By not shying away from Winston or tipping hand on Mariota, the spotlight stays on Bucs

INDIANAPOLIS — The competition to determine who will become the first quarterback selected in the 2015 NFL draft is now officially a two-man race.

Any lingering speculation that Tampa Bay would remove Jameis Winston from consideration for the No. 1 overall pick because of character issues was quashed Wednesday when the former Florida State standout received a vote of confidence from Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith.

That leaves Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota as the frontrunners for the top spot when the draft begins April 28 in Chicago.

"I understand that (Winston) went through the justice system, the court system to be exonerated on some allegations against him," Smith said Wednesday as the NFL Scouting Combine officially opened in Indianapolis. "I understand the college things a lot of guys do that you wish you wouldn’t later on. I understand some of the things that he did that are on his record right now.

"We just take all the information that we can possibly get right now. It’s early. Keep in mind that we’re just to the Combine right now. We have a lot more research to do and we’ll do that. But with the information we have right now, we haven’t taken him off of our list."

Winston’s stellar FSU career was tainted by several off-field incidents. That includes a sexual assault charge of which he was ultimately cleared by a school conduct panel, a citation of arrest for shop-lifting crab legs from a supermarket and a one-game 2014 suspension following a commotion he created in front of the student union.

Smith will begin to get his own sense of Winston’s maturity by meeting with him this week at the Combine in what will be the first of multiple conversations before draft day.

"We do a lot of research," Smith said. "We’ve talked to a lot of different people so far on both of the players. We’ll continue to do that. And in the end, you gather all the information that you have and you make a decision."

Whatever that choice is, Winston and Mariota are hardly the only piece the Bucs need to rebound from a disastrous 2014 campaign.

Smith’s hiring was supposed to infuse new life into a franchise that was believed to have hit rock bottom the previous year under predecessor Greg Schiano. There was actually more room to fall. Tampa Bay finished 2-14, which was the franchise’s worst record since its "Yuccaneers" days of the mid-1980s.

Smith, though, doesn’t believe the Bucs are far from becoming legitimate playoff contenders once again.

"Little things matter," Smith told FOX Sports when reflecting upon last season. "We were close. It was eight games or so that we lost by one score. We had a lot of opportunities. We did some things at the end of games that we won’t do in the future.

GRUDGE MATCHES

"We’re not going to overhaul completely. We’re just going to tighten up some things. Normally the biggest improvement you see is from Year One to Year Two. That’s what we’re planning on doing."

The Bucs ranked 25th overall on defense — a major surprise considering the "Tampa-Two" scheme is Smith’s forte — but the other side of the football was even more inept. The offense was doomed from the preseason when coordinator Jeff Tedford suffered a heart ailment that kept him from coaching. The unit was left in the hands of Marcus Arroyo, a 34-year-old quarterbacks coach with no previous NFL experience.

Bucs center Evan Dietrich-Smith compared the challenge of trying to field a credible offense to trying to assemble a kid’s toy "with no directions" during a recent SiriusXM NFL Radio appearance with co-host Bill Polian and me.

"If you’ve been together for a couple of years, you can withstand a blow like that a little bit more," Smith admitted.

The hit was compounded by a free-agent class that never proved worth the lucrative contracts tendered. Defensive end Michael Johnson, left tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Alterraun Verner were the biggest disappointments. Tampa Bay already has parted ways with one 2014 acquisition last week when releasing quarterback Josh McCown in anticipation of making backup Mike Glennon the placeholder starter while Mariota or Winston develops under new coordinator Dirk Koetter.

"Free agency is hit or miss," Bucs general manager Jason Licht told FOX Sports on Wednesday. "It’s tough to project a guy after you pay him money and he moves into a new home. He’s got new friends, new coaches and all that stuff — how’s a guy going to react to that? Sometimes it’s things beyond our control.

"I don’t know if we learned anything, but it solidified that you can’t depend on free agency to build a championship. You have to build through the draft."

Smith is anxious to start the process.

"Whenever you go 2-14, you can’t wait to get things underway," he said.

The first step: Identifying whether Winston or Mariota will become the new face of the franchise.