When we looked at Jameis Winston in the lead up to the 2014 season, we identified several areas of his game that needed improvement. Those included footwork in his drop backs, shortening his base, maintaining a more upright torso, a more compact release, and a tendency to throw to his favorite receivers instead of the most open receiver.
Looking at Winston after the 2014 season and the draft process, it's fair to say that he's made significant progress in most of these areas, but still has room to grow. His footwork remains a work in progress, but never devolves to some of the skipping and hopping around we saw in 2013. The improvement in his footwork has naturally tightened up his base, and concentrating on football throughout the winter/spring has yielded significant progress in keeping the ball high and making his throwing motion more compact (remember that previously Winston played baseball in the off-season, and QBs are rarely dual-sport athletes). All of these issues will be things the Buccaneers will have to continue to work on to eliminate the occasional overthrows that result in a high rate of interceptions.
The first half of the 2014 season displayed Winston's tendency to focus on Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary to the exclusion of other, more open, receivers. Those two frequently received the vast majority of targets, which is very atypical in a Jimbo Fisher offense that doesn't go out of its way to feature particular receivers. Certainly Greene and O'Leary were the Noles' best receivers by a wide margin and deserved many of those targets, but we also saw the downside when teams began to bait Winston by appearing to leave option routes to O'Leary open, then undercutting them for interceptions and pass break ups. As the season wore on and FSU's young receivers began to improve their play, Winston showed more confidence in them and began to distribute the ball more equally. Winston's confidence in certain receivers and his ability to throw them open is a positive NFL trait, but must not extend to becoming so predictable that wily NFL defensive backs are able to take advantage of it.
Some guys just have the ability to put the perfect combination of touch and RPMs on a ball. Winston makes a lot of ridiculous throws. He just has the feel for it.
Winston faced far more dirty pockets in 2014 than he did in 2013 as FSU struggled to replace Brian Stork, who was busy excelling as a starter for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The loss of Devonta Freeman's superior pass blocking skills at the running back position was also a major factor in Winston facing much more pressure. This generally provided Winston an opportunity to display his superb pocket awareness and movement, but it also unearthed a tendency to throw wildly off his back foot leading to ugly interceptions in the Notre Dame and Louisville games. Winston was also much more focused on getting rid of the ball quicker in 2014, as he held it too long in 2013.
Jameis Winston was sacked 9.8% of his 3rd/4th down drop backs in 2013; just 1.8% in 2014… yet his YPC, Comp% & 1st down % were all way down.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) April 28, 2015
It's important to be clear on this point: To survive as a starter in the NFL, a quarterback must have the ability to throw accurately while falling away from the rush. The ability to stand in and take a hit while delivering the ball downfield is much commented on and admired but too much of this will lead to a very short career. Winston showed the ability to deliver some impressive strikes downfield from his back foot. He will have to find the line on this and I expect early in his career his natural aggressiveness and confidence will see him make some bad decisions in this regard.
One other note on Winston throwing on the move: he doesn't seem very good at rollouts. Anecdotally, his success rate on designed run/pass options dropped sharply compared to normal throws, but he wasn't bad when scrambling.
It feels like belaboring the point to speak about Winston's football IQ, ability to see the field, anticipate the defense and find the holes in the defense before they materialize, but it can't be understated. This is the single biggest trait of successful NFL quarterbacks and is usually developed in the league, rather than being apparent in college. To be sure, Winston had far more opportunities to display this in the FSU offense where every receiver is live on almost every play as opposed to many of the spread systems where if the second read isn't open the quarterback is taught to bail the pocket. Winston's college experience in a pro style system that includes extensive checks and audibles as well as the responsibility for adjusting pass blocking schemes is much commented on, but what isn't commented on is the variety and complexity of defensive schemes he saw. FSU fans will be familiar with the degree to which nearly every opponent in 2014 had a special gameplan for FSU that differed significantly from what they normally did and featured unique junkball defenses, half field coverages, bail techniques, disguises, etc. Those kind of coverages and techniques are typical in the NFL and Winston will have the benefit of having seen and adjusted to them without the opportunity to game plan for them.
Valuing the football
Obviously no scouting report on Winston can be complete without addressing the interceptions. Eighteen interceptions is a remarkable number, but every interception has its own story that has to be parsed. Generally speaking interceptions fall into three categories: mistakes by the receiver (either batted balls or wrong routes), inaccurate throws, and bad decisions where the QB misidentified the coverage or didn't see a defender. It's been reported that FSU coaches told NFL teams that only 5 of the 18 interceptions were Winston's fault. Personally, I suspect this is a garbled version of Fisher saying that only 5 were caused by a bad decision, with the others being receiver mistakes or inaccurate throws, which is more believable. Interceptions caused by inaccurate throws have to be credited to the QB and addressed through mechanical improvements.
The single biggest issue that came to light in the 2014 season for Winston was a tendency to lose track of hook/curl zone defenders when throwing routes that are heading into those zones. The vast majority of Winston's bad decision INTs came when throwing to a receiver breaking towards the middle of the underneath coverage. This is something his NFL coaches will have to address. NFL linebackers who can close distance much faster will pose a problem if this is not corrected.
Ultimately, Winston's success in the NFL hinges on his ability to moderate his aggression and confidence to appropriate levels while ironing out his remaining mechanical flaws. In terms of pocket awareness, ball placement, football IQ and arm strength, Winston will be in the top half of NFL quarterbacks the first time he steps on the field, but the league is not kind to quarterbacks who don't protect the football. Being a number 1 pick will earn Winston significant leeway, but it's not endless. It's also open to question how patient and supportive a head coach who needs to win now will be with his young quarterback.