Sports

Extra Points: Lovie puts stamp of approval on Winston

(SportsNetwork.com) - There is still about 10 weeks before the NFL Draft in Chicago, but the eventual No. 1 overall selection is becoming clearer by the day.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold the top spot after a dismal 2014 season in what was Lovie Smith's first go-around as the team's head coach. Like most bad teams, the biggest issue with the Bucs, who finished 2-14, was at the quarterback position with neither veteran journeyman Josh McCown nor second- year signal caller Mike Glennon seizing control over the position.

Tampa already bid adieu to McCown earlier this month, admitting failure after signing the 35-year-old to a two-year deal stemming from his career year with the Bears. He started 11 of the Bucs' 16 games, but won just one of them as Tampa Bay tied for the NFL's worst record.

McCown threw for 13 touchdowns with just one interception while completing 66.5 percent of his passes in place of an injured Jay Cutler with Chicago in 2013. Those numbers dipped dramatically this past season, however, with the 35-year-old tossing 14 interceptions and completing just 56.3 percent of his throws for 2,206 yards and 11 touchdowns with Tampa Bay.

He was due to earn $5.25 million in 2015, but the Buccaneers incurred no salary cap charges by cutting him loose, leaving Glennon as the only experienced quarterback on the current roster.

And that's a problem because no one in the Bucs' hierarchy seems to believe Glennon is the future.

Most assume Tampa Bay will use the No. 1 overall pick on former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State, a probability that would be a fait accompli if not for a series of off-the-field issues, most notably an allegation of sexual assault.

No charges were filed against Winston, however, with authorities citing a lack of evidence. The Alabama native also was cleared in a code of conduct case at Florida State, which determined he did not violate up to four different school codes.

Other high-profile incidents included Winston being cited for stealing crab legs from a Tallahassee-area grocery store and his suspension for one game for yelling sexual obscenities in the student union.

"Let's talk about the elephant in the room," Smith said in Indianapolis at the NFL's annual scouting combine on Wednesday. "He's been accused of a crime. There's an allegation. I have faith in our court system. He went through it. He went through the school justice system and he was cleared. He went through our court system and he was cleared, exonerated."

Sure sounds like a guy trying to rationalize any red flags.

Smith did make sure to say Oregon's Marcus Mariota, the reigning Heisman winner, is still in the equation even though few are believing the subterfuge.

"I think, in the end, it will be a clear decision on who we should take," Smith said. "It will be obvious to see who the best player is to lead our franchise, to lead our team next year and get out of that cellar."

The Bucs plan to meet with both Winston and Mariota in Indy this week and host private visits for both prospects in Tampa in the coming weeks.

In a bit of surprise, both plan to throw Saturday at the combine, a rarity for elite-level prospects these days. Most prefer to wait for their on-campus pro days, preferring the more comfortable environment as well as targets more familiar to them.

From a pure football perspective, Winston is regarded by most scouts as light years ahead of Mariota, who has been labeled a project especially if you plan on running a traditional offense.

"I don't envy (Bucs general manager) Jason (Licht) and Lovie," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "There's a consensus top two at the quarterback position, but there's contrasting issues with both of them."

Winston is assessed as NFL-ready and similar to Teddy Bridgewater in '14, but he possesses better size and physical skills than the Minnesota Vikings' current starter. He does not have Bridgewater's maturity, though, and that will be a real issue for certain organizations, especially after the disaster that was Johnny Manziel's rookie season in Cleveland.

"Obviously with Jameis Winston, my concern on the field is that is I think he throws too many interceptions," Mayock said. "However, I can see everything I want on the field, on tape, beyond that. He's a pocket aware guy. He throws with anticipation and timing, which is unusual in today's college football world.

"I think the bigger concern is whether or not this guy can be the face of your franchise. Let's face it, he was the face of the Florida State franchise and that didn't stop him from making a bunch of bad decisions off the field."

So how does all of that compare with Mariota?

"You don't have any worries off the field (with Mariota), and all the individual components are there," Mayock said when discussing Mariota. "He's athletic. He's got a big arm. He's 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He's got great feet. He's going to run 4.5. All the individual components are available. However, can he put them together in a pro style offense where he has to throw with anticipation, has to go through progressions?"

Smith was already hinting at his take.

"To me, I think (Winston has) told us an awful lot with how he's handled (all the controversy)," the veteran coach said. "It's not like he's getting ready to go into the NFL and scrutiny is coming his way. He's gone through it a couple years now and he's answered the bell. That's what you have to do. You have to have tunnel vision and do your job. Looking from the outside, that's what he's been able to do."

And he'll continue to do it in Tampa next season.