- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION: We don’t know for certain whether Washington needs a quarterback and it’s unlikely that Jameis Winston — who last week declared himself eligible for the draft — would be available at No. 5 anyway.

But what if?

Would new general manager Scot McCloughan decline the chance to draft the franchise’s second Heisman Trophy-winner in four seasons? Would the Florida State quarterback’s long list of off-field issues be reason to pass, or would reluctance be based on Robert Griffin III’s presence and multiple needs elsewhere?

If McCloughan truly believes in taking the best player on the board when your turn comes up — and if he’s convinced that the 21-year-old will mature and avoid future transgressions — then another quarterback controversy and other roster holes wouldn’t outweigh Winston’s upside at the game’s most important position.

Quarterbacks have never been more valuable. Breathing on them too hard can trigger 15-yard penalties. Not yielding the right of way to wide receivers can result in automatic first downs. The NFL is addicted to passing yardage and passing touchdowns, and the modern-era rulebook serves as pusher.

Teams with elite passers will be competitive — period — whether they have lackluster ground games, porous defenses or mundane special teams.

Which is why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be smart to choose Winston with the No. 1 pick.

Of the league’s top 10 QBs in passing yardage, six of them — Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Denver’s Peyton Manning, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and New England’s Tom Brady — reached the postseason.

Conversely, the playoff field included three teams — Arizona, Detroit and Indianapolis — among the NFL’s 11 worst in rushing. Four teams — Arizona, Cincinnati, Dallas and Pittsburgh — ranked among the league’s bottom half in total defense.

It’s no wonder that franchises continue to roll the dice on high-pick quarterbacks, even though the propositions are 50-50 at best. Most come with at least one question mark, be it their offensive system in college, NFL suitability, durability, arm strength, etc.

Every once in a great while there’s a prospect like Luck, a tremendous physical specimen with no discernible weakness between the lines or between the ears, in the film room or out on the town.

That’s not the case with Winston (or, for that matter, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose red flags are on the field). From allegations of sexual assault and pilfered crab legs, to screaming obscenities and shooting BB guns, Winston makes Johnny Manziel look like an Eagle Scout.

Fortunately for Winston, his total package makes way for benefit of the doubt, giving him a chance to assure NFL teams that youthful indiscretions will be left on campus. If the Buccaneers or Tennessee Titans aren’t sold, another desperate-for-a-QB team will take him at his word and move up to grab him.

Temptation is too great when you’re 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds with demonstrated skills that haven’t been found in the spread-attack, read-option QBs who were all the rage recently.

“I think he’s the kid with the instincts of a pocket passer,” NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said on The Colin Cowherd Show. “He’s strong in the pocket. He reads coverage.”

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay offered a similar assessment during a conference call last week. “[Winston] picks up football concepts quickly,” he said. “He knows how to go through progression reads. He’s comfortable in the pocket and can manipulate the pocket. He anticipates throws as well as any quarterback in the last couple of drafts in terms of being inside the pocket.”

For all the athleticism displayed by the likes of RG3, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, the pocket is still the driver’s seat for winning QBs. Mobility has its place — primarily to extend plays and make it virtually impossible for a secondary to contain coverage.

Yes, guys like Wilson, Rodgers and Luck will take off and run when nice gains are easy pickings. However, they do most of their damage planted behind the line of scrimmage — or on the move while keeping their eyes downfield.

Winston could be a bust if he’s done in by immaturity and character flaws. But short of being another Aaron Hernandez or Todd Marinovich, Winston’s physical tools and in-game mental processes make him well worth the risk.

Besides, it’s not like the old days (prior to the new collective bargaining agreement in 2012), when St. Louis used the No. 1 pick on Sam Bradford and paid him $50 million guaranteed. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney was paid “only” $22 million guaranteed. Teams can swallow that if necessary.

Bradford, Manziel, Griffin, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer are the NFL’s five active Heisman-winning QBs. None has a winning record and only Newton has won a playoff game. But that shouldn’t stop the Buccaneers or whoever from casting their lot with Winston.

The potential payouts outweigh the possible pitfalls.

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