TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers are counting on Jameis Winston to help them become relevant again.
The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was selected with the first overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night, instantly becoming the face of a franchise that missed the playoffs the past seven seasons and hasn’t won a postseason game since the club’s Super Bowl run in 2002.
Coach Lovie Smith and Jason Licht made the call, concluding after months of interviews and exhaustive research that Winston not only can be the answer to team’s offensive woes, but that the 21-year-old has learned from off-the-field mistakes that threatened to undermine his stock in the draft.
“If he wasn’t a good guy, we wouldn’t have used the first pick on him,” Licht said.
“He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’s a winner. He’s got tremendous football character, tremendous intelligence and work ethic,” the GM added. “His work ethic is one thing that really, really put him over the top for us.”
In selecting Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner who a former Florida State student said sexually assaulted her though he said the sex was consensual and was never charged or arrested, the Bucs passed on 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. The Oregon standout was the other quarterback under consideration for the top pick.
Winston, who led Florida State to a national title two years ago and finished 26-1 as the Seminoles starter, chose not to travel to Chicago for the draft. Instead, he remained in his hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, with family and friends.
The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 and have gone through three coaching changes and eight different starting quarterbacks since then, including Josh Freeman, a first-round draft pick in 2009.
Winston isn’t concerned about high expectations. He thrived on them in college.
“The challenge is just being an NFL player, period. I’m not worried about any off-the-field situations or even on-the-field situations,” he said. “I’m just worried about living this new lifestyle and just developing into a great man for the Tampa Bay community for my teammates, because it’s all for them and it’s all for the success of this franchise.”
Smith and Licht said repeatedly over the past two months that they were comfortable with the prospect of taking Winston, who also generated negative headlines for shoplifting crab legs from a supermarket. Last season he was suspended for one game after climbing onto a table in the FSU student union and shouting an obscenity.
The Glazer family, which owns the team, also was on record for weeks as being comfortable with the organization’s vetting process, which included Winston’s daylong visit to One Buccaneer Place in early March.
“I know there are a lot of things that have been said about him. He’s made some mistakes that a lot of young people make from time to time when they’re young,” Smith said. “I definitely don’t think I see a pattern. … I trust my instincts on people to know who we’re getting.”
Licht insisted the team, while impressed with both Winston and Mariota, would wait until the last minute to finalize its decision in case another club stepped up offering a trade he and Smith couldn’t refuse.
The GM said he fielded calls until just before the pick, but was not tempted to part with the top spot.
“We didn’t actually tell him until we called him (Thursday night), but I think along the way he got a sense that this could work,” Smith said. “He could see how we felt about him.”
Winston didn’t wait for confirmation of the team’s intentions before getting familiar with the Tampa Bay area, participating in a pair of charity golf events hosted by former Bucs who extended invitations to the quarterback.
Winston played in the Derrick Brooks Celebrity Classic on Monday, a tournament that also attracted Hall of Famers Deion Sanders, Larry Little, Ted Hendricks, Marcus Allen, John Randle and Jerome Bettis. Three weeks ago, he was in town for a golf event for Mike Alstott’s foundation.
Brooks, who spent his entire NFL career with Tampa Bay, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. He is a former FSU star, a member of the school’s board of trustees and among those who feel the young quarterback deserves an opportunity to show he’s a better person than many perceive him to be.
“Time will tell,” Brooks said, adding that he was impressed that Winston sought a face-to-face meeting with NFL commissioner in the weeks leading up to the draft.
“Who else has done that?” Brooks added. “That tells you a lot. ”
The Bucs coming off a 2-14 season, in which they posted their worst record in 28 years and finished last in the NFC South for the fourth straight year.
Winston joins Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon (1976), Ricky Bell (1977), Bo Jackson (1986), as well as, Vinny Testaverde (1987) — another Heisman-winning quarterback — in being picked No. 1 overall by Tampa Bay.
The Bucs spent their entire 2014 draft, their first under Smith and Licht, on offensive players, yet still ranked 25th in passing, 29th in scoring and 30th in total offense last season.
The team paved the way for Winston to become the starter immediately, releasing veteran Josh McCown and hiring former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to install a system the team hopes will give the young quarterback a chance to flourish.
The prospect of not playing up to expectations hasn’t crossed Winston’s mind.
“One thing I don’t do is live in the past and I will not be negative. I’m very optimistic about this situation,” Winston said. “It’s been my life-long dream to be a successful quarterback and great teammate in the NFL.”