Uncertainty Surrounding Jameis Winston Would Make Him Rare No. 1 Overall Pick

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2015

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What should we make of Jameis Winston?

The Florida State quarterback prospect is the presumptive first overall pick at this stage of the draft process. It's still unclear if Winston will be selected ahead of Oregon prospect Marcus Mariota, but it seems very unlikely that he will fall even so far as out of the top five picks.

Any quarterback who goes that high in the draft immediately becomes the franchise's future, the "face" of the team and the biggest determining factor for the long-term security of the team's front office/coaching staff.

With Winston, a litany of off-field bullet points have to be touched on before the evaluation of his on-field ability can begin.

From shouting a lewd comment in a public place, to carrying a pellet gun across campus, to purposely gesturing the sign for "Smoke it and Pass it" to a camera before a game, much of what Winston did during his time in college was just college dumb. That's the kind of dumb that many college students take part in. It's also the kind of dumb that is largely harmless.

All of these incidents would likely be forgotten about during the draft process, but the presence of a more serious issue keeps them in the media's collective memory. Winston was accused of raping a woman at FSU. He was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, but questions linger over the legitimacy of the investigation.

Ignoring Winston's off-field issues isn't an option.

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Yet the focus on them has somewhat glossed over his flaws on the field. Because he is the presumptive first overall selection and those off-field concerns are so often covered, it's easy to understand why some would connect the two and presume that the off-field issues are the only thing holding Winston back from being the definitive No. 1 prospect.

He must have the same level of talent as an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III to still be a potential first-overall pick with those character concerns, right?

After the 2013 season, it appeared that Winston could be on that level as a prospect. He excelled as a pocket passer as FSU went undefeated and won the national championship. His play within the pocket—mitigating pressure and diagnosing coverages—was simply phenomenal. Winston only needed to refine his mechanics to improve his accuracy and become a near-ideal quarterback prospect.

But instead of fixing his mechanics and improving his accuracy ahead of the 2014 season, Winston spent the offseason playing baseball.

Baseball has clearly had an impact on Winston's elongated throwing motion. That motion and his questionable footwork were prevalent throughout the 2014 season, but even with those flaws, he would still have been a potentially great prospect if he sustained his level of play from 2013.

Unfortunately, Winston's accuracy and decision-making regressed significantly in 2014.

Although Winston is a tall quarterback with a big frame, he doesn't have an especially strong arm. This can be seen when he tries to fit the ball into tight windows. A large number of his 2014 interceptions came because Winston simply wanted to force the ball into a space where he wasn't capable of putting it.

This throw is indicative of the type of play that Winston attempted too often in 2014.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Even with a perfect throw on this play, Winston is forcing the football into a very tight window, as his tight end is well-covered underneath while an arriving safety comes from deep. Winston needs to throw this ball hard to the outside to get it past the underneath coverage. If he is going to do that, he has to stand strong in the pocket.

With pressure closing in on him, he doesn't stand strong in the pocket. He is falling sideways as he releases the ball.

As such, it's no surprise that his pass floats limply infield to a spot where the underneath coverage has a better chance of getting to the ball than his tight end does. That defender should have caught the ball, but instead, he tipped it into the air for another defensive back to complete the turnover.

In college, Winston couldn't consistently make these types of throws. In the NFL, these throws will become even tougher.

Winston's projection forward to the NFL is aided by his ability to avoid throwing into tight windows. He is so intelligent playing within the pocket that he can diagnose coverages quickly and exploit them with his ability to throw with anticipation.

In 2013, Winston was able to routinely carve up defenses that blitzed him. Blitzing a player with Winston's skill set makes little sense because it plays to his strengths.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

When the defense blitzes, Winston is being asked to diagnose the play quickly and locate his best matchup. That matchup is more likely to be in space, so accuracy and arm strength are less stressed. In 2014, Winston still showed off great ability against the blitz, but with much less consistency.

Part of Winston's statistical drop-off from 2013 to 2014 against the blitz was the absence of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Benjamin and Rashad Greene both did an outstanding job of winning at the catch point and adjusting to the football for Winston in 2013. In 2014, Greene still did that for his quarterback, but the rest of the team's receiving options were more reliant on Winston throwing them open.

This play is an excellent example of Greene winning at the catch point when Winston finds him against the blitz.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

With the defensive front running a delayed blitz that is picked up well by the FSU offensive line, Winston has more time than he needs to locate the soft spot of the coverage. Greene is running a deep crossing route that Winston locates and throws the ball to.

An accurate pass on this play would have led Greene toward the sideline, but Winston's pass hangs too far infield.

Greene recognized the flight of the football early in the play, and he had the athleticism to reverse his momentum before climbing to catch the ball above the defensive back trailing him. Against college defensive backs, Greene could make this kind of play consistently.

In the NFL, asking receivers to consistently win at the catch point like this, even against the blitz, is more likely to result in interceptions than first downs or touchdowns.

After Winston's impressive play against the blitz in 2013, it was no surprise that defenses took more cautious approaches to containing him in 2014. Facing three- and four-man rushes proved to highlight Winston's flaws to a greater degree.

His accuracy was obviously effected...

