When an NFL team makes a serious commitment in the draft to a young quarterback, that decision will define a franchise's pulse and success rate for the next half-decade. If you get it right—if your quarterback is able to develop as a player and a person as the league requires—you could have championship opportunities. If you don't—if that quarterback is unable to stand up to the challenges and pressures inherent in the job—well, people are going to get fired.
It's a crapshoot at best. Coached by agencies and well aware of any personal and professional dings on their records, draft prospects enter interview rooms ready to put their best faces forward with NFL teams just as NFL teams are intent on throwing them off and getting the true picture.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking at the downside of that equation as they head into the 2018 season. Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended for three games for violating the league's personal conduct policy after he was accused of groping an Uber driver in 2016. A police report has not been filed against Winston, and he refuted the claim, but the NFL works on its own justice scale—for better or worse. Winston will not be appealing the suspension, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
When the Buccaneers selected Winston out of Florida State with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, there weren't many questions about his on-field acumen. In two years as a starter, he completed 66.0 percent of his passes for 7,964 yards, 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. He led his team to a comeback win in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game over Auburn, and though his 2014 season wasn't quite as impressive—it ended in a Rose Bowl loss to Marcus Mariota's Oregon Ducks—Winston seemed to have every necessary attribute for professional success.
Again, that's on the field. Off the field, there were alarms going off then, just as there are now. Winston was not charged in a 2012 sexual assault case that raised many questions about the investigative process. Far less serious, there was the alleged theft of crab legs from a Florida supermarket. Winston said he believed the store to be a hookup spot—i.e., a place where a student-athlete could pick up free goods.
The Buccaneers took all of this under advisement, made the pick anyway, and as general manager Jason Licht said to Rick Stroud on 620 WDAE radio a few days before the selection was made, he expected Winston to mature as a person and as a player.
"We've said that we feel comfortable. He's been a lot of fun to be around. Since 2012 he's grown up significantly, since this past season he's grown up significantly," Licht said, per Bucs Nation's Sander Philipse. "I would lean to immature; I don't think he's a bad person. But I'm not giving away our hand who we're taking, but he's been somebody we've really gotten to know and we have been more and more comfortable every time we've been around him."
In his first three NFL seasons, Winston has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 11,636 yards, 69 touchdowns and 44 interceptions. Per Pro Football Reference's Play Index, he ranks 21st in the NFL in completion percentage through that three-year period, 11th in passing yards, 15th in touchdowns, tied for second-worst in interceptions, 18th in passer rating (87.2), ninth in sacks (95) and 14th in PFR's Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt metric, which seeks to redefine a quarterback's efficiency through different values of touchdowns, interceptions and sacks.
The statistical picture of Winston through his first three seasons would seem to imply that he's a quarterback who isn't afraid to make the deep and tight-window throws—and doesn't mind the inherent dings to completion percentage and interception totals that approach can often cause. And that bears out on tape—Winston is a daring thrower of the deep ball, making attempts many quarterbacks wouldn't and getting himself in trouble far too often when he does because he doesn't appear to either understand the situation beyond his own perception or because he has a belief in his arm beyond the circumstances.
More specifically, Winston has two major faults as a quarterback—he trusts his arm over his diagnostic abilities, and his situation acumen could use a lot of work at times. When those two things combine, you get some ugly results. This fourth-quarter interception in Tampa Bay's Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings is a particularly glaring example.
Winston has a trips right formation, with receiver Mike Evans (No. 13) as the inside slot man. The Vikings are playing zone coverage against the Bucs, and as you're about to see, Evans is their primary target.
At the snap, Evans runs a vertical route up the seam. Linebacker Eric Kendricks (No. 54) moves with him through the route, and cornerback Terence Newman (No. 23) peels off his coverage of DeSean Jackson (No. 11), the outside slot receiver, to double Evans.
So, by the time Winston makes this throw, he's heaving it to Evans in triple coverage because safety Andrew Sendejo (No. 34) is waiting in the end zone for Evans. At the same time, Winston has Jackson running past single coverage to the end zone and outside receiver Adam Humphries (No. 10) open in the right flat after running a curl route. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (No. 29) had moved from Humphries to Jackson based on the zone responsibility after Newman moved to cover Evans.
When Evans moves to catch the ball, Sendejo times his hit perfectly, forcing Evans to drop the ball…
…which falls into the hands of safety Harrison Smith (No. 22).
The fact that Winston missed Jackson on this throw for what could have been a touchdown is emblematic of another issue—he hasn't developed an awareness of, or chemistry with, his new deep receiver.
When I re-watched Jackson's tape after Jackson signed a three-year, $33.5 million deal with $20 million guaranteed, I was sure Jackson was the missing piece Tampa Bay's offense needed and that good things would happen—both for Jackson and Winston.
It hasn't work out as expected. The nagging injuries Jackson dealt with through the season weren't Winston's fault, of course, but when Jackson was on the field, he wasn't nearly the deep threat he should have been—and as exhibited on the interception against the Vikings, that's as much or more on the quarterback than the receiver.
Per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine, Winston targeted Jackson on just 25 passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air last season. In 2016, with the Washington Redskins, quarterback Kirk Cousins targeted Jackson 48 times on such throws. And given Jackson's clear and longstanding status as one of the league's best deep receivers, the lack of deep targets makes little sense.
"Hopefully this year we're accountable as individuals—me and him and everybody else that's involved in that—just doing everything we can to take advantage of it because missing those opportunities, they don't come too often," Jackson said of those potential big plays, per Laine. "So, when you have the opportunity to connect on them, you just have to connect on them."
What Winston needs going into his fourth season is as much time to develop as possible and enough in-game reps to reap the rewards of that development. He also needs the time to get things together with his receivers, especially Jackson.
But having put himself in an untenable situation with this suspension, Winston now stands just as much of a chance of regression through distraction and inactivity. Never mind the off-field stuff, which presents its own potential disasters—on the field, Jameis Winston must take care of business in ways he hasn't if he is ever to repay his team's trust in him.