Last Sunday, Lovie Smith stood only a few feet away from Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston during the Derrick Brooks Charities golf pairing party and blackjack tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Just outside the ballroom, the slot machines spun wildly and card players pushed their chips to the middle of the table.
It was the perfect venue for an analogy regarding the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Are the Bucs going to gamble on Winston, who might have few peers on the field but owns a damning pattern of poor decisions off it? Or is the safer bet Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who's more athletic and accurate but might need more time to develop?
All signs indicate that the Bucs will select Winston tonight when commissioner Roger Goodell announces the pick from Chicago about 8:15.
"We feel comfortable who Jameis Winston is, what he's done and what we think he will do in the future as much as anything,'' Smith said. "We would not bring in a player that we didn't feel like we could handle or be a productive part of society and our football team. Our research shows that he can do that.''
What the 6-foot-4, 231-pound Winston has done was go 26-1 over two seasons and win the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and a national championship. Having operated under center in the Seminoles' pro-style offense, he's regarded as more pro-ready than Mariota, who ran a spread option system at Oregon in which he which he stood in the shotgun and rarely called plays.
Winston's checkered past and questionable judgment demanded a closer look at his character. Smith, general manager Jason Licht and the Glazer family that owns the team did exhaustive research and spent hundreds of hours doing their due diligence on Winston.
By the time he arrived at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, Smith used the word "exonerated'' when discussing the 2012 allegation of sexual assault by Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman against Winston.
The other transgressions — stealing soda at Burger King, participating in a BB gun fight in which players shot out more than $4,000 worth of windows, shoplifting crab legs at Publix (saying he believed he had the hook-up) and getting suspended for a game after standing on a table at the student union and shouting a vulgar phrase — have been described as merely a lack of maturity.
"Jameis will be the first guy to tell you he hasn't made great choices all the time, but it's a learning process,'' Smith said. "I have looked him in the eye. We've had a chance to get a lot more information, and I'm very comfortable with Jameis if he is the guy.''
Winston's legal troubles aren't behind him. Kinsman filed a civil lawsuit two weeks ago, alleging sexual battery, assault, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising out of forcible rape.
Winston's team plans to fight, and with motions and the slow pace of litigation, it might be several months or a year before a trial.
"Jameis will not let anything distract from his goal of becoming a championship quarterback,'' said Winston's agent, Greg Genske.
Winston already has proven he can focus in the face of adversity, having undergone investigations from the State Attorney's Office, which did not find enough evidence to charge him; and cleared of a code of conduct probe by Florida State.
On the field, the Bucs love Winston's charisma, confidence and ability to bring his team back from deficits that were sometimes caused by his 18 interceptions last season.
Asked at his pro day why he should be the first pick, Winston said, "because I'm the best player in the draft.''
Licht and Jon Robinson, the Bucs' director of player personnel, spent much of their careers with the Patriots, who have a fiery leader at quarterback with Tom Brady. And Winston's football acumen is said to be second only to the Colts' Andrew Luck among draft picks in the past 15 years.
During the draft process, the Bucs put a lot of faith in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian. The Bucs believe Koetter will mold Winston into the kind of pocket passer that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan became during Koetter's time in Atlanta.
As an organization, the Bucs have been preparing the Tampa Bay community for the likelihood that Winston would be their choice. Licht and Smith observed Winston at the Mike Alstott Family Foundation's celebrity outdoor weekend two weeks ago, playing in a corn hole tournament with him. Smith attended Brooks' event Sunday as the Bucs made sure Winston was protected by three security guards standing behind velvet ropes in a VIP section at the Hard Rock.
The Bucs will wait until the final minute tonight while they're on the clock to reveal their choice. They've received several calls gauging their interest in trading the pick. But it's hard to fathom a team coming up with enough compensation to entice the Bucs to deal the No. 1 choice they earned with a 2-14 season.
Winston or Mariota? This time, the Bucs believe the bigger the risk, the better the reward.
"We feel like we can handle some players that maybe need a little direction,'' Smith said.