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TAMPA, Fla. – Comparisons between rookie quarterbacks and iconic passers are a little too easy and a little too unfair. When they come from active players, though, there's a little more heft to them.
So it was instructive when center Evan Smith, former Green Bay Packer and second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneer, walked off the practice field on Friday and spoke of Jameis Winston's first few days of training camp.
"I've only been around two other quarterbacks," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "I played with one who was really good. He reminds me of a very young version of him."
Aaron Rodgers is the league MVP and Smith made sure to hedge by saying, "Jameis hasn't taken a snap yet in this league." But the hint of a parallel is there in Smith's mind: "When I first got to Green Bay, you could see the talent there, you could see Aaron was starting to take off as a superstar. You can tell Jameis has that potential."
Praise for a No. 1 overall pick doesn't surprise anyone, but the first comment players seem to make about Winston isn't about his strong arm. It usually has to do with his bookishness.
"You see it with the brains," Smith said. "You definitely see the arm talent. That's one thing that will jump off the film at you. He obviously has a baseball background, and he knows how to throw it. But the anticipation on his throws is something that really wows you. Sometimes we watch film and say, 'Wow that was a really good throw.'"
Winston said Friday he is often up until 1:30 a.m. studying the playboo
k, "unless I have to get some sleep." Wide receiver Kenny Bell, who is Winston's roommate, told a story last week about how the quarterback will be dozing off after midnight and then blurt out a scenario. "He will call out a play and tell me what receiver I am and ask me what I've got," Bell said. "Then he will giggle and say, 'Ha, you thought I was asleep.'"
This has elevated the general respect for the new quarterback, even though he's only 21.
"For a rookie quarterback, he's a smart dude," said offensive lineman Ali Marpet, who is also going through his first pro summer. "He's calling protections for us sometimes. That takes some of the thinking out of it for me."
Smith sets the protections before the snap, but the veteran concurs: "When he switches it, usually he's right. That's a noticeable thing to me. I don't have to second-guess his decisions."
This is not some act for skeptical reporters and new bosses. Winston has been this way fairly consistently. He's known to a large portion of the general public for making poor decisions in college, but that truth belies the acumen he's shown on the field. There's even a filmed scene of former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer speaking with Winston in 2011, telling him, "You're smart as a whip; you're one of the smartest kids I've ever been around."
Winston, who at the time was an Alabama prep in Dilfer's quarterbacks camp, stares at Dilfer with wide, almost intimidated eyes. It's a far cry from the public image Winston has carved for himself since. On his way to fame and fortune, he got involved in situations as benign as stealing soda and as disturbing as a rape allegation which is still shadowing him in the form of a civil lawsuit expected to proceed into 2016 if not longer.
"Smart" is not the word for Winston's overall behavior since his high school days. Yet his work ethic has never suffered noticeably, even to close friends. "I asked him, 'How's the playbook?'" said new Jacksonville Jaguar and former Florida State receiver Rashad Greene last week, recalling a conversation from earlier this summer. "He said, 'That's my baby.' He understands it; he knows it.
"He was great at reading coverage [at FSU], knowing where to go, how to look guys off, how to put in tight places," Greene said. "If he had time, it was going to be in the perfect spot with the perfect touch."
What does all this mean for Winston's rookie season? Not all that much, yet. The key phrase in that Greene comment was, "If he had time." Winston didn't have the same protection in his final college season as he did the year before, and he looked scattered at times. Now he's behind an offensive line that has been decimated over the years by injuries, retirement, and busts. Josh McCown never had a chance last season, and the support of Smith, Logan Mankins, Donovan Smith and Marpet might not be enough to help Winston succeed right away. It's hard to read a defense from your backside.
Yet it seems several of the key ingredients are already there. Obviously Winston has a top-flight arm. He doesn't leave the pocket too early and doesn't crumple under the weight of a tackler too soon. He seems to know the offense very well for a rookie, which has been helped along by the Bucs introducing virtual reality to their new quarterback. He has the much-ballyhooed intangibles as well, speaking to older teammates enough to establish command without annoying them. "You can tell right now he's taking a leadership role," Smith said. "He's not overbearing with it."
So Winston has answered the first training camp question: can he win the job? Head coach Lovie Smith announced early that Winston will start Week 1 against Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans here in Tampa. "He gets it," Smith said Friday. "Since him coming out we've talked a lot about how bright he is and all that. That's the case. He knows what to do."
Can he actually do it? He will have the weapons – Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and a healthy Charles Sims out of the backfield – to fare well.
The recent history of No. 1 overall picks hasn't been especially pleasant. Peyton Manning has gone to 11 Pro Bowls since being picked first in 1998, and the ensuing top choices have gone to a combined 20 – with brother Eli accounting for three of those. But the Bucs just might be good enough, and the NFC South might be bad enough, to give Winston more of a head start than the typical top pick gets.
"Now [comes] that hard part of taking that next step," Lovie Smith said. "He's thrown good passes, but he is still a rookie and we realize that."
He doesn't seem to be acting like a rookie, though, which considering Winston's history is no small thing.