Preview: Bucs pinning hopes on Winston

The Minnesota Vikings will have the first crack at first overall pick Jameis Winston in his NFL debut Saturday night.

A professional debut is always something that is looked upon as historic, if, when the final analysis is completed, it was a career worth remembering. When he made his debut against the Oakland Raiders last preseason, Teddy Bridgewater was playing extensively in the second half as the No. 3 quarterback on the Vikings initial depth chart.

That won’t be the case for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. Expected to be the starter for the Bucs when the regular season begins, when the Bucs released their first depth chart Aug. 11, Winston was listed as the starter, which, in a first preseason game, typically translates into one or maybe two possessions before he takes his place on the sideline and watches the second- and third-team offenses take the field.

There’s only one chance to make a first impression and, when you’re the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, all eyes around the league will be on you to see how effective you can be out of the gate.

The downside to being the No. 1 pick is that, barring a trade, the team that makes that pick had the worst record in the league the previous season. That’s where Tampa Bay stands with head coach Lovie Smith and former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier making their return to Minnesota.

The Bucs are a team with plenty of holes and a lot of high draft picks that haven’t worked out as planned. The last time Tampa Bay used a first-round pick on a quarterback, it was Josh Freeman in 2009. Vikings fans know all too well that the expectations on his selection were never met.
Most successful franchises are built through the draft, especially when it comes to the elite blue-chip players that are landed in the annual college draft. Those franchises that aren’t successful can point to the lack of success in the early rounds of the draft as the reason, not stocking the shelves with the talent needed. The Buccaneers hoped that Freeman would be the answer at quarterback and, when he wasn’t, it set the position back for years, as a revolving door of players ended up being starters in Tampa Bay.

However, the Bucs’ lack of draft success wasn’t reduced to just swinging and missing on Freeman. They’ve missed too often for their own good.

In 2011, the Bucs used the 20th pick of the draft on defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He never panned out to his full potential because he suffered season-ending injuries in two of his four seasons and was allowed to leave via free agency after playing in just one game for the Bucs in 2014.

In 2012, the Bucs had two first-round picks and used them on safety Mark Barron (No. 7 overall) and running back Doug Martin (No. 31). Barron was expected to be a safety for the Buccaneers for a decade, but, after a strong rookie season, things took a downward turn and he was traded in October 2014 for fourth- and sixth-round picks from the St. Louis Rams.

Similarly, Martin came out gangbusters in his rookie season, rushing 319 times for 1,454 yards, catching 49 passes for 472 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. In the two seasons since, he has missed 15 games due to injury, and in the 17 games he has played he has rushed 261 times for just 950 yards, caught 25 passes for 130 yards and scored just three touchdowns, placing him near the bust category. That lack of production is especially painful since the Buccaneers had to give up a second- and fourth-round pick in that draft to move into the 31st spot.

In 2013, sensing that they were only a player or two away from potentially being a dominant team, Tampa traded away the 14th pick in the draft to acquire cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was coming off of knee surgery. Revis turned out to be a one-year experiment that ended badly and he was traded away after just one season, spending 2014 with New England before returning to the Jets this season.

Not only was Revis a mistake, he was a financial kick in the teeth, made only worse by the fact that the Jets were able to use Tampa Bay’s pick to draft a Pro Bowl talent in defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. When Smith was hired as the head coach, Revis Island wasn’t a good fit. After trying to trade Revis with no success, he was released rather than Tampa Bay paying his $16 million base salary for 2014, making him one of the most expensive mercenary players in franchise history.

The Bucs are happy with their first-round pick from a year ago. Wide receiver Mike Evans burst on the scene as a legitimate playmaker in their offense and the hope is that he will be running mates with Winston for years to come as the organization looks to pull itself out of the dregs at the bottom of the league and make themselves viable contenders.

It will be too early to judge Winston from the cameo appearance he makes against the Vikings Sunday, but as he squares off with fellow first-rounder Bridgewater – for the first half of the first quarter, anyway – it will mark the start of the Famous Jameis era in Tampa Bay Buccaneers football.

Will he and Evans help break the cycle of mediocrity that has plagued the Tampa franchise over the last several years? It’s no coincidence that the lack of consistent drafting of long-term fixtures for the roster has led to their franchise malaise, which hit bottom last year when the Bucs earned the right to draft Winston.

Only time will tell if players like Winston and Evans help bring Tampa back to the top of the NFC South, but, as he squares off with the Vikings in his NFL debut, it will be the first baby steps of Winston’s career and will set the wheels in motion for how his career will end up going.

You can only make one first impression and the Vikings look to make Winston’s one that he would rather forget than remember, even if it is only a cameo appearance while the sun is still up at TCF Bank Stadium.

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