INDIANAPOLIS -- He arrived at the NFL Scouting Combine and blazed a trail of reputational redemption, quickly shedding his stigma as an immature knucklehead and impressing coaches and talent evaluators as a bright, committed, intelligent leader full of sincere swagger and competitive fire.
With the quarterback-needy Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the clock, it's a virtual certainty that Winston will be the No. 1 overall draft pick come April 30. Unless they unearth some truly disturbing information between now and then, the Bucs are likely to embrace the former Florida State quarterback as the face of their franchise, largely because of his exceptionally high football IQ.
"The kid is great on the (grease) board, and he can sling the hell out the ball," said one general manager who has drafted a quarterback first overall. "I don't see how they can not take him."
In other words, the smart money is on Winston shaking Commissioner Roger Goodell's hand before fellow Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota -- or anyone else -- and in this case, that term works on more than one level.
As one veteran scout said of Winston while sitting in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands Sunday afternoon, "Everyone here is saying he's really, really smart -- and if you've been down (to Tallahassee), you're not surprised. They love the kid. They talk about how sharp he is. He loves to compete. And he's ready to attack this thing."
If this assessment of Winston -- one similar to that of more than a dozen coaches and general managers with whom I spoke in Indy -- seems at odds with the pre-combine buzz about the talented thrower, it's a prime example of the disconnect between outside noise (i.e., the Twitter morality police) and internal league chatter, and it tells us several things about the modern state of professional football.
First, even in the wake of a tumultuous season in which scandals involving ex-Ravens running back Ray Rice (domestic violence) and Vikings star runner Adrian Peterson (child endangerment) amplified scrutiny about dreaded character concerns to unprecedented levels, talent remains an eminently enticing aphrodisiac to NFL evaluators.
Secondly, with all things being equal, NFL decision-makers will choose a flawed individual who convinces them he is being honest and authentic over anyone they suspect is conning them and feeding them pre-packaged baloney, every single time.
And thirdly -- refreshingly -- those troubling stereotypes about African-American quarterbacks to which so many of us were subjected for so many years are being resoundingly obliterated, in a manner that someone like Johnny "Wreck This League" Manziel could appreciate.
There might still be Neanderthals among us who stigmatize African-American quarterbacks as athletic specimens who lack intelligence, leadership and the skills necessary to thrive in a traditional, "pro-style" offense, but they would be laughed out of Indy's finest establishments by people who actually evaluate these players for a living.
Winston, after all, is Exhibit A: lauded for his football smarts and other intangibles, and exposed during his 40-yard dashes (the fastest of which was 4.97 seconds) as a quarterback whose foot speed is far more closely aligned with the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning skill set than it is to that of, say, Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick.
Whereas Mariota confirmed his reputation as an outstanding athlete by registering a 4.52-second 40 time, Winston looked plodding by comparison -- and damaged his draft stock by a John Blutarsky-esque quotient of 0.0. He will be a classic pocket passer in the NFL, and he's considered far more pro-ready than Mariota, who operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in a spread offense at Oregon.
If you must compare Winston to an African-American quarterback, try this one on for size: "He reminds me of Steve McNair," said one AFC team executive. "He wasn't an articulate guy when he came out of Alcorn State, but he had an extremely high football IQ. He was a better athlete, but he didn't have the outward confidence that Winston has. And this guy is way more pro-ready than Steve was."
The reference to Winston's "outward confidence" is interesting, given the juxtaposition between him and last year's most polarizing prospect at the position, former Texas A&M star (and Heisman winner) Manziel. Whereas "Johnny Football" did his best to downplay his cocksure persona, Winston embraced the swagger -- and his bold statements (both in interviews with teams and in his media session) came off as breezy and almost effortless.
When he said he wished not to be compared to Mariota, but to Brady and Manning, because he planned to win the Super Bowl next year, Winston somehow managed to charm the men who count most: prospective employers.
"Look," said one NFC coach, "I like that he said that. He's not backing away from the challenge, and he seems legit. He does not seem like another (Manziel) to me."
Manziel, drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns last May, just concluded a disastrous rookie season and is currently receiving treatment in a rehab facility. In retrospect, he is viewed by many NFL talent evaluators as someone who let down the people who most wanted to believe in him and who wasn't necessarily genuine during the pre-draft process.
It should also be noted that Manziel is extremely athletic -- and that he happens to be white. Again, the stereotypes are getting pummeled into submission, and good riddance.
Unlike Manziel, Winston -- as did Mariota -- elected to throw (and go through other quarterback drills) in Indy, which teams perceived as another sign of his confidence and willingness to embrace competition. There is much to love about Winston.
Yet we should also acknowledge the elephant in the room: Winston has a string of embarrassing off-the-field incidents that damaged his reputation in the first place.
He was accused of, but not charged with, sexual assault -- obviously, the Bucs (or any other team that might draft him) will have to be convinced that Winston did not engage in such a serious and despicable act.
Winston also got popped for stealing crab legs from a supermarket and suspended for yelling a profanity while standing atop a cafeteria table. In the end, I'm convinced, neither of these incidents will affect his draft stock. And there might be other things that the public doesn't know about, but which NFL teams will discover.
Certainly, it is fair for teams to question Winston's maturity, but I believe those concerns will be more than offset by his ability to assimilate high-level football concepts.
"There's a difference between intelligence and making good decisions," one front-office executive for an NFC team told me Sunday. "Winston has made some bad decisions. But you can become more mature. Intelligence is more of an absolute."
For that reason, I'm all but absolutely convinced that Winston will be the Bucs' pick come April. And I'm glad that NFL people, at least, are smart enough to disregard the stupid stereotypes of a blessedly bygone era.