2013 was Jameis Winston's year.
The first-year starter completed 25 of 27 passes for four touchdowns and 356 yards in his debut against Pittsburgh, before wrapping up the season with a late game-winning touchdown pass in the National Championship game. In between those two peaks, he threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns while winning every single game of a Heisman season.
In a year when there were many standout quarterbacks playing college football, Winston surpassed them all by such a distance that it seems impossible for him to improve in 2014.
His success was primarily built on his exceptional intelligence and brilliant pocket presence. Winston was able to get the most out of the pieces around him by consistently executing the offensive system rather than being a flashy playmaker who took off for big runs or forced perfect passes to his favorite receiver. It sounds easy and it even sounds like a negative when you're projecting Winston forward to the NFL, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Intelligence, awareness and consistency are three of the most important traits in any quarterback. More specifically, they are traits that translate very well to the NFL. Winston showed off these traits in a number of different ways.
On this play against Pittsburgh, Winston showed off his ability to read the defense while adjusting to pressure in the pocket.
It's important to note the positioning of the safeties before the snap in relation to where the offense is lined up on the field. The offense is offset to the left side with two receivers to the right and a tight end to the left. Because of the offense's alignment and the threat of the run, the defense keeps one safety in the box to the tight end's side of the field and the other deep to the other side of the field.
Winston understands the route combinations in his offense, so when he gets the football he immediately looks at the deep safety to see what he is going to do. What the deep safety does determines where he goes with the football.
However, Winston doesn't have much time to sit back in the pocket and wait for the deep safety to make a definite move. His protection immediately breaks down at the snap to the right side of the line, so Winston has to react to the incoming edge rusher while still reading the coverage.
In spite of the incoming pressure, Winston's eyes never drop. This is a trait that lots of quarterbacks currently starting in the NFL don't have. Winston's eye level is rarely affected by pressure or a closing pocket. He feels out pressure and reacts to it instinctively. On this play, he slides away from the incoming rusher while still maintaining good balance to begin his throwing motion.
While the edge pressure did affect Winston, his sliding motion and balance allowed him to throw the ball comfortably. His ability to adjust in the pocket while still keeping his eyes downfield was subtle and looked relatively simple, but the degree of difficulty and value of this play is massive compared to a quarterback who drops his eyes and tries to scramble when he is pressured.
Coaches don't design offenses to work with a quarterback who can't handle pressure or read a defense. They will adjust out of necessity when they don't have the quality of players to execute a more complex offense, but generally sticking to the design of the offense is what brings the most success.
Winston allowed the offense to stick to its design with his masterful management of the pocket and his intelligence to read the defense. While sliding away from the pressure he took his eyes away from the deep safety, who had stayed on the far side of the field, to locate his tight end on the near side of the field.
That tight end, the talented Nick O'Leary, was running a double move against the safety who had initially lined up closer to the line of scrimmage. Because that safety was in close proximity to O'Leary, there was a huge amount of space behind him down the seam. The safety falls for the fake and O'Leary has an easy reception on a simple throw for Winston.
The throw itself was simple, but the play from the quarterback wasn't. What Winston did before he began his throwing motion allowed the offense to work as designed and allowed himself to attempt an easy pass.
Having the ability to create easy throws and still run a very effective offense is much more valuable than having a quarterback who relies on his physical ability to make more difficult plays. More difficult plays are riskier by definition.
Last year, Peyton Manning set a passing touchdown record in the NFL by repeatedly making easy throws. He was able to do this because he can read NFL defenses the same way Winston can read college defenses. Significantly, Manning also understood two other aspects of intelligent quarterback play. The first is throwing with anticipation.
When Manning lost Ryan Clady last year, nobody really noticed. In fact, most didn't notice that the Broncos offensive line wasn't actually very impressive in pass protection. Manning took pressure off of his line by creating hesitation in the defensive front with different play calls and by throwing with anticipation.
Quarterbacks who throw with anticipation are able to get rid of the ball quicker because they don't need to wait until they can see their receiver open. Pass rushers already have a very small window of time to get to the quarterback, when you can shorten that window with an earlier release, it becomes very, very difficult to consistently get pressure.
Winston takes a deep drop on this play and appears to looking at Rashad Greene when he settles at the top of his drop. Greene is running directly down the seam with a defender tight to his body in man coverage. When Winston begins his throwing motion, Greene is still tightly covered and running towards the opposition's goal line.
Although it didn't look like it when Winston let the ball go, Greene is actually running a deep out route. Winston recognized the space outside of his intended receiver when he began his throwing motion, so he was able to let the ball go early. When Greene comes out of his break, the ball is already in the air and he just has to run underneath it.
Not only does Winston make it tougher for the pass rush to disrupt him by throwing with anticipation, he also makes it very difficult for defensive backs to get a break on the ball.
Greene ran a good route on this play, so he deserves a lot of credit, but the defensive back also didn't get any time to react to his route because the ball was arriving almost instantaneously. This means that Winston didn't have to make a difficult throw that required more precise accuracy and more velocity on the ball.
Building an efficient offense on simple throws is an ideal situation, but it asks a lot from the quarterback mentally. The second way that Peyton Manning does this to perfection is with checkdowns.
Praising a quarterback for his ability to check the ball down sounds patronizing and like a backhanded compliment, but the reality is that there is a real talent required to checking the ball down. Some quarterbacks are too quick to check the ball down. Some do it in the wrong situation and some simply check the ball down when their first read isn't there.
