The debut of Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, ranked the No. 1 quarterback and a top-15 prospect in the high school recruiting class of 2012 by both Rivals and ESPN, came with no shortage of hype.
In many cases, highly touted recruits fail to live up to the hype at the beginning of their careers. Winston, however, did not just meet the sky-high expectations in his debut, but exceeded them.
On an opening weekend of college football that included Clemson’s Tajh Boyd accounting for 312 total yards and five total touchdowns versus Georgia and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater throwing for 355 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio, Florida State’s Jameis Winston saved arguably the best quarterback performance of the weekend for last.
One would expect a redshirt freshman quarterback seeing his first game action to have a flawed performance, but Winston was nearly perfect on Monday night. He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns and added eight runs for 25 yards and another touchdown.
Those statistics alone are impressive: Any time a quarterback throws twice as many touchdowns as incompletions, he’s had a good performance. The physical tools he showed in the process of compiling those statistics, however, is what has talent evaluators already buzzing about the performance.
NFL scouts will not begin taking a serious look at Winston until next year, when he is eligible for the 2015 NFL draft, and they certainly won’t be jumping to any conclusions about a redshirt freshman after one game. The upcoming draft class already has at least one superstar quarterback prospect in Bridgewater, assuming he declares for the draft after his junior season, and Boyd, who may be on track to be high first-round selection as well.
It’s unrealistic to think that Winston will play as well every game as he did in his debut—he will have bad games and make mistakes as even the best quarterbacks do—but if Winston’s first game is an indicator of the rest of the career, he will be a top prospect for whichever draft (2015, 2016 or 2017) he decides to declare.
Why Winston is Already Generating Buzz
Throughout his debut, Winston consistently threw the ball with high velocity and precise placement. Winston showed that he has no trouble generating zip on his passes, and he puts the ball where his receiver can make the play.
While Winston had a few throws that forced his receiver to slow up or adjust to make the catch, his accuracy was precise, as his impressive statistics indicate. Even his two incompletions were catchable passes; they were thrown slightly too wide out to allow the receiver to get his feet inbounds.
3/3 from pocket
2/2 under pressure
1/1 on run
1/1 under pressure
2/3 from pocket
3/4 on run
2/4 under pressure
2/2 from pocket
2/2 under pressure
1/1 on run
5/5 from pocket
2/2 from pocket
1/1 from pocket
2/2 from pocket
1/1 under pressure
3/3 from pocket
2/2 under pressure
As his passing chart shows, Winston made a variety of throws on Monday night and was successful in each capacity. He threaded the ball through tight windows deep downfield, but he also hit his short and intermediate throws. He demonstrated the ability to stand tall in the pocket and throw under pressure but also the athleticism to roll away from pressure and extend plays and make throws on the run.
On a number of throws where Winston needed to precisely place the ball, he put the pass right where it needed to go. His most impressive completion of the night may have been his 20-yard completion to wide receiver Rashad Greene to convert a 3rd-and-17 in the second quarter.
(Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown).
Winston was hit as he threw the pass from the 33-yard line, but was able to follow through with his release and still deliver a strong throw over the middle. Even in the face of pressure, Winston made the throw with perfect timing and anticipation, hitting Greene out of his break over the middle of the field right in front of a defender.
Throws like that aren’t ones that a redshirt freshman in his college football debut are expected to make. Under heavy pressure, Winston kept his composure and made his throw despite contact. His exceptional placement on the back hip of a well-covered target meant that only the receiver could make a play on the ball.
Later in the second quarter, Winston made another tremendous throw to Rashad Greene that again showed precise ball placement and a composure under pressure.
On 1st-and-30 with less than a minute remaining in the half, Winston knew he needed to make a play downfield. Even as pressure collapsed the left side of the pocket, Winston kept his eyes downfield, while doing a great job of quickly rolling away from pressure then resetting his feet to make his throw.
After setting up on the right side of the pocket, Winston launched a 20-yard strike up the right sideline to Greene, who came back to the ball between two defenders. Winston threaded the delivery between the two defenders, allowing Greene to leap up and make the catch. Greene did the rest and ran for a first down.
In those throws and many more examples on Monday night, Winston demonstrates the tools of an NFL quarterback.
As noted earlier, Winston has a rocket arm. He still could stand to improve his touch and accuracy so as to consistently put the ball in front of his receivers, but he accomplishes the most important step of getting the ball there.
