Whenever a first-year quarterback guides his team to the national championship and claims the Heisman Trophy, scouts take notice. This is especially true when you're a gifted passer with prototypical physical dimensions and a knack for delivering in the clutch.
That's why evaluators are already poring over the 2013 tape to assess whether Florida State QB Jameis Winston is ready to be a franchise quarterback at the next level. Although scouts are fully aware that Winston has three years remaining in his collegiate career, they are hard at work identifying his strengths and weaknesses to develop a checklist for the fall. If Winston checks off the boxes in several key areas, decision makers will feel good about his progress as a potential franchise quarterback down the road.
Although I personally witnessed Winston's dramatic performance in the BCS Championship Game, I thought I would take some time to re-evaluate the Heisman Trophy winner heading into the fall. Here are my thoughts:
Whenever a prospect earns rave reviews as a two-sport athlete, scouts take notice. Thus, Winston's performance as a standout pitcher/outfielder for the Seminoles' nationally ranked baseball team has evaluators salivating about his potential as an athletic playmaker at the next level. On the gridiron, Winston's athleticism stands out when he flees the pocket on impromptu scrambles and designed quarterback runs.
Although he is not an explosive athlete on the level of Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III, Winston is a capable playmaker outside of the pocket. Additionally, his ability to extend plays within the pocket makes him an ideal candidate to play in a pro-style offense that features traditional drop backs or movement-based passes. With the NFL trending toward more athletic players at quarterback, Winston certainly qualifies as the new prototype at the position.
Winston displays A-plus arm talent as a passer. He capably makes every throw in the book with exceptional zip and velocity. Additionally, he shows outstanding arm strength and range as a deep-ball passer. Winston repeatedly rifled line-drive tosses down the boundary on fade routes, but also exhibited tremendous touch throwing post routes and deep overs down the field. While those throws are certainly expected from a 6-foot-5, 227-pound passer who moonlights as a relief pitcher on the Seminoles' baseball team, it is his ability to generate a significant amount of RPMs on his tosses without full incorporation of his lower body that stands out on tape.
Winston has a tendency to fall off his throws prior to the finish. Although his superior arm strength allows him to generate pace and velocity on his throws to consistently fit the ball into tight windows, Winston's shoddy footwork greatly affects his accuracy and ball placement. As a result, he misses the strike zone more than an elite passer should at this stage of his career.
Thus, Winston should spend the offseason diligently working on his balance, body control and footwork to become a more accurate and consistent passer from the pocket. Sure, he has been able to ring up nice numbers at Florida State despite his raw, unrefined mechanics, but he will need to show NFL scouts that he can consistently make pinpoint throws at all ranges to cement his status as a franchise quarterback prospect at the next level.
Dealing with the chaotic nature of the pocket is one of the biggest adjustments for quarterbacks ascending to the next level. The speed and tempo of NFL pass rushers puts signal-callers under consistent pressure, so it's important to see a young quarterback display poise and composure under pressure. While most college teams attempt to alleviate the stress on the quarterback by employing a ton bubble screens and various pick-and-stick routes designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly, Florida State runs a pro-style scheme that feature traditional drop back passes as the backbone of the passing game. Thus, evaluators get a chance to see Winston execute within a scheme that's similar to the majority of NFL systems.
Looking at Winston's play throughout the 2013 season, I saw a confident playmaker from the pocket. He exhibited tremendous courage and poise delivering strikes to receivers despite having rushers in close proximity. Most important, Winston displayed the ability to make accurate, anticipation throws between the hashes on seams and digs. This is one of the toughest skills for young quarterbacks to master, but he showed tremendous progress in this area throughout the season.
Of course, the standard is high for elite quarterbacks, so I must point out some concerns that stood out on tape. Winston seemingly struggled with his accuracy in games against defenses with elite defenders along the frontline. Studying his performances against Miami (Fla.) and Auburn, I noticed he routinely dropped his eyes to see the rush instead of feeling pressure and maintaining vision down the field. As a result, he struggled with his accuracy and ball placement in those games, particularly on intermediate throws between the hashes. Additionally, Winston's hesitancy and indecision lead to a few coverage sacks in those contests.
