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Jameis Winston: 'The Most Investigated Player in NFL History'

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterApril 10, 2015

Mark Wallheiser/AP Images

If Jameis Winston, the likely top pick in this year's NFL draft, has ever felt like he was being followed, well, it's because he was. 

At various times this past season, people used by various NFL teams—a combination of team security officials, league security officials and in some cases area scouts—have followed Winston across the Florida State campus and other places.

Security officials and scouts have followed Winston after practices, around campus and even when Winston has traveled to visit friends and relatives off campus, according to numerous team officials familiar with the spying on Winston.

Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reported that teams had people follow Winston on a flight. When asked by Bleacher Report about that, a team official laughed that that was only a fraction of the resources that have been used to investigate Winston.

One team executive said that Winston has been "the most investigated player in NFL history." Another estimated teams in total have spent $5-7 million investigating Winston. This figure was scoffed at by others in football (including a former team executive), who said it was ridiculously high.

What's become clear is that while it remains likely (but not a lock) Tampa Bay will pick Winston, teams at the top of draft, and even toward the middle, simply do not trust him. This is harsh but true.

The media operates differently from NFL teams—teams do not move players up and down boards with great rapidity—but when guys like the NFL Network's Mike Mayock move Marcus Mariota ahead of Winston this late in the process, that is not an insignificant thing.

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"There are two issues for me with Winston," Mayock said on NFL Network. "No. 1 is on the field, he threw 18 interceptions this year, and on the team that arguably had the best talent in the country, he continued to put his team at a disadvantage almost weekly. The first half against Louisville, Miami and Florida were awful. Now, he came back in the second half to play tremendously well, as we all know.

"Off the field, regardless of what did or didn't happen in that alleged rape, he continued a pattern of poor decisions throughout his career. So the bottom line, for me, is can you trust him off the field?"

All of that is in direct contrast to Mariota whom, I'm told, teams—and the league—have done just the normal background checks on. Across the league, there is almost no concern about Mariota off the field.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Three things should be made clear. First: To me, not drafting Winston would be a huge mistake. Second: Teams that have interviewed Winston have been highly impressed, according to many league sources. Third: As I've previously reported, some executives who have interviewed Winston compared his ability to digest football to that of Peyton Manning when Manning was coming out of college.

So, there's that.

The end result of all this investigating? No one knows for sure. Team officials believe all of the checks have turned up information that is making the Buccaneers reconsider Winston, but this could simply be draft spin. 

Teams spying on players to get information goes back to the age of Atari. And beyond. The New York Giants used to spy on Lawrence Taylor when he went to bars and clubs. The NFL has a security arm composed of former homeland security and other law enforcement officials, and individual teams have their own security officials.

Mark Dominik, the former Tampa Bay general manager and now an analyst on ESPN, said on Colin Cowherd's radio show that his team spied on Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon.

Said Dominik: "We found out there was a bar called the Cricket Inn or the Cricket, which was a popular bar there in Oklahoma State. [The scout] sat there for one week, went in at 3 o'clock every day and stayed until 11 o'clock at night. That was his job, and we checked how many times did Justin Blackmon come in? And he came in too many times and we took him off our board."

But a number of team officials said what's happened with Winston is unprecedented. "No player has ever been examined this closely," said a general manager, "and it's a sign of the times."

Meaning with unprecedented scrutiny on players' off-field activities—as well as potential unprecedented punishment from the NFL should a player run afoul of the law—teams are going to extreme means to dig up potentially embarrassing dirt.

None of the officials interviewed for this story wanted to comment on the record, saying they were not authorized to do so.

How do teams justify such spying? One scout told me: "Two words—Aaron Hernandez." Hernandez is on trial for murder.

Others cited Darren Sharper—who pleaded guilty to multiple rape charges—and Ray Rice, who is out of football after being caught on videotape assaulting his then-fiancee.

They are, in effect, saying this: We check, and we check again, because past behavior is a predictor of future behavior. And, they say, if we go a little overboard, then, so be it. We want to protect ourselves.

One example on Winston given by a scout was that in a combine interview, Winston talked about his love of his grandmother. He told the NFL Network that one reason he probably wouldn't attend the NFL draft is because his grandmother has diabetes and she would not be able to make the trip to Chicago.

One team then began asking people on the Florida State team if this was in fact true.

Ernie Accorsi, who built the Cleveland Browns into a playoff team in the 1980s and was general manager of the Giants from 1998-2006, said he always took careful looks into a prospect's past to learn everything possible.

"We did extensive research on players, as far back as we could," Accorsi said. "High school; even earlier if possible. We didn't draft Kerry Collins, but before we signed him, even though I had solid contacts at Penn State, we researched him all the way back to Lebanon (Pennsylvania) High School, which he attended before transferring to Wilson High School. ...

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"One of the great things I learned reading about Jerry West, who I thought was one of the greatest general managers in sports, was: 'The first question I want answered about a player is, is he a good teammate?' The answer to that question takes in a lot of territory.

"Another example, when I was the GM in Cleveland, there was an outstanding player from a warm-weather school who had the reputation of not performing if the weather was cold. At his pro day, I asked him: 'OK, it's a championship game in Cleveland, Ohio. It's freezing. Maybe snowing and windy. We can't throw the ball. You're going to have to carry the ball 25-30 times in the second half. It's all on you. Can you win the game for us?' He said, 'Yes.' 

"I looked over his shoulder, and saw the school's trainer, who heard my question. The trainer shook his head no. We did not draft him. He was not a good pro."

Added Accorsi: "I always lived by the belief that past behavior predicts future performance. There are exceptions, but you better do a lot of work on the exceptions."

Several team executives tried to recall a player more examined than Winston and said they could not. One, however, believed that Warren Sapp and Randy Moss were spied upon by teams almost as much as teams are spying on Winston now.

It's also noteworthy that NFL officials don't call it spying. To people in the league, as one former team executive told me, one person's spying is another person's due diligence.

"If you don't do it," the exec said, "and [don't] go overboard doing it, you'll get blindsided. Then fired."

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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