Jameis Winston was a fairly uncommon “Hard Knocks” star.
He was already at least a lower-case star before the show, which usually makes cult figures out of unknown guys trying to make the roster. HBO and NFL Films made the smart choice to make this season all about the 23-year-old quarterback. It was good for Winston too.
Winston came off as charismatic and likable. He was the one firing up his teammates before games with funny, silly rhymes. The show showed Winston hosting a camp for kids and inspiring them. He was also the one in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ gym working out before the rest of his teammates got there, before the sun was up. Winston has more depth now. He was already a Heisman Trophy winner, a top overall pick and had the level of celebrity any starting NFL quarterback holds. But his profile increased with his “Hard Knocks” turn, and his celebrity status might grow. Winston is entering his third season and because of the improvements the Buccaneers made, he has a chance for a true breakout season. And at just 23 years old, there’s no reason to believe Winston can’t be an upper Star in the NFL for many, many years.
But can Winston be the next face of the NFL? That’s more complicated.
The void will be there. Tom Brady will be giving up that throne soon, unless he does follow through on his promise to play until his mid-40s. Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning are nearing the end, too. The next face of the NFL doesn’t necessarily have to be a quarterback, but based on history, it will be.
Of course, Winston comes with baggage.
A rape accusation at Florida State will follow him forever. Winston has claimed the woman and he had consensual sex. Winston was never charged and he was found not responsible of sexual misconduct following a student code of conduct hearing. When the woman sued Winston, Winston countersued and the parties settled out of court. Whatever you believe happened that night likely matches up with what you think about Winston today.
Winston had other incidents at Florida State, though nothing as serious as the sexual assault accusation. He was involved in a BB gun battle in an apartment, causing damages. He helped himself to soda at Burger King without paying for it. He was suspended by FSU for yelling out a lewd comment from a popular meme while in the student union. There was the infamous incident in which he walked out of Publix with crab legs he didn’t pay for.
When he entered the NFL, he was just as well known for those stories as he was for winning a Heisman and a national championship.
“First off, before we start anything, I want to let you all know, I know I made mistakes and I know I have a past, but right now it’s about me moving forward and earning the trust of all these 32 teams out there,” Winston said to begin his news conference at the NFL combine.
“I have to do everything by my actions. It’s not time to explain about what I’m going through but when I do get to a city and a team I plan on getting involved in the community and create an image, a positive image, and put everything else behind me.”
The Buccaneers had to take all of Winston’s past into account when they took him first overall.
“He’s been accused of a crime,” then-Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith told the Tampa Bay Times before the 2015 draft. ”There’s an allegation. He went through our court system. I have faith in our court system. He went through the school justice system. He was cleared. He went through our court system and he was cleared. Exonerated. What else can you do?”
To this point, Winston hasn’t had that big star turn. His jersey isn’t among the top 25 sellers on NFLShop.com. Winston hasn’t had a major national ad campaign centered around him. Maybe that’s all because he doesn’t play for a marquee team, or because he has played OK but not great through two seasons. Maybe it’s for other reasons.
What happens if Winston becomes one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season? It’s certainly possible. The Buccaneers are one of the most common sleeper picks among analysts this season. The Buccaneers added deep-threat receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and dynamic tight end O.J. Howard in the first round of the draft. Winston attempted 69 passes this preseason, 20 more than any starting quarterback in the NFL, which is a sign that he’s going to have the chance to throw for a ton of yards and touchdowns. It’s not crazy to think he could make a run at 4,500-5,000 yards and if everything goes right, be in the MVP race. Then what?
The NFL probably won’t have a problem marketing quarterbacks over the next few years, despite the hysteria you hear over quarterback play in the league. Aaron Rodgers will step into that spotlight by himself when Brady is done. There is a strong group of very good quarterbacks who are all less than 30 years old. Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz have established themselves to varying degrees. There are some exciting rookies in this year’s class and a great class of quarterbacks expected to enter next year’s draft.
Winston is certainly in that group of exciting, young quarterbacks. Winston might end up being the best among all of them, and he might start to establish that this season. Would that ever make him the NFL’s most marketable star?
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