To take his game to the next level, Winston must play with better footwork and fundamentals from the pocket, while also showing improved anticipation and awareness against pressure. Scouts will spend a lot of time evaluating whether he "sees" (eyes drop to see rushers in close proximity) or "feels" (eyes remain focused downfield while he avoids pressure by sliding or climbing the pocket) the rush. Elite NFL quarterbacks eventually master the art of maneuvering around the pocket while maintaining vision down the field; Winston must do the same to be regarded as the premier player at the position in college football in 2014.
The transition from college to the NFL for a quarterback is akin to moving up from checkers to chess. Signal-callers must be able to decipher complex looks during the pre-snap phase, yet have the awareness to adjust to a different look after the snap. Elite quarterbacks accurately read the clues and quickly target the proper receiver to exploit the coverage or pressure. For most of the 2013 season, Winston was outstanding in this area. He quickly connected to his primary or secondary receiver immediately after reaching the top of his drop, displaying a rhythm and decisiveness scouts covet in quarterbacks. Additionally, Winston exhibited patience and poise by routinely taking the checkdown when defenses dropped seven or eight defenders into coverage to take away the intermediate and deep throws. As a result, Florida State's offense looked like an unstoppable machine for most of the season, with Winston directing the unit with aplomb.
Looking at the 2014 BCS Championship Game, however, I saw Winston against Auburn's blitz-heavy tactics and press-man coverage. He repeatedly hesitated before pulling the trigger on timing throws to the outside, which led to sacks and impromptu scrambles from the pocket. Of course, some of the blame falls on the shoulders of the Seminoles' receivers for not breaking away from tight coverage, but Winston's disrupted rhythm against blitz pressure will certainly encourage more teams to attempt similar tactics in 2014. How well he responds to the approach will speak volumes about his readiness for the NFL game.
Scouts are always looking for an indication of how well a prospect will respond under duress at the next level. When evaluating quarterbacks, it's all about their ability to execute in third-down, red-zone and two-minute situations. Those are the "make or break" areas of the pro game, so it's important that elite quarterback prospects shine in those areas as collegians.
Studying Winston's performance from 2013, there's no disputing his poise or composure in the clutch. He shined in the Seminoles' biggest games and didn't flinch when the game was put on his shoulders in critical moments. Of course, the Seminoles didn't play in many tight games during the regular season, but his ability to tear up Clemson and Miami (Fla.) in primetime games revealed a lot about his big-game ability. Although Winston wasn't flawless in either performance, he handled the pressure of performing on the biggest and brightest stage with ease. Additionally, he guided his team to significant wins, which is the most important factor in the position.
From a playmaking standpoint, Winston's ability to direct a game-winning drive in the late stages of the BCS Championship Game alleviated concerns about his clutch factor. He bounced back from an erratic first-half performance to deliver when the game was on the line. This is not only a testament to his playmaking skill, but it's a revelation of his confidence, poise and composure in the clutch. Those traits aren't easy to quantify, but coaches and scouts can identify the "it" factor when they see it. Winston has it and it will make him a hot commodity at the next level.
Winston has all of the tools to be superstar at the next level. He has rare arm talent and prototypical physical dimensions for the position. Additionally, he is cool customer in the clutch, with a track record of delivering the goods in big moments. While he needs to continue to work on his footwork and fundamentals within the pocket, it's easy to admire Winston's game and potential as a traditional playmaker at the next level. If he can continue to improve as pocket passer, displaying better accuracy, anticipation and ball placement on intermediate throws between the hashes, he will certainly rank among the top two or three quarterbacks in the 2015 draft class.
Of course, I can't conclude the report without mentioning the possible character concerns NFL teams could have about the Heisman Trophy winner after an extensive investigation for sexual assault and a shoplifting charge during the offseason. Both matters have been resolved, but scouts will spend a lot of time digging into Winston's background to see if he will be a problem child at the next level. While I spent the majority of my time focusing on Winston's on-field skills, it will be his ability to display better maturity and leadership away from the field that could be the deciding factor for teams looking at him as a possible franchise quarterback.