Jameis Winston's Elaborate Campaign to Be Trusted as the NFL Draft's No. 1 Pick

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 29, 2015

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Within minutes, maybe seconds, of the start of the 2015 NFL draft, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will become the face of a franchise. And then he may become the face of the NFL.

Some might think the face of the NFL should be a player who has not been accused of sexual assault, or been caught shoplifting crab legs, or been suspended for standing on a table in the student cafeteria screaming obscenities, or been busted for causing thousands of dollars in damage to an apartment in a pellet gun fight.

Some think the face of the NFL should be a square-jawed, straight-laced former boy scout.

Winston, though, would not be the face of the NFL the way Bart Starr, Roger Staubach or Kurt Warner were. Winston could be the face of a league that has made mistakes and is trying to move past them. Winston could be the perfect face for the imperfect time.

So much is on the line as the Jameis Winston era begins. What Winston's face comes to represent will depend on how he assimilates on multiple levels.

The League

For the first time in history, a top draft prospect was spending a day in a midtown Manhattan office players generally visit only to receive punishments. On March 5, the NFL was feeling Winston's grip and looking straight into his eyes.

The get-together at the NFL office was prompted by Winston, who wanted a chance to be understood and to understand. He knew the NFL had concerns about him, and he understood why. Few outside the building knew about the meeting as it was happening. Winston's camp did not tip off the media. This was not a photo op.

Don Juan Moore

Winston came with his attorney David Cornwell, who knows his way around 345 Park Ave. Cornwell is a former NFL employee who is well respected in league circles. In fact, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly attended his wedding. He has provided counsel for the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Jonathan Martin, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun but said he refused an opportunity to represent Ray Rice. Star athletes seek him out because he knows how to get things done—and also because he can be a bulldog when he needs to be. Aligning with Cornwell was a shrewd move for Winston.

It was widely interpreted that Winston's visit was about getting an audience with Goodell. That was only a part of what happened. In fact, the majority of Winston's time was spent not with Goodell but with the NFL special counsel for investigations, Lisa Friel, who is the former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney's Office. Winston and Friel, who became a full-time employee of the NFL earlier this month, spent about three hours together discussing Winston's past and future.

"Jameis and his team were extremely forthright, turning over all information, all documentation," said NFL senior vice president Troy Vincent. "There were hundreds and hundreds of pages of court documents that Lisa Friel has been evaluating, assessing for our office. Clubs have wanted to know about that."

Winston also met with Vincent and Dwight Hollier, the NFL's director of clinical and transition services. Winston asked questions about what he can do, what he should say and what kind of support he can expect from the league.

"We talked about accountability, about the personal conduct policy, what we will not tolerate, and how do we put things in place to assist you," said Vincent, a 15-year NFL veteran who helped design the league's player programs. "The shield was behind us when we were talking, and we discussed what it represents. We talked about the media, and his responsibility to answer questions—that part of being a pro. It was good dialogue: very transparent, open, unfiltered conversation that we felt needed to happen. He was forthright."

Winston, Cornwell, Vincent and Goodell had a separate meeting. Goodell told Winston about the significance of the opportunity ahead of him and spoke of the African-American quarterback legacy he could be a part of.

Cornwell shared a story from the meeting at the Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium. He said at one point Winston pointed to a replica of the Lombardi Trophy and told Goodell he plans on winning one. Goodell pointed to the Walter Payton Man of the Year Trophy. "I'd prefer if you get one of those," Goodell said.

All of this is important for Winston because he is coming into a new league. The new league exists in a new world—a world of social media jungles, video landmines and TMZ lightning strikes. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" is a relic from another time, like a leather helmet. Repeat offenders quickly are added to the endangered species list.

"We are a different NFL from the perspectives of social responsibility, media coverage and fan expectations," Vincent said. "And so the expectations of the player are much different from what they used to be. The last two years in particular, we have dramatically changed, and we are still evolving. You take the Miami Dolphins situation and the respect at work situation. That opened our eyes. Then the Minnesota situation with the LGBTQ issue, then last season we had these horrific crimes. It's all a part of who we are becoming."

