TAMPA — Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht thinks he and coach Lovie Smith are on the brink of the most important decision in franchise history, one that could chart the team’s course for decades.
It also could be its most controversial.
The Bucs have the first pick in the 2015 National Football League draft on Thursday, with many expecting the team to select former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston over former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. The decision could be met with as many jeers as cheers. On the field, Winston is seen by NFL scouts as the most pro-ready quarterback in this draft class, but off the field he is seen as arguably the riskiest.
He led FSU to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, but Winston’s litany of off-field troubles includes a sexual assault accusation, a citation for shoplifting and a one-game suspension from the FSU football team for shouting obscenities in a public place on campus. Licht, concerned about those misdeeds, said team officials spoke to upwards of 75 people to determine whether Winston’s actions were the work of a bad person or simply an immature one.
Their research, Licht said, was extensive.
“Maybe 25 years from now I’ll write a book,” Licht said.
In contacting people who might have been on the Bucs’ list, The Tampa Tribune determined team representatives spoke to family members, friends, teammates, former high school coaches, former college coaches and an assistant state attorney. They asked about Winston’s relationships — with family, teammates and coaches — his upbringing, his support system, his work ethic.
Their list likely was even longer.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people. ‘A lot’ is probably not a big enough word,” Licht said. “We are not going to talk about the process. All I’ll tell you is that the Glazer family, the head coach, the general manager, our staffs, we all couldn’t feel more confident about the process we have gone through.”
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Interestingly, it appears the process did not include a conversation with Erica Kinsman, the Zephryhills woman who accused Winston of sexual assault stemming from an incident in December 2012. Kinsman’s attorneys say no NFL team has contacted them or their client.
“When vetting any potentially credible accusation of off-field misconduct, I’d expect NFL teams to learn both sides and not just listen to the player, agent and coach,” said Baine Kerr, a Colorado-based lawyer representing Kinsman. “Due diligence should include learning the facts from the accuser’s point of view.”
About two weeks ago, an attorney representing the Bucs did speak to Georgia Cappleman, an assistant in the Tallahassee State Attorney’s Office, which decided not to prosecute Winston.
“He asked about our investigation, but more specifically they were interested in knowing if there were any reports of, or additional information in reference to, a second victim,” said Cappleman, an FSU graduate and the daughter of former Seminoles quarterback Bill Cappleman. “I advised them that there was another woman who received some counseling services from Florida State University as a result of an encounter with Mr. Winston that was of a sexual nature.”
Though Cappleman acknowledged she has not had contact with the second woman, she said she told the Bucs she “doubts” the woman will be a problem for Winston going forward because that person “doesn’t even consider herself a victim.”
The Bucs’ attorney did not ask why Cappleman’s office decided not to move forward with the case against Winston.
“That was pretty well covered,” Cappleman said, referring to public documents produced during the state’s investigation into Kinsman’s accusation.
Documentation of Kinsman’s claims also is available in lawsuits Kinsman filed recently against Florida State University and Winston.
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Vetting a player the way the Bucs have Winston is nothing new for Licht.
As the director of player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals two years ago, he played a large role in that team’s vetting of Tyrann Mathieu, a cornerback with first-round talent whose dismissal from the Louisiana State University football team because of repeated violations of the team’s substance abuse policy caused him to fall to the third round, where he eventually was selected by the Cardinals.
“I don’t want to say it’s an unsettling process, because sometimes you find more and more good as you go,” Licht said. “It’s actually comforting that we’re putting as much work into it as we are. It’s a matter of talking to a lot of people and trying to talk to as many unbiased people and associates around him as well as people who are close” to the player.
Many of those conversations take place during football season and involve area, regional and national scouts whose duties include interviewing everyone from the equipment manager to the head coach to gauge a player’s character traits and work habits.
Once the season is over, the general manager cross-checks the scouts’ findings by conducting in-person interviews with the prospect at the NFL scouting combine and on his school’s pro-day workout. Teams also have private meetings and workouts with prospects.
The Bucs spent a full day last month meeting with Winston at the team’s One Buc Place training facility, where Winston visited with everyone from wide receiver Vincent Jackson to Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer. Days later, the Bucs did the same with Mariota.
