For Florida State fans, Jameis Winston’s decision to leave school early and declare for the National Football League draft wasn’t necessarily a surprise – he’s been among college football’s most exhilarating, pro-ready talents since he made his debut under center in the fall of 2013.
But their feelings about losing him to the pros are far more complicated than the typical fan base saying goodbye to their leader, an undeniably gifted quarterback who picked up a Heisman trophy and a national title en route to a 26-1 career record for the 'Noles. Because while Winston brought the FSU football program its greatest success in 15 years, his off-the-field conduct, from a rape accusation by a fellow student to less serious incidents (the crab legs incident, the tabletop yelling incident, the uniform incident) made wholeheartedly cheering for him a tall order.
It also cast a bright, harsh light on the university, which became a go-to example for a litany of societal ills plaguing college football and campus life including preferential treatment for players by law enforcement and dismissive treatment of potential sexual assault victims. Also on Wednesday, Winston’s accuser filed a lawsuit against Florida State, alleging that the school failed to protect her rights under Title IX.
These problems existed before Winston, and not just at FSU. But he gave the country a reason to talk about them, and FSU.
So many among FSU’s fan base, whether for Winston or the school itself, are relieved he’s going.
“I really do feel as though the amount of scrutiny forced Winston’s hand on this,” Darryl Stidham, an FSU alumnus, told the Monitor. “He was being treated like an NFL player without the pay. I’d have left, too.”
“I’m not mad at it,” says Bethany Bell, a 2008 FSU grad.
What Winston will bring to the NFL is his passel of off-field problems wrapped in a player of potentially elite talent.
From a purely football standpoint, he has a lot to offer. For one, he may be the most prototypical NFL quarterback in the draft this year – he’s big, a lumbering 6 feet, 4 inches, 230 pounds, with a rocket of an arm and, by all accounts, a very high football IQ. He was good on third-and-long situations in college, especially during the 'Noles’ national title run last season, and he’s a formidable threat even when he isn’t throwing the ball. Winston isn’t fast by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s a slippery scrambler. This play aside, Winston made a habit of turning what looked like for sure sacks into first downs or scores during his college career.
Winston's competition for top billing among quarterbacks in this year's draft is Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who's biggest off-field issue is that he's considered too nice and who's biggest on-field issue is that he never stands still. Running quarterbacks have gone high in the draft in recent years, as read-option schemes came into vogue. Mariota, who bested Winston in last week’s College Football Playoff semifinal, is the pinnacle of the type – shifty, speedy, and (unlike many others) big and strong.
But the interest in running quarterbacks is waning in the NFL. They're hard to protect, and their college success doesn't necessarily translate to the pro game. Can Mariota transition to an effective pass-first mobile quarterback like Aaron Rodgers? Perhaps. But on the field, there are fewer questions about whether Winston can make the transition to the NFL.
Physically, he has more in common with physically imposing mobile pocket passers like Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck. There’s a good chance he won’t turn out to be as good as either of those two. Especially in 2014, some vulnerabilities came to light, including an occasional tendency to force terrible throws. But his potential for a long, productive NFL career is arguably better than Mariota’s.
So where will Winston wind up? The draft is still a long way off, but there are plenty of teams with early picks that are hurting enough at quarterback to take a chance on him. Most analysts, including ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr., have him ranked behind Mariota, who is projected to go first overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Tennessee Titans have the second pick, and Winston is the type passer that head coach Ken Wisenhunt likes. In the top 10, the Redskins, Bears, and Rams could be looking for someone who can come in start right away.