In the post-Ray Rice era, many teams say they are more cautious than ever about taking on players who have spent time in the back seats of squad cars. They don't want to deal with the perception wars. And a troubled player is potentially bad for business, given that rules violators are subject to quicker and harsher punishments than ever.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has made sure general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn understand this. "Character has been important in the past, but it's become much more important today," Blank said. "People in personnel and coaching need to think long and hard about the risk associated with a history of [off-field] incidents, as they have for years with medical issues. The risk is you lose a player for maybe four games as a result of a suspension. Four games, for instance, cost you 25 percent more, because you won't get the productivity from him."

The risk-reward ratio is much more tolerable for, say, a minimum-wage linebacker than it would be for a quarterback who is chosen first in the draft. Teams can make the minimum-wage linebacker go away easily; a player like Winston is going to become part of an organization's fabric.

When a team like the Bucs selects a quarterback first overall, it is entering into a marriage with a partner who will be expected to inspire kids to wear his number and to be on the cover of the team calendar. It makes sense that Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, one of the owners of the Bucs, "has raised some internal questions about the community relations impact of" choosing Winston, according to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson. Glazer Kassewitz is president of the Bucs' Glazer Family Foundation.

One team spent most of its allotted 15 minutes of interview time with Winston at the combine asking him how it could trust him as the face of the franchise. That's what really mattered to the club.

The shadow Winston lives in is surprisingly long. It belongs to Johnny Manziel. The Browns chose Manziel in the first round last year despite a pattern of immature behavior. After becoming a professional, Manziel continued to behave like an amateur. He wound up in rehab after his rookie season.

"There is a buyer beware, especially after Manziel," an NFC front-office man said.

But Manziel and Winston are not the same young men. An AFC general manager said he was aware Manziel might be derailed by substances. And he said Winston has not failed any drug tests that he knows of.

"They have different issues that may end up in the same result: unavailability to play," he said. "Johnny might be more substance related, Jameis might be more behavioral related."

The skeletons in Winston's closet are a concern. A bigger concern is the possibility they will be joined by more in the future.

All of this explains why Winston probably has been the most scrutinized draft prospect ever. Bucs coach Lovie Smith, whose team has the first pick in 2015, is a veteran of 19 NFL drafts. He said he never has been part of a team that has done as much work on a player as the Bucs have done on Winston.

Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht acknowledges the team may have talked to 100 people about Winston. 

Phelan M. Ebenhack

"We've gotten to know people in his community, his hometown, the surrounding towns, his high school, the Florida State campus, the football program, the baseball program, every coach in both sports, every trainer who has been around him, everyone who has been close to him and people who have just been around him that maybe he doesn't know we've talked to," Licht said.

Different personnel men have differing opinions on what kind of citizen Winston will be. Many are skeptical. Smith and Licht know him as well as anybody in the NFL knows him, and they seem fairly certain he will develop into the kind of young man the NFL can be proud of. Licht points out that Winston's sexual assault incident was alleged. He was not convicted or even charged with a crime, although he is facing a civil suit.

"If we pick Jameis, would I be comfortable with him being the face of the franchise?" Smith said. "Yes, I would."

Said Licht, "It's hard to find people who have been around him who will say anything negative, besides that he's immature. So far, I'm comfortable with his background. I think the perception is different from the reality."

Whether Winston acts more responsibly remains to be seen, but he should have a thorough understanding of what is at stake. He recently spent time with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh talking about NFL expectations. He has taken media training through his agents. He has listened to the wisdom of former NFL defensive end Otis Leverette, who has mentored and trained him since he was in ninth grade.

"I've told him the position he has been thrust into, it's almost like Michael Jackson," Leverette said. "He will be robbed of a bit of his childhood. He won't be allowed to make the mistakes a regular child would be allowed."

If Winston has another misstep, ignorance will not be a plausible excuse.

The Organization

In order to be all they can, most players—especially young players—need the right support system. For Winston, if it doesn't take a village, at least it will take a hamlet, with involvement from many.

Most important for Winston may be that he has a personal relationship with his head coach.

Lovie Smith believes a well-placed arm around a shoulder can be more powerful than any headlock. His style is to connect with players so they will want to not let him down.

"I've prided myself on having relationships with my players, knowing what's going on with each guy's life," Smith said. "I'm a nosey head coach. Brian Urlacher will tell you, Lovie was always in my business. Yes, I was. I'm going to counsel them to make better decisions, like I did with my sons. I consider all of them my sons a little bit."

