So, should we count Winston as a slam dunk to go No. 1 overall? I don't think we should, given his history of off-field issues.
We don't get to see what goes on behind closed doors, whether it's a Winston combine interview with an NFL team or his visit to the Bucs earlier this week , but all indications are he's done a phenomenal job of handling the scrutiny that was expected to come his way during the evaluation process as he faced question about past incidents, the most serious of which being an allegation of sexual assault, although Winston did not face criminal charges in the case.
I think his press conference last month at the NFL Scouting Combine, his first encounter with the national media in such a setting since declaring for the draft, was one of the greatest presentations I've ever seen, especially considering that his character was in such question. He told me and my NFL Network colleagues at the combine that he "didn't even get coached up like I should've got coached up," for the interviews.
Now, most folks would have said it would be a disaster for him not to get coached up by PR experts before the combine, but Winston says he didn't have that kind of help, which makes his handling of the spotlight in Indianapolis even more impressive.
However, even with all that he has working in his favor -- a tremendous college career, an outstanding showing in interviews and combine throwing drills and a team holding the first pick with a massive need for a franchise quarterback -- he's not a sure thing to go No. 1 on April 30.
There are eight weeks to go until the draft, and he'll be vetted all the way until draft day. We've seen these moments before -- Winston blows everyone away with his performance, and then an off-field issue pops up. It's not a surprise to see him captivate a room or impress in a workout. He has the "it" factor. The question is, will he avoid making a costly error off the field that threatens to derail his efforts to reassure people about his character?
Yes, I understand why my colleague Mike Mayock recently said Winston "scares me." It would scare the heck out of me to be in the Bucs' situation, weighing a decision on whether to pick Winston, despite his baggage.
A team can feel confident about what they're getting in Winston as a player. He had a high number of interceptions last season (18) and he didn't impress anyone with his numbers in combine testing, but with the game on the line, he's still the quarterback you want on the field for your team. When it comes to Winston's character? A team has to keep digging to make sure it does its homework on Winston, but even then, it might not arrive at any certainty that his off-field problems are a thing of the past.
All in all, though, he's put himself in a position where people want to embrace him.
The way he comported himself at the combine has brought people to go back and view past incidents in a different light. There was a lot of negative reaction, including from yours truly, to him taking the field in full uniform and pads for warmups when he was suspended from a game last season after shouting an obscenity while inside Florida State's student union. After being sent to the locker room to change out of the uniform, he stood on the sideline during the game, coaching up and cheering on his teammates, and the camera cut to him over and over again, even though he wasn't playing. It seemed like a lot of grandstanding at the time. After getting a chance to listen to him at the combine, I'm thinking maybe his actions and intentions that night were pure. Maybe he was just a kid who really wanted to help his team.
I recall another of this year's QB prospects, UCLA's Brett Hundley coming back out and helping coach up his backup, Jerry Neuheisel, after suffering an injury vs. Texas. I always thought that was a big check mark in Hundley's favor. While I realize the circumstances are different -- Winston was being punished for showing extremely poor judgment -- how can I give Hundley a check mark and not give Winston a check mark for doing basically the same thing in supporting their teammates when they couldn't play?
At their core, both of them wanted what was best for their teams.
There's no denying that, to this point, Winston has done an excellent job of putting the focus back on football rather than character concerns, but he still has a race to finish this draft season. No one should put the gold medal around his neck until he crosses the finish line on April 30 in Chicago.