It's going to be difficult to escape Jameis Winston coverage over the next couple of months.
As is wont to happen during the draft process, a handful of prospects will accrue significantly more of the media attention than the rest of the class. Winston is definitely one of those prospects, but because of his decorated stretch on the field at FSU and the significant issues stemming from his off-field life, the quarterback prospect could even eclipse the coverage that all of the other top prospects receive.
While much of the attention will be on those off-field issues, the one significant issue stemming from Winston's play on the field is his propensity for turning the ball over.
During his first season as a starter for FSU, Winston threw 10 interceptions on 384 pass attempts. Those 10 interceptions were overshadowed by his 40 touchdown passes. Winston took care of the ball well despite reaching double digits in turnovers for the season as a whole. This season, Winston has attempted 422 passes. Of those 422 passes, 24 went for touchdowns. However, 17 of those passes were caught by defensive players. Most significantly, too many of Winston's turnovers this season have been a direct result of his poor play, rather than something he could blame on a team.
One of the recurring causes of Winston's interceptions is his inability to recognize underneath coverage.
On this third-and-10 play, Winston is being faced with a defensive front that is light. The defense is lining up conservatively, with just one linebacker and four down linemen in the box. Having just one linebacker underneath should make it easy for Winston to account for him if he chooses to blitz or drop into coverage.
At the snap, Winston's eyes appear to be directed to where the linebacker is standing. He is likely reading the deeper level of the coverage, but he should be able to account for the linebacker while doing that. The linebacker initially holds his position over the middle of the field, while the defensive front only sends three players after Winston. One of the defensive tackles drops into space with the linebacker, meaning that the linebacker doesn't have to drift towards the middle of the field.
Because the defense only rushes three defenders, Winston has plenty of space and time in the pocket. Against three man rushes, you typically want to hold the ball to give your receivers time to find space. Winston doesn't do this though. Instead, he gets to the top of his drop, holds the ball for a moment before throwing the ball to an area where his eyes had always been focused.
Winston either didn't see the underneath linebacker at all or tried to fit the ball over him into an exceptionally tight window. He had a receiver running an in route that brought him right behind the defender who was always in position to affect the throw. Even though Winston's throw was high, the linebacker was able to reach up and tip the ball down to himself.
As this play reiterates, Winston simply makes these plays that are inexplicable in terms of his thought process. He is an exceptionally smart quarterback from the pocket for the most part, but underneath defenders appear to lie in a blind spot for him. This is an element of his game that NFL defenses will attempt to highlight with flooded zone coverages and mixed coverages. It's the kind of flaw that could prove fatal if it doesn't improve significantly.
Six of Winston's 17 interceptions on the season have come on plays when he didn't recognize the presence of a defender underneath the route he was trying to throw the ball to.
Of the remaining eleven, Winston attempted passes that he simply doesn't have the ability to make *four times. He believed too much in his own arm talent. As previously discussed, Winston doesn't have a great arm. He relies more on his ability to break down coverages from the pocket to find receivers in space who can adjust to catch the football. Winston doesn't throw spirals that cut through the air or carry the kind of precision that negates tight coverage.
This is something that is exacerbated when he is put under pressure.
On this play, the defense sends a delayed blitz up the middle that sends a free defender. The offense has picked up the other defenders, but the sixth blitzer is coming free. Winston has his eyes on his tight end's deep out route. However, despite the fact that the defense has sent six players after the quarterback, Winston is staring down a receiver who is double covered. Both defensive backs are watching Winston's eyes, so if he throws the ball he is going to have to fit it into a tight window.
Winston's pass arrives way behind his tight end and is wobbling towards the inside defensive back. It was much too far infield for the tight end to make a play on the ball, but even if it went far enough outside of the tight end, it lacked the velocity to make sure that it would pass the underneath defender cutting across the field. If Winston had fit the ball in with that level of velocity, he'd have most likely been forced to absorb a big hit. Winston almost had an exact replica of this play against Louisville when he threw the ball too far inside again while under pressure in the pocket.
Against Louisville, the underneath defender caught the ball. On this occasion, he tipped it into the air when he should have made a comfortable catch. Instead it popped up over the intended receiver and landed in the hands of a deeper safety.
Winston's number of interceptions are concerning, but the kind is more significant than the quantity. Because FSU puts a huge weight on his shoulders by not asking him to run a quarterback-friendly scheme, turnovers are inevitable. Winston has to manage pressure in the pocket while making different reads down the field. That's not easy to do and especially difficult when your offensive line isn't performing as well as it did the year before.
On this play, we see how Winston is immediately pressured in the pocket from his blindside. He does an outstanding job to feel the pressure before stepping up in the pocket. Once he has stepped up, Winston doesn't stop. He slides to his left and backwards to buy time to throw the ball down the field. Throughout his pocket movement, Winston has kept his eyes downfield and located a receiver running a deep crossing route.
To this point in the play, Winston has done something exceptionally difficult. He has managed a messy pocket and found a pocket of space to release the ball down the field, while maintaining eye level to locate his receivers.
However, this play also resulted in an interception as Winston released the ball without stepping into his throw. His arm strength couldn't compensate for his lack of balance, meaning the ball arrived far behind his intended target. When trying to fit the ball in between three defenders over the middle of the field, you need the ball to arrive on time and with precision.
The bigger concern coming out of Winston's turnovers is his arm talent. He simply doesn't have a great arm and it's highlighted by his sloppy mechanics.
In the NFL, these windows are going to tighten and the pass rush is going to quicken. His ability to immediately diagnose defenses at the snap in college won't be as valuable in the NFL during his early years because defenses become much more complex and play at a greater speed. Winston will eventually adjust to the speed of the game, but if his accuracy and arm strength doesn't improve, it might not be enough to allow his skill set to transition to the NFL.
Much will be discussed about Marcus Mariota's ability to fit the ball into tight windows because of the offense he plays in, but it's something that must also be closely examined with Winston. Mariota's concerns are legitimate, but with his placement and underneath velocity, it may actually be a lesser concern for him than it is for Winston.