Quarterback is the most difficult position to evaluate for scouts, coaches and general managers. The position not only requires a wide array of physical skills, but it also demands a number of intangibles that are hard to discern by simply watching game tape. It is important for evaluators to watch a top quarterback perform in person to get an up-close look at his physical traits while also assessing his leadership, grit and determination in a hostile environment.
With the buzz building around Florida State QB Jameis Winston possibly entering the 2015 draft as arguably the top quarterback prospect in the game, I decided to take a trip to Tallahassee to see the reigning Heisman Trophy winner take on a Florida defense with a pro-style scheme and NFL-caliber athletes to see where he stood in his progress as a franchise quarterback. Here are my thoughts:
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Winston is a nimble athlete with adequate movement skills and agility. Although he is not a dynamic runner on the perimeter, Winston displays enough mobility to execute movement-based passes (bootlegs) and a few select quarterback designed runs to keep defenses honest. Against Florida, he flashed some elusiveness fleeing the pocket under duress, and his ability to buy time with his feet allowed his receivers to work away from coverage down the field.
Winston is a natural passer with outstanding arm talent. The ball jumps off his hand at the release; he is capable of making all of the requisite pro throws with plenty of zip and velocity. Watching him work through the passing tree during warmups, Winston's tight spirals whizzed through the air and frequently hit the receiver within the strike zone.
Winston's footwork and mechanics are still a work in progress -- he fails to fully incorporate his lower body into his throws consistently -- but he has enough arm talent to make forceful throws as an "arm only" passer. Additionally, Winston shows the ability to make touch throws on seam routes down the hash or along the boundary. He repeatedly connected with Nick O'Leary and Rashad Greene on a couple of back-shoulder throws that showcased his deft touch and precise ball placement.
If Winston can smooth out the mechanics under the tutelage of a fundamentally sound quarterback coach, he can develop a full repertoire of pitches that will help him grow into an elite passer at the next level.
Winston has shown courage and poise within the pocket throughout his career at Florida State; he continues to do so in his second season as a full-time starter. He stands tall in the pocket under duress and repeatedly delivers throws with rushers in close proximity.
This season, the Seminoles' offensive line has struggled to keep him upright in the pocket, but he has remained relatively composed under pressure. He will occasionally release a ball while fading away from the rush, leading to an errant pass that sails over the receiver.
Against the Gators, Winston stood tall in the pocket and delivered the ball on time despite defenders seeping through the cracks. I must point out that Winston was off his game and failed to place the ball within the strike zone consistently, but he didn't wilt under a fierce pass rush, which is an underrated trait for the position.
Good quarterback play in the NFL comes down to effectively managing situations and circumstances. From efficiently handling the "check with me" game at the line to avoiding costly turnovers on ill-timed throws, the best quarterbacks in the business consistently use good judgment to win the pre- and post-snap phase of the game.
Winston has struggled with turnovers early in games this season; he continued to give the ball away against the Gators. Winston tossed four interceptions in the contest, including three in the first quarter, putting the Seminoles behind the eight-ball. Granted, a couple of his miscues were the result of indecisive route-running by his receivers, but Winston can't continue to be a turnover machine from the pocket. Games at the NFL level are frequently decided by the turnover margin, making it imperative for the quarterback to make smart decisions with the game on the line.
To his credit, Winston bounced back from the worst performance of his career to deliver some timely passes to O'Leary and Greene in critical moments to bring the Seminoles back. The resiliency and mental toughness displayed during a dismal performance will earn him high marks from coaches and scouts who value grit at the position, but he must clean up his interception woes to develop into an elite playmaker at the position.
Few evaluators will question Winston's clutch factor after watching him repeatedly bring the Seminoles back from significant deficits, but scouts are always intrigued by how a blue-chip prospect responds to adversity.
Watching Winston endure a four-interception performance, I walked away impressed by his unflappable confidence despite his scattershot play. He didn't hang his head when he walked back to the sideline after his miscues, and he continued to be engaged with his teammates at his lowest moments. Those traits don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but watching him handle himself during a rough outing leads me to believe that he can survive the rough patches that every franchise quarterback endures early in his career.
Whenever scouts evaluate blue-chip prospects, they attempt to find a "good" and "bad" tape to watch to see a player at his highest and lowest points of his final season. The exercise is done to get a real sense of a player's strengths and weaknesses to determine their ultimate potential as pros. Watching Winston's season-long struggles with turnovers and mechanics, I believe he is a talented but flawed prospect who will need time to develop at the next level.
While he has the talent, confidence, football IQ and charismatic leadership skills to be a franchise quarterback, Winston has only 25 games of major college experience under his belt and hasn't had enough repetitions to master the nuances of the position. Thus, a team interested in taking Winston as a franchise quarterback needs to have a strong teacher in place in the quarterback room as well as a game plan to foster his development as a young quarterback.
Although he remains the top quarterback prospect in college football with valuable experience running a pro-style system, he is not a plug-and-play prospect who can step in and lead a team from Day 1. In time, I believe Winston will be a franchise player, but his 2014 struggles suggest a patient approach might be best for the team that selects him if he comes out following his sophomore season.