More often than not, Winston checked the ball down when his intended receiver had space to work in and not simply as a last resort.
In the National Championship, Winston threw for two touchdowns and one came on a play where he proactively checked the ball down to his running back in the flat.
When Winston gets the ball from his center, he stares at the left outside linebacker in the area where his outside receiver is running a slant route. That linebacker hasn't committed to the running back running into the flat on that side of the field, but Winston stays looking in his direction for a moment to see what he will do.
If this defender runs towards the running back in the flat, Winston should have an opportunity to throw the ball to his receiver running the slant route. If he stays where he is, then his running back outside should have a lot of space to run into.
Winston turns his shoulders away from the linebacker before he moves, because he knows he has held him there long enough so that his running back outside will have space to work in. The linebacker gives the running back even more time because he planted his outside foot to work back infield less than a second after Winston turned his shoulders away from him.
When the running back catches the ball, he has plenty of space in front of him. He is met by the recovering linebacker at the five yard line, but the recovering linebacker can only make a desperation attempt to try and tackle him so he fails to prevent the touchdown.
Easy throws. The ability to create them instead of forcing difficult throws will always be valuable at the quarterback position. Because Winston proved last year that he can comfortably manage the pocket and read defenses, he should continue to be very effective at this level.
However, when it comes to his potential as a professional, some major question marks emerge.
Every mental trait of Winston's game suggests that he should not only be a first round pick in the draft, but a high first round pick. His performances as a purely physical passer may scare many teams off of him moving forward. Winston doesn't appear to have a great arm, but it's difficult to evaluate his arm talent because of his sloppy mechanics.
In the above image, we can see the three stages of Tom Brady's throwing motion. Brady and Manning probably have the most impressive throwing motions in the NFL. Both are consistently compact, balanced and very quick getting rid of the ball. This is very important not only for accuracy, but also for avoiding fumbles in typically tighter NFL pockets.
Winston's throwing motion is more reminiscent of Tim Tebow's. His baseball background appears to be responsible for the hitch in his motion that sees him drop the ball low and loop it around before releasing it. His footwork isn't consistent and when he does step into throws he arcs all of his body weight over his leading foot so that he is more often than not off balance and he has no control over the trajectory of the ball.
Even though Winston is a big athlete with a similar frame to that of Ben Roethlisberger or even Cam Newton at a stretch, his throws lack the velocity and control that those quarterbacks boast because of his poor mechanics.
Plenty of NFL quarterbacks have minor mechanical issues that affect how they throw the ball, but those issues don't dramatically affect their accuracy and they don't deal with those issues on every single snap. When Winston did throw with good balance and control, he generally threw very accurate, fast passes but those plays were too few and far between.
His mechanics didn't improve as the season went on and he didn't appear to have made any alterations during this year's spring game.
For a couple of reasons, Winston was able to overcome his sloppy mechanics and inaccurate passes in college. The most important is his mental acumen that has been detailed above. That ability to run an offense on easier throws is something that should allow him to be an effective starter in the NFL one day at the very least.
Reading college defenses is obviously different to reading NFL defenses, but it's fair to expect him to develop as he needs to because he is still a very, very young quarterback.
Even though Winston should be able to create easy throws in the NFL with his mental acumen, the quality and speed of defenses at that level also force quarterbacks to regularly make very difficult throws. Quarterbacks in the NFL have to be significantly more accurate than quarterbacks in college and they can't afford to have limited velocity because even a slightly delayed or off-target pass can easily turn into a turnover.
Even in college football last year Winston's inaccuracy should have had a bigger impact on his production. A significant reason it didn't was the quality of his supporting cast. All of the FSU offense was impressive last season, but most significant for assessing Winston's accuracy were wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene.
Benjamin became a first round pick in the 2014 NFL draft because of his athleticism and his ability to go and get the football. He may not be the most consistent player and he may struggle to create separation on the next level, but in college Benjamin could routinely make plays on the ball that made ball placement irrelevant.
Winston was smart to use Benjamin the way he did and he understood how to flight the ball to give his receiver the best possible opportunity in jump-ball situations, but this was essentially a cheat code for a quarterback with bad accuracy.
While we generally focus on bigger receivers when discussing quarterbacks who help mask inaccuracy, the 6'0” Greene also made Winston's job much easier in 2013. His ability to consistently create separation from any point on the field with precise routes and quickness gave Winston bigger windows to throw into. Furthermore, Greene's ability to recognize the flight of the football early and adjust to it in the air meant that he only needed the ball to be catchable rather than accurate more often than not.
Because Winston could anticipate Greene coming free and because Greene consistently came free, timing and accuracy was much less of an issue for the quarterback. After Benjamin went in the first round of the 2014 draft, Greene should expect to be a high pick in 2015.
Theoretically, once Winston becomes a full-time professional football player instead of a two-sport student, he should be able to clean up his mechanics and become a much more accurate passer. Brady is a noted quarterback who consistently works on his mechanics to train himself to be more efficient in that area rather than simply being naturally that way.
With Winston, the belief in his ability to fix his mechanics will likely be the difference in him going in the top half of the first round of the draft (maybe even first overall) and him being more of a developmental prospect who drops down to the 20s like Aaron Rodgers.