CHICAGO — The Buccaneers did it. They drafted Jameis Winston. But this was less a draft than it was a long, arduous courting. A convincing. A trial, with the Buccaneers acting as judge and jury. Then came a vital moment. Then came the conversation.
No one will say exactly when it happened. Maybe in February, at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Maybe after that. But there was a moment when Winston and the Buccaneers brass had an honest heart-to-heart.
Winston was asked by the Buccaneers about the various troubles in college including the ugly accusation of sexual assault. Winston didn't flinch at the question.
According to several people familiar with the conversation, Winston said something like this: You will never see me get in trouble again. This is not a lie or me saying something you want to hear. This is the truth. I don't like what I became and I will be better. I promise you.
Winston admitted to his immaturity. He ticked down the incidents, one by one, with little prodding from the team. He took the blame for each. I'm told he talked about the sexual assault accusation as well. There was no stonewalling or evasion. It was all on the table.
That conversation, perhaps more than any other talk, piece of film study, throw or measurement, is what convinced the Buccaneers they could take Winston. That they could trust him. That they could build a team around him.
That talk changed everything and led to this moment, where a franchise feels it will be reborn and a skeptical league watches to see how this story ends.
The Buccaneers may be fooling themselves. Winston could be pulling off a tremendous con. But this is where we are, and this is what they did. They drafted Winston, and now they cross their fingers.
At some point in the draft process, perhaps not long after that talk, you saw the Buccaneers shift modes. They went from mostly innocuous quotes and generalizations about Winston to almost building a public case for why they should take him. This was not by accident. This was an orchestrated move to put fans at ease with Winston. The same ease the Buccaneers felt.
"I would just ask our fans to give him a chance," said coach Lovie Smith at the team's draft headquarters Thursday. "Don't have any preconceived opinions about him."
The Buccaneers are so certain about Winston they rebuffed what two league sources—one on the Buccaneers—said was a substantial trade offer from Philadelphia on Thursday. Both sources said the Eagles offered two first round picks and Sam Bradford. The Bucs said no. The Eagles may deny this, but they, without question, offered Bradford.
I don't believe Winston will be average or forgettable. He will be either spectacularly great or spectacularly bad. Winston will either energize this franchise like a human warp core or he will implode, crushed by the weight of his own immaturity. He will, outside of Tampa, be a villain to many fans. When Winston's picture was shown here at the draft, fans in attendance booed him loudly.
Winston is a microcosm of this draft. It's a draft that has its outstanding people like Marcus Mariota. It also has its share—more than its share—of troubled men. One scout called this draft "the turd draft." Meaning?
"More bad guys that are top prospects than I can remember," he said. The scout has been in the NFL for over 20 years.
In about a two-week period leading up to the draft, five or six top prospects were dinged for character issues, costing them millions. There has never been a draft like this because of that, and Winston is a symbol of it.
There was Shane Ray, who was cited for possession of marijuana this past week. To some in the sport, it is a big deal if he smoked marijuana. It is an even bigger one that he got caught with it the week of the draft. To others in the NFL, marijuana is insignificant.
"My estimate is 30 to 40 percent of players in this draft class use marijuana regularly," one general manager said to me this week. "That's right in line with our league. Publicly, teams act shocked, disappointed about marijuana. Privately, we know a lot of guys smoke and we're far from shocked."
There were other problem prospects. Randy Gregory has some issues that, as Deadspin's Barry Petchesky wrote, no one seems to be able to specifically articulate, in addition to a failed pot test at the combine.
Three different teams told me Thursday morning that La'el Collins was temporarily off their draft board because of a murder investigation. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports first reported that Collins' lawyer wanted to pull Collins from this draft and put him in the supplemental draft. The NFL later announced that request was denied, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Oh, and Marcus Peters was kicked off his college team, the Washington Huskies. A highly talented player getting kicked off his college team is almost impossible to do.
So among the most talented NFL prospects for this draft, there was a pot arrest this week, a player with some sort of scary background that no one will say publicly what exactly it's the hell about, a player who has a scheduled interview with the police in a murder investigation, according to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, and a guy who got kicked off a college team, which is almost impossible to do.
Winston is part of this Year of the Red Flag, if not the leader. He's the biggest risk of all. It is unlikely there will ever be a more controversial No. 1 overall pick than Winston. The sexual assault allegation. The pending civil case. The documentary. The crab legs. The incident in the cafeteria. The weight gain late in the draft process. This is Tampa's big risk.
There is an old saying in the NFL: Past behavior is a predicate of future behavior. There are players who both prove and disprove this notion. Ryan Leaf did not have a host of troubles in college and he just recently got out of prison. Peyton Manning once committed a disgraceful act in college and he'll sail into the Hall of Fame on a magic carpet. Tyrann Mathieu had his troubles in college but is now a model citizen in the NFL. There are examples that prove and disprove that ancient NFL axiom.
The desperation is the key here for Tampa. This is why they're taking an unprecedented risk: In the last 100 games, the Buccaneers are 30-70. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game in 13 years. That's almost Brownsian.
At Winston's draft party, Sports Illustrated snapped a photo of Winston with his grandmother. It was a gorgeous picture. He looked calm and happy.
This is what the Buccaneers hope. They hope his immaturity will be replaced by something else. Something bigger. Something better.
Their fingers are crossed.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.