Mark Wallheiser

Smith said he understands Winston is a 21-year-old who still is figuring it out, still making mistakes, still developing mentally and emotionally. If Smith gets his hands on him, there will be football lessons taught in the quiet of Smith's office. And there will be life lessons. Smith, motivated by his faith, would really like to help him.

The stoic, calm Smith is a very different type of coach from what Winston is accustomed to. At Florida State, Winston played for the intense and passionate Jimbo Fisher. He responded well to Fisher's hard coaching and rising voice.

The team that drafts Winston probably won't worry as much about how he behaves in team settings as it will worry about how he behaves when he's on his own. That's where someone like Duke Preston will come in. Recently hired as the Bucs' director of player development, Preston, a 32-year-old former NFL center, will be a mother hen of sorts to the team's rookie class. He would have a special plan for Winston.

He may even enlist others. Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager, suggests the team that drafts Winston should hire him an assistant, the "Director of Winston Operations," as he puts it.

"If you are going to spend a hundred grand on a quality control coach or area scout, I would rather put it toward my most precious investment," said Savage, now an analyst on Sirius XM and ESPN. "The person could be a liaison between Jameis and the coaches, general manager, public relations and community service. He could help him with his plans, make sure he understands it's not a good idea to go to an area where big crowds are expected or call ahead to a restaurant he's headed to so they know he'll need special accommodations."

The team that drafts Winston needs to understand he is not just another player.

The Environment

The lights are brighter in some NFL cities than others. There are more microphones for Jets press conferences than there are for Titans press conferences. Expectation levels are higher, and the tolerance levels lower, in Chicago than Tampa. Redskins fans are going to be quicker to boo than Rams fans.

Winston's chances of integrating successfully are better if he lands in an environment similar to what he is accustomed to. Tallahassee is just a four-hour drive from Tampa and many Seminoles fans are Bucs fans, so the welcome for Winston almost certainly would be a warm one.

It seems like Tampa would be figuratively close to home for Winston too. Former Bucs quarterback Shaun King, now an analyst for Yahoo Sports, believes Tampa is an easy place for an athlete like Winston to live, given its size, demographics and pace.

That isn't to say Tampa won't offer temptations. Tampa doesn't have South Beach, but it does have some well-known establishments men are known to frequent with pockets full of singles. Boredom also can be alleviated at Ybor City or the South Tampa scene.

"I think Tampa nightlife would get old quickly for him because there isn't a big variety," said King, who knows Winston through Florida State friends. "The other thing is he isn't Manziel. The thing with Johnny is I felt Johnny was in love with being a celebrity. He wanted to be in the club, he wanted to hobnob with the rappers, the entertainers, the actors. You don't hear that with Jameis."

Tony Dejak

In Tampa, the media darts aren't as poisonous as they can be in some cities. As he begins his NFL career, bad press can hurt Winston almost as much as bad decisions.

"I think if he goes to a larger city, he will be much more likely to encounter people who have already formed an opinion of him, and would like nothing more than to see that opinion turn into reality," King said. "Where in Tampa, it's a smaller group of media members who will be more open to getting to know Jameis for who he is currently. I think they will allow him an opportunity to prove that he's matured from some of the decisions he made in the past."

What Winston really needs in his new home are soundproof walls. If there is noise—and at some volume and frequency there undoubtedly will be—he needs to be able to tune it out. In some places, it will be easier to do this than others.

King has talked with the young quarterback about this. His advice to him was to make sure wherever he is, he's about football first.

"Look at Andrew Luck," King said. "All you think is football. When you look at some of the other young quarterbacks, other things pop up. Colin Kaepernick, you think of the Beats by Dre commercial, 'I'm the Man.' You think of RGIII, you think of the socks. You think of Manziel, you think of him being in the club. The one thing I told him is you want people to think of football when they think of you."

The Offense

There are fewer questions being asked about Winston between the white lines than outside those lines. But if he is figuring out how he's supposed to behave as the No. 1 pick in the draft, he also will have to figure out how to make the cannons fire at Raymond James Stadium.

Physically, Winston is a big, tough pocket passer who has everything teams look for. He also has excellent football intangibles—off-the-charts competitiveness, leadership, toughness, focus and drive.

Questions still are out there. There have been undercurrents that Winston might not be bright enough to digest a complex playbook. This might be a byproduct of his off-field decision-making. Or they might be a byproduct of racism.

"Intelligence is not the first thing people think about with a black quarterback from the South," Smith said. "But he is extremely bright."