“As much as you can, you just spend as much time with them, and you talk to as many people as you possibly can and get information,” Bucs head coach Smith said. “I’m talking about people that you trust, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve talked to a lot of people that we trust. … If it’s somebody that we’re picking, we’ve been through that and we feel very good about them representing us and doing what we need to do.”
In some cases, the vetting process goes far beyond a series of interviews.
Before the 2012 draft, former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik ordered a team scout to stake out a popular bar near the Oklahoma State campus each day for a week from 3 to 11 p.m. to determine how often OSU wide receiver prospect Justin Blackmon came in. Blackmon, who is serving an indefinite suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, frequented the bar more often than Dominik thought he should, so Dominik took him off the team’s draft board.
The vetting process, however, is not foolproof.
The Bucs, under general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden, drafted cornerback Aqib Talib in the first round despite off-field red flags. Under Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris, the team used a fourth-round pick on wide receiver Mike Williams, who had been dismissed from the Syracuse team. After a series of off-field transgressions by each player, Talib was traded and Williams released.
Mike Mayock, a draft and game-day analyst for the NFL Network, has Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, as the top-rated quarterback in the draft. Mayock has expressed concern about Winston’s play on the field, saying his 18 interceptions last season are a sign he could turn the ball over in the NFL as well. He has trust issues on and off the field with Winston, and admits he ignored red flags a year ago with quarterback Johnny Manziel, a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns.
Known to party in college, Manziel checked himself into a rehab facility this offseason after a difficult rookie season.
“When kids have significant red flags, how often do they change?” Mayock asked rhetorically. “I would say my perception and my experience is that, plus or minus, 90 percent of the time the kid ultimately turns into who he’s always been. So when you get a repeated pattern of bad decisions, you might be on your best behavior leading up to the draft. You’ve got all kinds of people around you, telling you what to say and how to act. But once you get comfortable, whether it’s one year in, two years in, three years in, once you get comfortable again in the NFL and you get paid, typically that kid goes back to being who he always was.”
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Character concerns are of particular interest for NFL teams in light of recent harsh punishments for former Ravens running back Ray Rice, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy stemming from domestic abuse cases. All three players missed all or most of last season because of a punitive suspension or precautionary deactivation while the legal processes played out.
But it’s not just Winston the Bucs have vetted.
Even Mariota, whose squeaky-clean image and low-key manner has led some to question his leaderships skills, was scrutinized by the Bucs.
“They did ask about his character,” said Vinny Passas, the quarterbacks coach at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, where Mariota attended high school. “The only negative I could think of was the speeding ticket.”
While at Oregon, Mariota was ticketed for driving 80 mph in a 55-mph zone.
“He told the guy to give him a ticket because he deserved it,” Passas said. “He didn’t try to get out of it. He was late getting back to a meeting at Oregon. He was leaving the Boys & Girls Clubs, where he does charity work.”
The Bucs also asked Passas about Mariota’s relationships with family members, teammates and coaches.
“I completely understand why teams want to learn everything about these players,” Passas said. “If you’re going to spend that kind of money on a guy, why not?”
The Bucs spoke to Matt Scott, Winston’s former head coach at Hueytown (Alabama) High School, but Scott did not want to elaborate on the conversation.
Mark Stephens, formerly the defensive coordinator at Hueytown, was contacted by several NFL teams, though not the Bucs.
“When the teams asked about Jameis, the thing that really seemed to pique their interest was some insight into his family life,” Stephens said. “Jameis comes from a very rigid, conservative family. His mother and dad have high expectations for him. That’s something people don’t get to see a whole lot of, and it’s not reported on. But me, being around that family in high school, his dad held him to an extremely high standard in terms of behavior, whether it was academics or athletics.”
Teams “were interested in that. They wanted to know what kind of player he was at practice. They wanted to know his work ethic off the field. … When these teams call, their initial plan is, ‘Hey, we need you for an hour or so.’ It ends up being three or four hours. I certainly didn’t mind. It gives me insight on that side of football. It showed me how much they all do their homework.”
Licht has said on numerous occasions, most recently during a pre-draft news conference last week, he is comfortable with the decision the Bucs are about to make with the first overall pick. And he is confident in the work they’ve done vetting Winston.
“We feel very confident in the amount of work that we’ve done internally,” Licht said. “And we’ve had work done externally through third parties and on and on. There have been no surprises.”