Bucs rookie class could be most important in team history

Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian talks with Jameis Winston in one of the QB’s first practices after being drafted.
Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian talks with Jameis Winston in one of the QB’s first practices after being drafted.
Published July 26, 2015


Jameis Winston threw an interception during an early offseason practice, failing to fit a football through a keyhole in the defense, and shrugged. "Well, that's just me," Winston said. Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter responded to his rookie quarterback: "Well, it's not going to be you anymore!" Winston is a gunslinger, which evokes both a cowboy swagger and a quick trigger finger but also carries an air of daring and recklessness. The term is a compliment and a curse. But at 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, Winston also is the Bucs' skyscraper of hope, rising above a flattened franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2007. Much of what the Bucs love about Winston is his flair for the unconventional, but he also is going to be unpredictable. So fasten your swashbuckles, Bucs fans. Winston is going to take you on a wild ride this season. And he won't do it alone.

Has a Bucs rookie class ever been thrust immediately into more important roles than this one?

It starts with Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, who lost only two games in his two-year playing career at Florida State. (If Winston loses that many in the first month this season, he'll take a commanding lead for rookie of the year).

Winston was one of the most polarizing players in the draft because of his off-field issues at FSU: stealing soda at Burger King, participating in a BB gun fight in which FSU players shot out more than $4,000 worth of windows, shoplifting crab legs at Publix, getting suspended for a game after standing on a table at the student union and shouting a vulgar phrase, being sued over a sexual assault allegation and countersuing for defamation.

But with his performance so far, he has dwarfed any doubts about his ability to make the transition to the pro game at 21 years old.

"He's done everything," general manager Jason Licht said "He's been a model student, he's been a model worker, everything that we've talked about when we drafted him. He has an A-plus work ethic, intelligence and motivation.

"He's got a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove to everybody, the naysayers, that he was not what was painted. I mean, I've been more than happy with him."

Protecting Winston's blindside at left tackle is rookie Donovan Smith, a second-round pick from Penn State.

After quarterback, a franchise left tackle has the highest value of any player on offense. But few players hold up at that position as a rookie. At worst, at 6-6 and 338 pounds, Smith will be an upgrade from the swinging saloon door that was Anthony Collins last season. At best, Smith will protect Winston well enough to allow him to start 16 games.

The projected starter at right guard is rookie Ali Marpet, a second-round pick from Division III Hobart College in Hastings, N.Y. Seven months ago, he proved he could dominate blocking against the Saints. But they were from St. Lawrence, N.Y., not New Orleans.

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Marpet won't be making just a leap in competition; he'll be making a pole vault. The Bucs allowed 52 sacks last season, which tied for third most in the NFL. Add a pair of rookies to that cocktail and that total could rise.

"I'm a former offensive lineman, so I'll definitely have my eyes on them," Licht said. "It's the one area that could really surprise people the most. That's where you could see the most improvement, I think. The fact that we have Dirk Koetter makes a bigger difference in the offensive line than people realize."

Tampa Bay also might count heavily on rookie receiver Kenny Bell, a fifth-round pick from Nebraska. The self-proclaimed "Afro Thunder" is the hair-apparent to Vincent Jackson. For now, he gives the team something it doesn't have in abundance on offense: a burner who can stretch the field and defenses.

Bell might work some as a slot receiver or enter the game in three-wideout sets while also returning kicks.

"He's unlike a lot of our receivers in that he's a speed guy," Licht said. "He's smart, and he's already picked up our offense so far."

Before the season ends, Kwon Alexander, a 20-year-old fourth-round pick from LSU, might emerge as the starting middle linebacker.

Rookies arrive to training camp Monday. The full squad reports Friday. The first workout is Saturday. That's when Koetter will begin to coach the interceptions out of Winston. Winston threw 18 last season, eight more than he did the year before as a redshirt freshman, when he had a big target in 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin, who as a Panthers rookie last year tied for the team lead with 1,008 receiving yards.

Winston has a pair of 6-5 receivers in Mike Evans and Jackson. He has a 6-5 tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Every pass to them will be a moment of hope, a step forward for the kid quarterback. Who doesn't want to see how he leads his rookie class and his team, mistakes and all?