Drafting a legitimate franchise quarterback is the quickest way to turn around a moribund organization. The addition of a young, talented signal-caller with exceptional physical tools and a high football IQ gives a sagging franchise an opportunity to go from an also-ran to a contender in a matter of months. Look no further than the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks, who both enjoyed such a rise after respectively snagging Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Consequently, this spring, general managers and head coaches in need of a franchise quarterback are taking a long, hard look at Florida State's Jameis Winston.
Now, I know Winston's off-field issues make the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner a "boom or bust" candidate to the outside world, but the overwhelming majority of NFL executives and scouts view the 6-foot-4, 231-pounder as one of the best quarterback prospects to enter the draft in years. Winston is a classic pocket passer with the arm talent, football IQ and confidence to handle the rigors of playing the position as a pro. He is a proven winner who piled up a 26-1 record -- and a national title -- as Florida State's starter. Most importantly, Winston is a clutch performer adept at stepping up his play with the game hanging in the balance.
Looking at Winston's game on tape, I see a big, strong-armed passer capable of making every throw in the book. He excels on quick-rhythm heaves to the outside part of the field (deep outs and comebacks), but also is effective on anticipation tosses between the hashes (digs, deep crossers and post routes) following five- and seven-step drops. Winston's ability to "throw receivers open" is unrivaled in this class; coaches will be excited to work with a fearless passer who has a real feel for the timing throws that are staples in most NFL game plans. Thus, he enters the league fully prepared to play within a traditional dropback system that places a premium on precise throws into small windows.
As a play-action passer, Winston displays solid footwork and ball skills, deftly executing fakes and routinely setting up well at the top of his drop. He shows the ability to turn his back to the defense on a play fake before quickly identifying his primary receiver in the route concept. This is a skill that is difficult for some young passers to master, but Winston's experience in Florida State's pro-style offense puts him ahead of the curve. Despite being an awkward athlete, Winston appears adept at movement-based passes (pre-programmed bootlegs and half-rollouts in either direction) on film. Now, this is different than throwing on the move in ad-lib scenarios, when he's off platform -- that's something he needs to work on, as noted during his pro day on Tuesday. Generally, though, he delivers pinpoint passes to his receivers within the strike zone, allowing them to pick up yardage on catch-and-run passes on the perimeter.
Against the blitz, Winston shows outstanding courage and anticipation with rushers in his face. He throws accurate strikes with the pressure bearing down on him, which is a testament to his courage under duress. Winston doesn't flinch and finds a way to punish the defense for attacking him with five- and six-man pressures (see: FSU's comeback win over Notre Dame last October).
The biggest concern regarding Winston's game centers on his judgment. He tossed 18 interceptions in 2014 and a tendency to force the ball into traffic will result in a high number of turnovers at the next level. While his supporters will point out that Winston's interceptions last fall were partially due to a cast of inexperienced pass catchers failing to properly run their routes, the fact that he has such a high total will require a quarterback coach to work with him on his decision-making.
Additionally, NFL executives and scouts must continue to work through his character profile to determine whether he is past his off-field issues. Though Winston has admitted to bouts of immaturity during his time at Florida State, decision-makers must intensely investigate his previous actions to get a better feel for his trustworthiness going forward.
Overall, Winston has all of the football attributes to develop into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, a popular NFL comp that is quite accurate in my eyes. Winston's a gifted passer with the arm talent, football IQ and charisma to blossom as the leader of an NFL team. While his off-field issues are certainly a concern, if Winston can put all that in the rearview mirror, I expect him to develop into a Pro Bowl player at the position and lead his franchise to postseason success.
Now, at this point, just about every mock draft in America has Winston going first overall to the Bucs. But you never know what's going to happen on draft day, and it's always worth exploring which teams truly fit a top prospect. Here are five nice matches:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 1 overall pick)
It is widely assumed the Buccaneers will make Winston the new face of the franchise on April 30. Winston possesses the swagger and confidence needed to orchestrate a dramatic turnaround in an organization that hasn't made the playoffs since the 2007 campaign. And he boasts the physical tools and football IQ to shine in a Dirk Koetter offense that places a premium on quick-rhythm throws and at-the-line adjustments by the signal-caller. Considering Winston's winning pedigree and extensive track record of clutch play, it'd make plenty of sense for the Buccaneers to set up the former Seminole as the director of an offense that features a trio of big-bodied pass catchers (Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins) capable of dominating the NFC South with the right triggerman.
Tennessee Titans (No. 2)
The Titans have failed to get it right at the quarterback position since unceremoniously dumping Steve McNair in 2006. The team has attempted to fill the void with guys like Vince Young, Kerry Collins and Jake Locker, but they all lacked the grit, charisma and playmaking ability to thrive as the centerpiece of the organization. Winston has the pedigree to help Tennessee get back on track -- after all, this guy won the first 26 games he started in Tallahassee. Most importantly, he possesses the skills to excel in Ken Whisenhunt's attack, which places a premium on accuracy, judgment and big-play ability at the quarterback position. If the Titans were able to land Winston on draft day, it would finally give the team a franchise quarterback with the ability to provide some much-needed gridiron excitement in Nashville.
New York Jets (No. 6)
Geno Smith has shown signs of progress, but not enough to prevent the Jets from considering Winston as a potential franchise quarterback. He has the swagger, poise and resiliency needed to handle the pressure of playing under the bright lights on Broadway. In addition, Winston brings an infectious competitive spirit and a pro-ready game to an offense that's ready to take off with an impressive 1-2 punch on the perimeter (Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker). If new head coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey are looking for a charismatic leader with the physical tools to direct a high-octane offense, the Jets should empty the buckets in an attempt to acquire Winston as the new leader of Gang Green.
St. Louis Rams (No. 10)
The only thing preventing the Rams from seriously contending in the NFC is the lack of a bona fide franchise quarterback. While some would argue that Nick Foles is only a season removed from an MVP-like showing, the 26-year-old doesn't possess the raw physical tools or charisma to take a team from good to great under his direction. Thus, Jeff Fisher would be wise to see if there's a way he could snag the top quarterback in the 2015 class to build around. Winston not only displays the confidence and enthusiasm to galvanize the locker room, but he is a true winner with a well-documented clutch gene. In a division that's widely regarded as the most competitive in the NFL, the presence of a fearless gamer is necessary for the Rams to become the best in the West.
New Orleans Saints (Nos. 13 and 31)
There is no question that Drew Brees is one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history, but the perennial Pro Bowler is beginning to show signs of decline at his advanced age (36). Thus, the Saints need to come up with a succession plan to ensure their relevance for the next decade. Winston would be an ideal replacement in New Orleans, based on his unflappable confidence, high football IQ and winning pedigree. He embraces the pressure of winning at the highest level -- and the opportunity to sit behind Brees would allow him to learn the nuances of playing at an elite level on Sundays. In addition, Winston would be set up to play in a creative offense directed by one of the best play designers in football: Sean Payton.