Winston or Mariota could enter a risky situation in Tampa Bay
TAMPA, Fla. — Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have zero snaps in the NFL.
Both have never led a professional locker room. Both have never commanded respect from a huddle that includes men a decade older than them. Both have never stared down defenders on Sundays with the clock ticking down in the fourth quarter, victory or defeat in the balance.
The Heisman Trophy winners are praised for their potential, but their respective risk to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the possible No. 1 pick is weighed against their projected reward.
The NFL Combine, to be sure, was an exercise in trying to pinpoint that risk level before a multi-million-dollar decision is made, from the media sessions to the close-up interviews with team officials to the drills before stopwatches, cameras and curious eyes at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But why is risk too often considered a one-way street?
Truth is, either Winston or Mariota face risk if the Bucs select them. To begin, there would be great fanfare and optimism if either of the quarterbacks were tapped to lead the starved franchise, one that has cycled through three signal-callers and three offensive coordinators in the past two seasons.
But in time, the draft day suits and smiles will be tucked away, and the realities of the Bucs’ uncertainties on offense will be presented in full. The hiring of coordinator Dirk Koetter, who spent the past three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, is movement toward making Tampa Bay respectable after falling to 29th in the NFL in scoring with a paltry 17.3 points per game last season.
But will the running game, which ranked 29th by averaging 85.9 yards per contest, redeem itself? Will the offensive line be sturdy or fold fast like a dollar-store tent?
Will Winston or Mariota be given a chance to grow in a healthy way?
The answer to that question remains unknown, and the reality should concern Bucs fans who have treated the build-up to April 30 like an extended Mardi Gras. Now, the forecast calls for clear skies with bright outlooks about what Winston or Mariota may do to help deliver Tampa Bay to relevance in the NFC South, after the Dark Ages lived under Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano and the two-win stink bomb under Lovie Smith last year.
But environment matters so much in the NFL that drafting Winston or Mariota is no guarantee of future success. Ask Sam Bradford, who was wrecked by the St. Louis Rams because of inconsistent offensive strategy and few competent weapons around him. Ask Robert Griffin III, who was wrecked by the Washington Redskins because of heavy-handed ownership and organizational dysfunction.
What may await Winston or Mariota in Tampa after the draft-day flashbulbs pop, after high praise is spoken and glowing visions are shared before a single pass is thrown, remains anyone’s guess.
"I actually like their situation a lot," said Charley Casserly, a former general manager with the Redskins and Houston Texans and a current NFL Network analyst. "I think Dirk Koetter is an experienced coordinator. He has worked with a variety of quarterbacks. I think he’s an excellent coordinator. He’s very good with the quarterbacks. I think he’s an excellent coach. So I think that’s a real positive for the Bucs. I think Lovie is a leader. Lovie relates well with the players. He’s a good disciplinarian. They’re going to toe the line. They’re going to do what they’re supposed to do. So I think you have a real positive there with those two guys."
"I think the biggest issue is getting the offensive line improved," Casserly continued. "I think you have to give the quarterback a chance to be successful and give Doug Martin an ability to bounce back and play the way he’s capable of playing. So the key to me is to get the offensive line straightened out, because they’ve got good wide receivers. The tight end (Austin Seferian-Jenkins) is a prospect. You’ve got some weapons now. And like I said, I really like Lovie and Dirk, that combination, with one of these quarterbacks coming in."
Smith and Koetter look good on paper, but so did Smith and Jeff Tedford before the former California coach became invisible throughout One Buc Place following a heart procedure in late August. The reboot of the offensive line also looked good in theory, before Anthony Collins, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Logan Mankins failed to play to their expected standard during a year in which the Bucs allowed 52 sacks and an NFL-worst 124 quarterback hits.
So how key is correcting the offensive line before next season, for the sake of a possible rookie quarterback behind center, for the sake of everyone involved?
"I think it’s paramount," Casserly said. "And they know that. So it’s easier said than done some times. They know they’ve got to get better there."
Winston or Mariota should watch that situation closely, their success or failure in their rookie season in Tampa likely dependent on how well the offensive line performs, but other areas should concern too.
How long will Smith stay with the Bucs? Is another franchise overhaul on the horizon if they win just two-to-five games next season?
Will Winston or Mariota need to become acclimated to another coordinator after 2015? How may trying to grasp another system so quickly after their NFL baptism affect growth?
Understandably, franchises view prospects, even touted ones such as Winston and Mariota, as unknowns who include some risk. Still, not enough attention is paid to how top-level prospects are at the mercy of teams that are inherently flawed, or else those franchises wouldn’t be picking within the top five at all.
Either Winston or Mariota, if the Bucs go with a quarterback at No. 1, will enter a difficult situation in Tampa. There will be pressure to win immediately. There will be an expectation that either must produce starting in Week 1 or not long thereafter, with Smith’s job possibly at stake.
Problem is, outside of drafting Mike Evans, what did the Bucs do in 2014 that suggests they have a healthy structure in place to allow Winston or Mariota to thrive?
Both quarterbacks include questions, but as the hours pass before the first round, the Bucs are far from a sure bet themselves.