A two-sport star at Florida State, Winston has also made plays with his arm strength on the baseball field, as he did in the following clip from a game versus Clemson this spring.
Winston may not become a dynamic running threat, and he doesn’t have the speed of Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III, but he does fit the modern prototype of pocket passers like Andrew Luck and Bridgewater in terms of showcasing the athletic ability to extend plays and using his size and athleticism to run when necessary.
Developing sound footwork is typically one of the toughest learning curves for a young college quarterback to master, but Winston displayed against Pittsburgh that he already has very good mechanics and footwork.
He showed the ability to work from both under center and from shotgun and demonstrated proper steps in his dropbacks. As he showed in the second play above, he can use his quick feet to move away from pressure, and he does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield and resetting his feet to throw when doing so.
While many dual-threat quarterbacks struggle with learning when to throw and when to run, Winston seems to already understand how to strike that balance. For the most part, Winston ran the ball only when the pocket broke down and/or he had an open running lane, rather than looking to take off as soon as the defense took away his first read.
When Winston does run the ball, his prototypical size (6’4”, 227 pounds) plays to his advantage. While he may not run by or away from many defenders—especially when projected against the speed of NFL defenders—he can take on contact and run through it.
Winston is absolutely a pocket passer first and a runner second, so where his running ability will be most useful is when he's able to make a play rather than throwing the ball away or taking a sack. The following nine-yard first-quarter run is an example of him using his size and athleticism to make such a play.
Winston had plenty of time in the pocket to make a throw on this play, and as ESPN announcer Jesse Palmer noted, he could have made a deep throw to Kelvin Benjamin breaking on a post over the middle. That said, when Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald collapsed in on him for what would have been a sack against most quarterbacks, Winston was able to break the tackle and use his agility to run right away from two defenders before taking off upfield for a nine-yard gain.
Defenders are not going to be simply arm tackle or push Winston to the ground. He has shown that he can reciprocate contact through a stiff arm, and he is even willing to lead block after a handoff, which he did 10 yards downfield to help lead Devonta Freeman to a 20-yard run early in the third quarter.
All in all, Winston showed the hallmarks of an elite quarterback prospect in the Seminoles’ 41-13 victory over Pittsburgh. If he continues to be a leader and a playmaker throughout his redshirt freshman season, he will go into his redshirt sophomore year as one of the top prospects eligible for the 2015 draft class.
That said, we shouldn’t anoint him as a future superstar yet.
What Winston Still Needs to Prove
First and foremost, Winston needs to put together a far larger body of work than just one outstanding game.
There have been many college quarterbacks to start out their careers with great performances only to falter under the spotlight. Winston seems to have the ability and demeanor to avoid any such slump, but he still has to actually do it.
While Winston did not show many flaws in his opening game, some deficiencies are likely to be exposed against opponents tougher than Pittsburgh. But even in his season opener, there were some aspects of his game that NFL scouts will certainly look for him to improve upon before they declare Winston a top draft prospect.
In addition to better leading his receivers, Winston needs to improve on knowing when to release the football. While he has very good pocket presence, Winston on a number of occasions against the Panthers stood too long in the pocket, allowing a throwing window to close. This forced him to either check down, run the ball or take a sack.
Aside from a fumble that was knocked out of bounds at the end of a 10-yard run, Winston’s game was free of major mistakes. That said, he played a mostly safe game. While he did make some big throws downfield, most of them were completed to wide open receivers, while he passed up a number of riskier but manageable throws that could have gone for greater gains.
Winston is a smart decision-maker, but one area where he should look to improve is in switching his reads. While he showed the ability to do this on a number of throws against Pittsburgh, he also showed a tendency to stare down his receivers at times. As opponents study film of him and game plan against him, they will try to take exploit this tendency.
Winston’s mechanics will also be scrutinized. He throws a beautiful ball that comes out of his hand with great spin and zip, but against defenses that generate heavier pressure, his long-armed delivery could potentially cause him trouble at times.
All in all, the scouting process for Winston is one that is just beginning. While NFL scouts will not begin seriously looking at Winston yet as a redshirt freshman, they certainly know his name now if they didn’t already. After he has a full season or two under his belt, we will be better able to determine whether Winston truly deserves to be heralded along the lines of Luck, Griffin, or Bridgewater as an elite quarterback prospect.
All screenshots were taken from Draft Breakdown's cut-up of Jameis Winston vs. Pittsburgh. Illustrations were added by the author.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.