TAMPA, Fla. — It’s only April, but it might as well be Christmas for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who couldn’t stop smiling when he returned to One Buc Place this week for the start of the team’s offseason program and the beginning of the all-important Year 3 of his development as a franchise quarterback.
“Getting an early Christmas present in DeSean Jackson in March, it was amazing,” Winston gushed about the Bucs’ top free-agent signing. “The guy’s like a Bentley with a Ferrari engine. You know what I’m saying? The guy can fly, but he’s a cruiser, man. He’s a cruiser. I can’t really explain how excited I am about him right now because I’ll probably go over my time, but I am excited to have DeSean Jackson as a Buccaneer.”
And then there’s Mike Evans, whom the franchise extended a fifth-year option to Monday, and whom general manager Jason Licht said the team hoped to make a “Buc for life.” A generous new contract will be on the way for Evans soon, and deservedly so, after three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Of the franchise-record 28 touchdowns Winston threw last year, 12 were caught by Evans, and of the 345 passes Winston threw, Evans was on the receiving end of 96.
“As long as I’m around here, you know I want Mike Evans here,” Winston said. “That’s definitely a big thing for Mike. He’s a great asset to this team. He’s probably one of our most valuable players, so I’m excited for him. Definitely him and DeSean Jackson on the same team is going to be amazing.”
Of course, those new weapons won’t work unless Winston does. Jackson can’t take the top off a defense if Winston is overthrowing him downfield, putting too much heat on his fastball. Evans can’t continue winning those 50-50 jump balls if Winston isn’t putting his passes in a spot where only Evans can grab them. That’s why Winston recently assembled those two, along with Derel Walker, Freddie Martino, Josh Huff and Bernard Reedy, for a series of workouts down in Houston.
It’s also why he sought the help of trainer Tim Grover again this year. Grover, who trained Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, helped Winston transform his physique and his stamina last offseason with grueling workouts, along with an overhaul of his diet. The two also work on mental conditioning.
“He makes sure you hit everything,” Winston said of Grover. “He not only works on your core, not only works on your lower body — he really works on your central nervous system. [He’s] got me actually making decisions when I’m working exercises, so I’m doing a lot of great things.”
Winston made significant strides outside the pocket last year, where his completion percentage rose from 55.1 to 61.5. He went from throwing five touchdown passes outside the pocket in 2015 to 13 in 2016, tied with Aaron Rodgers for most by any quarterback since at least 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
He was able to show more of the athletic ability that made him an exceptional dual-sport athlete at Florida State and allowed him to find Evans on some improbable plays, like the one against the Chicago Bears where he narrowly dodged a safety, eluding defenders for 11 seconds before hitting Evans downfield for a back-breaking 39-yard catch.
But he acknowledged that he has to cut down on turnovers — both interceptions and fumbles — something he struggled with at times in college, despite finishing with a brilliant 26-1 record.
In college, he was aided by a blue-chip roster that, in most cases, far exceeded the talent level of the opposition. If Winston threw an interception, the defense could force a three-and-out, get the ball back and Winston would get another shot, or they could run the ball down an opponent’s throat. It’s a far more level playing field in the NFL, with a much smaller margin for error.
“They’ve got to stop, but that comes with improvement,” Winston said of the turnovers. “So many [factors] create a turnover, so you can’t really hit a specific thing because there are a lot of situations that we may encounter here and there. But the main thing is to limit them and stop hurting ourselves.”
If Winston is going to make a play outside the pocket, rolling out on a bootleg or by scrambling, he has to demonstrate better awareness of where the pressure is, or the ball will get knocked loose by an opportunistic defender. His 10 fumbles this season tied him with Sam Bradford for third most among quarterbacks, and his six lost fumbles tied with Blake Bortles for the most in the league.
He also has worked a lot on his drops, where he takes a snap from the center and drops back to pass. It’s important for a quarterback to nail down his footwork to create a strong throwing platform, and to help with the timing of his release and the trajectory of his throws.
“My goal is to get better every year, and as long as I’m getting better every year, I’m improving,” Winston said. “As long as I’m improving, the whole team is getting better. Scratching the surface — I just want to do my job. I want to win football games and I want to be playing for the Bucs for a long time.”