TAMPA — Selecting Jameis Winston would've been good enough. What else could you ask for in a No. 1 overall draft pick? The bright eyes, the million-watt smile, the big arm and even bigger competitive streak. For a listing Buccaneers franchise, a quarterback is the lighthouse on a stormy night.
"For us to get a player like that early on with so many other good young football players says a lot," coach Lovie Smith said. "Every time I've talked about Jameis, I've said the same thing — great things. The guy is an outstanding player, a great leader, everything you would want in a first-round draft pick, top player in the draft, all of that you want him to be, he has been. He is excited about finishing it up the right way like we talked about with our football team. It's safe to say his future is pretty bright."
Winston's present is also beaming. He has passed for 3,422 yards — the youngest player in NFL history to reach 3,000 yards — with 20 touchdowns. He also has rushed for five scores. Still, Bucs general manager Jason Licht said he missed something about Winston.
"People told us you would be amazed how smart he is, how much of a leader he is. We weren't surprised by that," Licht said. "I guess the one thing we missed was just how serious he is. When he gets in the building, when he's in the meeting room and on the practice field, he's a very, very serious guy. I knew he was focused. I just didn't how focused he was."
But Winston was just part of an incredibly good rookie class that the Bucs assembled this season, which includes three other impactful starters at key positions — left tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. Each has held a starting job since Week 1.
Such freshmanesque brilliance doesn't stop there. Undrafted free agents such as receivers Adam Humphries, Donteea Dye and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah emerged to play significant roles this season.
Potentially, it's the Bucs' best draft since 1995, when they netted two eventual Hall of Fame players in defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Veterans such as guard Logan Mankins and tackle Gosder Cherilus, both first-round picks in their own right, say they have never been a part of a team with a better collection of young talent than the 2015 Bucs.
"They're scary," Cherilus said. "Yeah, they're very scary in the way they're young, talented, and I don't think they know how good they can be yet. You saw where it all begins. They don't get intimidated by the stage. They've seen it all. It was a great year for those rookies. They've seen the great teams, the great players, not-so-good teams. I think the sky is the limit if they all do what's asked of them. And you've heard about Jameis, his work ethic, the determined effort he puts in every day to be ready for the day, for the practice."
In some ways, Donovan Smith, the second-round pick from Penn State, gets overlooked in the group. He's only one of two starting rookie tackles in the NFL this season and the only one to start every game. And Smith has more than held his own against elite pass rushers such as the Texans' J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
"I thought there was going to be a lot of movement with the first pick in the second round to go get the left tackle," Licht said. "We were celebrating when he was still there.
"For some reason, I feel like he's the one who gets lost in this. I think a lot of people and all the coaches are forgetting he's the left tackle, he's starting every game, he's been reliable, he's smart, he's been accountable and for the most part has held his own against some of the league's top players."
Next to the quarterback and perhaps an elite pass rusher, a franchise left tackle is one of the hardest positions to fill.
"It's two pieces some GMs and head coaches go their entire career trying to find," Licht said.
Marpet made the steepest climb this season, from a Division III sensation at Hobart (N.Y.) College to a starting right guard as a rookie in the NFL. Scouts saw his physical attributes — rare strength and athleticism — at the Senior Bowl and combine. But they didn't know how quickly he would adapt to the speed of the game.
"We knew physically he had the tools to play," Licht said. "He was athletic; he was strong enough. We just had to make sure his mind was right. There was a little concern when we played our first 3-4 team, against Cleveland (in the preseason), where he struggled a little bit. We didn't know if that would knock him off his game, but he came right back and proved to us he was ready to go. He was ahead of the curve. We thought he was a midseason thing. We were going to get him ready. But he was ready to go the first week."
Together, Smith and Marpet have anchored a ground game that is second in the league in yards per attempt and boasts the NFL's second-leading rusher in Doug Martin.
Alexander, who somehow slipped to the fourth round, might have been the steal of the draft. He was only 20 when he arrived from LSU and the Bucs planned to play Cowboys free agent Bruce Carter at middle linebacker. But Alexander's speed and athleticism forced the team to start him early in training camp. In 12 games before his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, Alexander had 93 tackles, six tackles for loss, nine passes defensed, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Considering his best game came days after learning his teenage brother had been killed, and playing with the knowledge of an impending suspension, Alexander was as mentally tough as any player the Bucs have.
"It was during (offseason workouts) when I was in Lovie's office, when Lovie said, 'You know, Jameis is going to look good on your resume with Donovan and Ali,' " Licht said. "But he said, '(Alexander) may be one of the most special linebackers I've ever coached.' "
There's talent a few steps behind these draft picks in rookies such as Humphries, a free agent from Clemson who has emerged as a reliable slot receiver with 26 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown. Dye, another Division III player from Heidelberg (Ohio) University, and Adjei-Barimah out of Bowling Green played huge roles.
"I never had a problem playing young football players that are good enough," Lovie Smith said. "They're talented, good enough and ready to play. A lot of them are talented, and in time they'll be ready, but these guys showed us right away. It's not like it was ever too big for them.
"We played a lot of rookies around here. In an ideal world I can't wait to be playing those second-year guys instead of these first-year guys, but right now we'll take it."
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.