When Winston was in elementary school, he lobbied his football coach to be able to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He had a 4.0 grade point average coming out of high school and was accepted to Stanford.

"And trust me," said Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the former Cardinal offensive coordinator who recruited Winston, "Stanford makes no exceptions."

Sources confirmed a Yahoo report that Winston scored a 27 on the Wonderlic Intelligence Test. That was seventh highest among 15 quarterbacks who attended the combine. More importantly, coaches and scouts who have talked chalk with Winston have found his ability to retain information remarkable.

"Talking offense and breaking it down, he's as good as anybody I've heard," said one veteran front-office man.

It is a little concerning to some that Winston understands so well but still throws so many interceptions—18 last season. One offensive coordinator said his interceptions mostly were "careless stuff, like rolling right and throwing late over the middle." A college scouting director attributes this to Winston's "athletic arrogance," or his belief he can do anything. What could be expected of a player who was compared to Bo Jackson when he was growing up in Bessemer, Alabama?

Like Bo, Winston was a two-sport athlete, also playing baseball. The Texas Rangers drafted him in 2012, and he had a 1.94 ERA in 60.1 innings for Florida State's baseball team.

Playing baseball prevented Winston from participating much in spring football. Football conditioning also became a casualty of his baseball career. There are two ways to interpret the fact that Winston's athletic attention has been divided. The first would be to assume Winston the quarterback, like Winston the young man, has room to grow and could end up exceeding expectations if he applies himself completely. The second interpretation would be to question if Winston is aware of the level of devotion it takes to become an upper-echelon NFL quarterback.

"The challenge for him will be in the video," the college scouting director said. "Will he watch as much as he needs to, prepare, learn coverages? Will he do the dirty work? If you're a smart kid, you don't have to take books home. There has been a little bit of that going on with him. If he were prepared more, maybe...he wouldn't have made some of the [regrettable] throws."

Some are convinced effort will be the least of Winston's problems. Leverette calls him a "workhorse." Licht said he was the hardest worker in the Florida State program and is a "football junkie."

If Winston is the hardest worker in an NFL program, he quickly should own his offense—as well as a number of his opponents.

The Locker Room

A few weeks ago at the Gruden Camp in Orlando, Winston threw passes to former Florida State teammate Kelvin Benjamin. It was like old times. Then Winston pulled Benjamin aside. What's it like in an NFL locker room, he wanted to know. Benjamin, entering his second season with the Panthers, told him it's not like college.

"You really have to earn the respect of the veteran guys," Benjamin said, recounting his conversation. "But once they see you can help them, they will accept you."

Benjamin believes Winston will have no problems. He said Winston, who teammates called "Jaboo," became king of the locker room quickly at Florida State. And his leadership was powerful. There was clear passion for the game, inspiring speeches, natural charisma and an ability to bring players together.

"If he sees potential in you, he's going to ride you," Benjamin said. "He'll be on you more than a coach would. He was always in my ear. He kept reminding me how good I could be, trying to get the most he could out of me."

Mark Wallheiser

One veteran scout said he talked with about a dozen Florida State players, each of whom said they trust Winston completely and would go through a wall for him. A general manager said he asked many of Winston's teammates who is the one player from Florida State they'd like to play with in the NFL. To a man, they said Winston. Even the equipment guys at Florida State love him, scouts say.

What can hurt Winston is if he leads others down the wrong path—or is led down the wrong path by his desire to be one of the guys. His Seminoles teammates Ronald Darby and Chris Casher are involved in the civil suit filed against Winston by alleged sexual assault victim Erica Kinsman.

Great NFL quarterbacks, Winston will learn, raise all ships. They don't scuttle them. Perhaps he is already learning. An NFL coach who watched tape with Winston purposely gave him an opportunity to throw a teammate under the bus while discussing a play the teammate screwed up on. Winston took the blame.

Winston's NFL teammates may be able to help him more than he can help them, provided his locker room has a healthy constitution.

"You have to have real men," Smith said. "Those captains we select, it's more than the coin toss. There is responsibility with that. We have a good locker room. Gerald McCoy is an excellent role model. Vincent Jackson, Logan Mankins—they are going to have a big role in this, in any young player coming in the locker room."

In many ways, that's all Winston is: another young player coming into another locker room. But he's also potentially so much more.

The NFL needs Jameis Winston, and that's a big responsibility for both sides.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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