The fate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rests solely on the arm, legs, and mind of one Jameis Winston. That's the pressure that comes along with being a franchise quarterback, let alone a player who was taken with the first overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Now two full seasons removed from superstardom at Florida State and three seasons removed from winning the 2014 BCS National Championship with the Seminoles, Winston is a big fish — he checks in at 6-foot-4, 231 pounds — in a big pond.
He went from being a Heisman Trophy winner to one of a handful of exciting quarterbacks in a league that features Hall of Fame worthy players such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. He entered the NFL with a ton of talent, and a few character concerns, and has gone on to mixed results.
Has he completely lived up to his potential yet? That's a tough question. He has started every game of his two-year NFL career so far, playing well enough in his rookie season to be named to the 2016 Pro Bowl. Sure, it was because Brady backed out, but a Pro Bowl appearance is a Pro Bowl appearance, right?
The 2015 season saw Winston lead the Buccaneers to a 6-10 record. They finished last in the NFC South and ended the season on a four-game losing streak. You have to take the good with the bad with rookie quarterbacks, so Winston's five-touchdown game in a big win against the Eagles had to be accepted with performances like he had at the end of the season. During the four-game losing streak, Winston threw only five touchdowns compared to four interceptions. He did rush for a touchdown during that stretch, but he also fumbled the ball away once — effectively negating that score. Still, 2015 was a solid rookie season for a player who came into the league with both high expectations and high criticism. He threw for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns, though he did throw 15 interceptions. He also rushed 54 times for 213 yards and six touchdowns, proving that while he wasn't going to be an exclusive dual-threat quarterback in the NFL, he could still make defenses pay on the ground.
Year two was a mixed bag for Winston. He did throw for slightly more yards (4,090) and a few more touchdowns (28), but he also threw more interceptions (18) and fumbled six times over the course of 16 games. With that said, he helped lead Tampa Bay to a much improved 9-7 record in Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach, and though the 'Bucs didn't make the playoffs, they did finish second in the NFC South behind the Atlanta Falcons, who went on to make a run to the Super Bowl.
Two seasons in, Buccaneers fans have to be feeling pretty good about Winston. Is he the best quarterback in the league? Absolutely not. Is he a player with a ton of potential and someone who could definitely lead the 'Bucs to the playoffs, though?
That seems very likely.
Is Winston a top 10 quarterback in the league, though?
That's a debatable question, but at least according to Marcas Grant of NFL.com, who's the site's Fantasy Football editor, Winston is ready to be a top 10 quarterback in the league in 2017. Granted, he's evaluating the Tampa quarterback from a fantasy football perspective, which is all about stats, but here's what he had to say:
The hype train on Winston left the station the moment the team signed DeSean Jackson and has only picked up steam through the offseason. But there's a reason for that. Winston has been flirting with the top 10 at his position for the past couple of seasons — and that's with essentially one real weapon in the passing game.
Now that Winston has Jackson as a deep threat to go along with the tight end duo of Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard, the Buccaneers passing game looks a lot more dangerous. And the quarterback looks like a prime candidate to make the leap into the top 10.
The problem is that more and more people are starting to come around to this way of thinking, which will make it increasingly more difficult to nab Winston in the later rounds.
Grant sees Winston as a great late-round value for fantasy football owners because he's a "sleeper" type pick who certainly has the potential to have a top 10 fantasy season. As Grant mentioned, the 'Bucs added a speedy deep threat in Jackson, who will be joining established Tampa Bay star Mike Evans — who caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tampa also added a top tight end prospect in Alabama's Howard, who will join Brate and his 660 yards and eight touchdowns from 2016 at the position.
That's great news for those evaluating Winston — keeping passing statistics in mind. That's also great news for Buccaneers fans because Tampa's offense has the potential to be very explosive. And we haven't even mentioned running back Doug Martin, who's apparently looking very good and healthy heading into the fall.
Still, fantasy stats aside, is Winston ready to be a top 10 quarterback in the NFL?
Remember, this is a league that features players like the aforementioned Brady and Rogers, but also top-flight quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, and even Kirk Cousins — who all finished ahead of Winston last season in passing yards. Winston did tie with Brady and Oakland's Derek Carr for the seventh-highest touchdowns thrown total in 2016, but he also threw the second-most interceptions. His 18 picks were only ''beaten" by Rivers' 21, and don't forget the six fumbles.
With that in mind, any discussion of Winston being a top 10 quarterback in just his third NFL season has to begin and end with those turnovers. It won't be easy for Tampa to make a run in the NFC South with Ryan and the Falcons entering 2017 hungry to avenge their embarrassing Super Bowl loss, and it will be tough to count the Panthers out with Cam Newton leading the way. The fact is this: If Tampa Bay is to take the next step and make the playoffs, even as a wild card, Winston will have to do a better job of taking care of the football. Unfortunately, the past two seasons — and his time at Florida State — have proven that ball security has been an issue for the otherwise talented quarterback, but perhaps the addition of a few offensive weapons will help him out in that cause.
But in the here and now — not considering potential — is Winston a top 10 NFL quarterback? The answer to that question is a definitive no, if only because of the turnovers.
That can and may change in 2017, but until it actually happens, we'll have to wait and see.
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