of the field. That's always trouble.

 

Florida State vs. Wake Forest

TE Out Route vs. Zone Pressure

Wake Forest is bringing open side (or weak-side) zone pressure in this example, while Florida State tight end Nick O'Leary runs the intermediate out cut versus a seam defender matching/carrying the route.

Credit: Draft Breakdown

Winston has time to set his feet and deliver the ball, but this is more about placement with the defender sitting inside due to the help over the top.

As you can see here, Winston gets the ball out as O'Leary breaks down into his cut, but he leaves this pass on the inside shoulder. And even though this is a tight window to make a play, if Winston puts this ball on the upfield (or outside shoulder), the result is positive. The defensive back won't make a play on the ball with his eyes in the backfield if the placement is correct on the throw. 

Ball placement is key at the NFL level, and although I like that Winston has the confidence to make this play, it's another intermediate throw that ended up in an interception.

 

Florida State vs. North Carolina State

Slant vs. LB "Hook Drop"

Winston threw two interceptions versus NC State, with the first coming off a back-foot toss into traffic (similar to the Notre Dame example). However, I want to take a look at his second pick, on a slant route from the slot versus zone coverage.

Credit: Draft Breakdown

This is a basic read for Winston. The No. 2 receiver runs a slant route against an underneath zone look, so there is a window to target the slant between the nickel cornerback buzzing to the flat and the linebacker playing the inside hook.

However, Winston locks onto the slant and puts his eyes on the nickel while failing to read the linebacker's drop. This turns into a "read and react" drill for the linebacker that you see during training camp. Get your drop, identify the route, read the quarterback and break on the throw—with speed.

This is simply another poor read from Winston, given the defensive look and the nickelback buzzing outside versus the slant. That should immediately have told Winston that there was a hook player inside. This is a mistake we shouldn't see from the projected No. 1 overall pick.

 

Are the Concerns with Winston's Interceptions/Decision-Making Legit?

The underneath/intermediate throws that led to picks in 2014 have to be taken into account. There were too many questionable decisions and plays that shouldn't have resulted in turnovers. Just like the examples we looked at, the back-foot tosses and the failure to read the second-level defenders must be corrected in the NFL for Winston to play up to his talent level.

However, I can't pin all 18 interceptions on the Seminoles quarterback. Take a look at the corner route versus Louisville or the slant route against Florida. Those are just two of the many examples with wide receivers failing to finish routes on balls that are thrown to the proper shoulder/leverage position.

Dec 6, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) passes the ball during the third quarter against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bank of America Stadium. FSU defeated Georgia Tech 37-35. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Does Winston take too many risks? Yeah, I think he does. That's why you see him forcing the ball at times into the smallest of windows instead of checking it down. But he plays with so much confidence that he isn't afraid to challenge anyone with his ability to sling the ball. And because of that, there are a lot of positives on the tape. 

Like I said above, this is the time of year when everyone's flaws are exposed. But I would still be shocked if the Bucs passed on Winston. Even with the interceptions and the sometimes head-scratching decision-making, Winston is the top quarterback in the 2015 class based on projecting talent and the pro-style skill set he will bring to the league. 

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.