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Bucs GM impressed by maturity of Jameis Winston, Ali Marpet

The inside of the plane was dark and quiet, typical for a team's flight following a loss, and especially a loss that included an epic collapse from a 24-point lead. Still stewing, Bucs general manager Jason Licht stared at the fresh game footage on his tablet.

That's when a text popped onto the screen of his phone. Five critical words from a high-ranking member of the organization. One powerful sentence that confirmed a similar thought in Licht's mind in the wake of that 31-30 loss to the Redskins in Week 7.

"We have a franchise quarterback."

In a textbook rebuilding season for Tampa Bay's still-growing squad, there is perhaps little tangible incentive remaining in 2015 given the team's bleak-but-not-dead shot at the playoffs. But that doesn't mean the Bucs, even at 6-7, are irrelevant.

Instead, there is something to be said for what is happening to them. It is obvious and extensive and starts but does not end with Jameis Winston's recent strides. The plan is beginning to unfold just as Licht and Lovie Smith previously projected, and the most important goals of this season are being realized: The future is bright.

Even in that memorable day in Week 7, Winston provided sweetness to the bittersweet day because of his 297 yards on 21-of-29 completions with two touchdowns. He is validating his team's investment with the first-overall pick, and his rookie teammates are following in his fast-blazed path.

"We always had confidence, but I thought there was a chance (Winston) would throw over 30 interceptions his first year," Licht said during a phone call Tuesday evening. "I was willing to go through that, and so was Lovie.

"We knew we were going to struggle at times this year, but as long as that guy's future was bright, there was a lot of hope for us. And he's come along a lot quicker than I expected, to be honest with you.

"I wouldn't trade him for another quarterback in the league."

That's not to say Winston has reached his potential -- nor has Licht and Smith reached any supreme level of satisfaction. But there's a sense of momentum and belief because of the way Tampa Bay's young players are ascending; the way offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is getting them to play; and the way Licht and Smith have drafted.

Consider this: The Bucs' rookies have currently combined for 56 starts this season, which is the highest number in the NFL. The team with the second most rookie starts -- the Bears -- has 13 fewer. This is all while the Bucs have gone 4-3, including a 45-17 statement win against the Eagles, since Week 8.

Quietly but methodically, the Bucs have climbed from the NFL's least-productive offense in yards per game in 2014 to 11th in 2015.

It has not been as much about wins and losses for the Bucs, though, as much as it has been about the strides from the young players, like tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet, two rookies from Winston's draft class.

Marpet is a great example of the faster-than-expected impact of these younger players. Licht can recall easily, during the early days of training camp, when he realized this year's group might indeed provide the foundation for years to come.

"I remember the first time (Marpet) went up against Gerald (McCoy) on the first day of training camp, and Gerald smoked him," Licht said. "Gerald ran by me and said, 'Your rookie ain't ready yet.' "

But three days later, on the fourth day of camp, Licht remembers Marpet making a move on McCoy that raised his eyebrows.

"I wanted to walk up to Gerald, jokingly of course, and say 'I think our rookie is ready,'" Licht laughed. "I refrained. But Gerald knew. We all knew."

Marpet, indeed, has been a nice bright spot for an offense line that is blocking well for a running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. And Smith, who has started every game of his rookie season at tackle, is helping a unit that has allowed just 24 sacks, 11th in the NFL.

So what is next for the Bucs? What must Licht do to keep this roster growing in the right direction?

"We had such a terrible free agency my first year, and that's all on me," Licht said. "My background is the draft, and we all knew we needed to build through the draft. It's a slower process, but it's better. We've been really proud of our coaching staff and scouting staff working together.

"Now, we need to improve that defense. We need to continue building depth. But I think it's the defense, and Lovie's core principles of winning is through defense, so we need to get some studs over there for him. We just need to continue to build that defense."

To that end, the Bucs did also snag a couple of impact defenders in this year's draft, too. Fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander suffered a considerable blow to an otherwise outstanding rookie year with a four-game suspension due to a failed test for performance-enhancing drugs (Alexander blames an energy drink for the failed test). But between him and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, it's a nice return on the 2015 draft.

But we all know, beyond the impact of these young players, what matters most about this season. And by all means, that is the progress of Winston -- both on the field and off of it.

As this season has unfolded, during good times and bad, the Bucs' organization is seeing a side in Winston it might have desired but not entirely expected from him. He is winning over his locker room, including veterans like Vincent Jackson and Logan Mankins, by the way he is going about his business.

And as a result, he has become the leader of this organization -- not just the face of it. On another recent flight following another recent loss, Licht had another defining moment that involved Winston. Three weeks ago, after a Week 12 loss to the Colts, Winston was seated in the row ahead of Licht.

Licht, yet again, was watching the fresh footage of the game on his tablet, just as he did when he received the text that confirmed his own thoughts that Tampa Bay had found its franchise quarterback.

This time, rather suddenly, Winston popped his head around the back of the seat in the direction of Licht and began into an impassioned monologue.

"Mr. Licht, these losses are not going to be the norm," Winston said. "We are going to win a lot of games. We just have to get these guys to believe. We need them to understand the opportunity that's in front of them.

"And trust me, I will get them to understand it. Because these guys, they want to fight for you and Coach Lovie. They know how hard you're working."

And with that, Winston turned back around as the flight back to Tampa continued. Licht, yet again, had the confirmation of something he'd already felt.

"Oh my gosh, he's so mature as a leader," Licht said. "What he says is so natural. I want to get up and run through a wall for him. It's not fake whatsoever. That night on the flight home from the Colts game, he was like a fire and brimstone preacher.

"I was like, 'Holy (expletive), I love this guy.' "

Yes, the Buccaneers do indeed appear to have their leader. It also seems, based on the results of 2015, they have found some very capable followers, as well.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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