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

...but worryingly, accuracy wasn't the biggest issue for Winston in 2014.

The young quarterback threw 18 interceptions on 467 pass attempts last year. He almost doubled his interception total from the previous year despite throwing the ball just 83 more times. Winston's statistics don't tell you anything about how those interceptions came about, and that is what is most important.

Blaming his receivers is possible for some of his interceptions, but most were primarily a result of Winston's poor play.

Decision-making and awareness were the two primary protagonists for Winston's high turnover total. Six of his 18 turnovers specifically came when Winston failed to recognize underneath coverage and threw the ball straight to a defender.

In this play, Winston has plenty of time in the pocket to diagnose the coverage. The defense only rushes three players after the quarterback, so they have eight back in coverage. Nothing about what the defense does should surprise Winston, yet he stares down an underneath linebacker and throws the ball straight to him.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

That linebacker didn't even need to bait the quarterback.

The large number of plays like these take away from the argument that Winston deserves credit for running a more difficult system than the one Mariota did at Oregon. Winston did run a more pro-style system, but he didn't do it effectively enough in 2014 to earn significant praise for that fact.

For all of the negatives that should receive more attention from Winston, he is still a very talented prospect. He may not be on the Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III (as prospects) level, but he still has some extreme strengths.

Winston will primarily rely on his play from the pocket to be successful in the NFL.

Young quarterbacks, and a large percentage of failed older quarterbacks, struggle with the mental aspects of the game. Winston has shown that he can be an exceptionally intelligent passer with the ability to manipulate coverage and use anticipation to throw his receivers open.

On this play, Winston comes off his first read to the right side of the offense and finds an open receiver working from the left. He appeared to make that decision when he recognized the linebacker underneath reacting to his eye movement.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

When that linebacker was far enough across the field, Winston knew that he had created a throwing lane for his receiver that couldn't be defended.

Although this appears to be a relatively simple play for the quarterback, it's not one that NFL starters make on a regular basis. It's incredibly difficult to diagnose coverages at that speed while understanding your receivers' route patterns.

Oregon's defense was often very cautious in 2014, so it was no surprise that they took a similar approach against Winston and the Seminoles in the College Football Playoff. Winston didn't have a great game, but this play highlighted his intelligence once again.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Before the snap, the defense has both safeties deep. At the snap, they stay deep while the defense plays man coverage underneath.

Winston is going to throw the ball down the seam at the perfect time because he recognizes the coverage as soon as the linebacker over the middle of the field turns his back to the football. With anticipation and impressive placement, Winston fits the ball into a spot where the Ducks coverage can't touch it.

Throwing with anticipation from a clean pocket is one thing, but doing it while under pressure is an achievement all on its own.

This play has been slowed down so you can see exactly where the wide receiver is when Winston releases the football. He throws his receiver open because he understands the overall coverage and the alignments of the defenders in that specific area.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Because the Notre Dame defense timed its rush perfectly, it was able to get a free defender in Winston's face.

Pressure up the middle of the defense is typically the worst kind of pressure for a quarterback. In a roundabout way, it's less of an issue for Winston because of how poor his mechanics are. Pressure up the middle typically forces the quarterback to throw the ball without establishing his base or stepping into his throw.

Winston attempts those kinds of passes even when he is under no pressure, so he has plenty of practice with them.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Negating pressure is very important in the NFL, and it is primarily something that comes from mental traits rather than physical traits. More physically talented players are less likely to have the subtlety or understanding of their less athletic peers.

Winston is better mentally than he is physically, but he does have some ability to extend plays into either flat and throw the ball down the field, or scramble for easy yardage past the line of scrimmage.

This will be a smaller aspect of his overall game in the NFL, but it could prove to be an important one. If Winston is more reliant on throwing to receivers in space, extending plays before using his awareness to find receivers who have had more time to create separation could be an important way to create deep shots down the field.

A combination of a couple of things are pushing Winston to the top of the NFL draft despite his relatively long list of flaws.

First, the NFL is quarterback-starved. According to Jenna Laine of Sports Talk Florida, at least seven teams were interested in Josh McCown after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McCown is a career backup who failed as a starter for the worst team in the NFL last year.

Second, the NFL still fears Mariota because of the system he is coming from. Mariota was the best quarterback to ever play in Chip Kelly's offense in college. Kelly's offense has taken the NFL by storm and lessened the stress on his quarterbacks, which is something that must be playing into the minds of NFL decision-makers.

Third, this year's draft class doesn't offer any greater options outside of the quarterback position. Unlike the 2014 class, there isn't a variety of top-tier prospects to chose from. Defensive tackle Leonard Williams appears to be the most likely player to break up the quarterbacks at first and second overall, but he isn't on the level of Jadeveon Clowney or arguably even Khalil Mack, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr. or Greg Robinson.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith probably can't afford to pass on a quarterback with the first overall pick. Considering his history, he is much more likely to take a quarterback of Winston's type than Mariota's.

That alone may secure Winston the first overall selection.

Once in the NFL, it's really impossible to know how good Winston is going to be. Obviously that applies to every prospect, but it's especially poignant with Winston because of the uncertainty over his character and his play on the field. At the most important position in the sport, that's not something we encounter very often.