Jameis Winston may be the most controversial prospect in this year’s NFL draft. After winning the Heisman award in his first year as starting quarterback at Florida State, he had to endure many self-inflicted controversies. There was the knuckle-headed “stealing” of crab legs from a local grocery store to the much more serious rape allegations. These situations put Winston under intense scrutiny this year, and it seemed to take a toll on him. His passing touchdowns dropped from 40 to 25 and his interceptions rose from 10 to 18. These statistics, on the surface, would appear to show that Winston could not handle the additional pressure heaped upon him, and maybe is not the prospect he was originally thought to be. However, further scrutiny of these numbers could paint a slightly different picture of what went right and wrong with Winston’s sophomore season. Analytics Game often uses numbers as an evaluative measure of performance, but in this article I will use visual analysis and contextualization of Jameis’ on-field execution to rationalize his numbers and prove him worthy of a top pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Coming into the season, Jameis Winston lost his top receiver from the prior season, Kelvin Benjamin. Kelvin Benjamin was not just a top receiver for Florida State, but proved to be one of the top receivers in the nation emerging as a first round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers and excelling in his rookie year. This left Winston without his favorite 6-foot-5 240 pound target and main deep threat from the year before. This left a hole in the Florida State offense that could not be filled by the comparatively miniscule receiver Rashad Greene. Something Jameis excels at is touch on vertical throws. In his freshman season, Winston would often throw “jump balls” to Benjamin in which he would put the ball in the perfect position to be caught over the defender. While he still exhibited this skill many times in 2014, as shown on the touchdown below to tight end Nick O’Leary, he lacked an outside receiver with the tools to assert physical dominance over defenders, neutralizing one of Winston’s more impressive skills.
This lack of a big outside receiver seemingly resulted in a scaled back Florida State playbook that put much less emphasis on deep progressions and instead focused on shallower route concepts that limited Winston’s defensive reads. For a quarterback that is highly advanced at processing the whole field, the decision to take away some of these opportunities seems counterintuitive. While Jameis was without Kelvin Benjamin, he still had talent at receiver and these shallow one-look reads appeared at many times to compromise his development.
Jameis had quite a few interceptions this year in which he failed to recognize underneath coverage. These interceptions came on passes in which Jameis had predetermined which side of the field, or single receiver, that he was throwing to. When these seemingly open receivers came across the middle of the field, leaving the side of the field Jameis was focusing on, a defender dropping underneath in coverage would be waiting to step in front of the throw. The root of this problem will be an interesting question for Winston to answer during the pre-draft process. This is an issue which he did not exhibit much of during the 2013 season. Was this change an exposure of one of Winston’s flaws or the result of mandated half-field quick reads by the Florida State offense? Many college systems only give quarterbacks half or even quarter-field reads to make, so this would not be unheard of. Ultimately, it still falls upon Jameis to recognize underneath coverage, but an offensive philosophy alteration may help explain why this issue appeared to come out of nowhere. One of these lapses in recognition is shown below in a pass versus NC State, where Jameis trusts his pre-snap read and finds a linebacker where he thinks will be a hole in coverage. This tendency, no matter the cause, is correctable with further coaching and understanding at the NFL level.
A rarely mentioned number that can depict some of Winston’s struggles is sacks. Jameis had nearly 100 more pass attempts in 2014, but took 10 less sacks. While this can theoretically be attributed to better efficiency or offensive line play, tape from this past season reveals that in Winston’s case it is not related to either of these factors. This decrease in sacks can be attributed to Jameis trying to do too much in the 2014 season. Winston is an athletic player, not a world class runner in the Robert Griffin III mold, but instead more like Ben Roethlisberger. This mobility can be an asset if used efficiently, but Jameis often did not use this skill productively in 2014. He would often scamper around when the play broke down; trying to avoid a sack at all costs and find some semblance of an open receiver. He is an intense competitor, and wants to “win” on every single play. While this strategy can lead to some highlight-reel plays, it severely hurt him in others, such as the game-sealing fumble against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. This propensity to scramble around the pocket is not new to Jameis. Anyone who watched even highlights of his Heisman-winning 2013 season could often find him shaking off defenders outside the pocket and miraculously always finding an open receiver downfield. He was not as lucky with this strategy in 2014, and often looked frantic as he attempted to avoid any negative yards on a play. This is one of Winston’s most concerning negatives. While his 2014 “regression” can be attributed to circumstance in some cases, this one is on Jameis. He will need to learn both when it is time to take a sack and how to use his athleticism to more efficiently move; creating space and throwing lanes by navigating the pocket to complement his defensive reads, instead of forcing a throw on every play. The play below shows an example of how Jameis can use his mobility positively, stepping up in the pocket instead of trying to run around outside defenders.
While the throw above can be used as a positive in terms of mobility, it can also show something Jameis gets away with a lot. Winston has great arm talent, and has used that arm talent to compensate for his poor footwork. While this ability allows Winston to make throws like the one above, baseless but still accurate, these mechanics compromise his arm strength in many instances. His long release is part of the issue, but his footwork needs to be tightened up quite a bit. Tightening of his footwork and release could eliminate some of the throws that he sails, and would undoubtedly improve his deep ball. This is another correctable tendency of Winston, and hints at a further degree of throwing potential.
While Jameis put some apparent deficiencies on tape this season, he still consistently showed many of the traits that make him the favorite to be the first pick in the upcoming draft, despite having a “down” year. He has by far the best anticipation of any quarterback in this class. He consistently throws the ball before receivers are even out of their breaks. This is a skill most college quarterbacks do not possess, and even some pro quarterbacks cannot match his level of anticipation. He combines this rare anticipation with an exceptional ability to read a defense. Even through seemingly more “reckless” play this year, he still showed an advanced knowledge of defensive strategies and positioning and often made the correct decision, foreseeing holes in coverage and manipulating safeties with his eyes to complement receiver route progressions. The display of these skills confirms his phenomenal football IQ through his understanding of various route concepts and progressions.
Overall Jameis Winston is a very good NFL quarterback prospect. He had a down-year in terms of some numbers and facets of his game, but still showed the traits that made him the best player in college football a year ago. Many of his negatives can be corrected with proper coaching combined with a desire to learn. He has an intense competitive drive that will allow him to draw upon his strengths to become a winning quarterback. It may take losing for Winston to dig deep and scrutinize his weaknesses, but if Jameis can buy in and be coached to maximize his skills efficiently, he has the tools to be a top ten NFL quarterback. He would be an ideal fit with the Buccaneers, who hold the first pick in the upcoming draft, and their trio of tall pass catchers in Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. These receivers would complement Winston’s ability to utilize height with ball placement on vertical throws. Here he could work with former Falcon offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who could employ many of the strategies he used with Matt Ryan to put Winston in a position to thrive within the confines of the Tampa Bay offense.