This spring, Jameis Winston will enter the 2015 NFL draft. Based on early projections, he could be the No. 1 pick.
The Florida State quarterback will be tested and evaluated in February at the NFL combine, and every amateur analyst with a mock draft will discuss his fitness for professional football. The one big negative that will show up in every scouting report? Winston's legal issues -- namely, a rape allegation that was possibly mishandled by the Tallahassee police department and FSU, and a citation for stealing crab legs.
For teams that desperately need a star quarterback, that big negative might be downplayed, ignored or chalked up to youthful indiscretion. After all, every April since the beginning of the first draft, players with troubled college backgrounds have been selected. (See Lawrence Phillips, Todd Marinovich, Maurice Clarett and on and on). In fact, one recent study found that players who'd been arrested in college but not charged had more success in the NFL than players who'd never gotten into trouble.
But here's why this year is different from any in NFL history: Under the NFL's new code of conduct policy, players such as Winston will enter the league with previous incidents as fundamental parts of their resumes.
Said Anna Isaacson, the league's new vice president of social responsibility: "From a personal conduct policy standpoint, it states in the policy and the Aug. 28 memo when we announced the enhanced discipline that a prior history of some kind could impact the discipline if a new violation occurs."
That's a fancy way of saying what smart teams are already realizing: If a player such as Winston gets into any kind of trouble once he's in the NFL, all previous incidents will be incorporated into the disciplinary process. That has never been the case. It means players such as Winston, Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Michigan defensive end Frank Clark will enter the league with serious strikes against them in the league's disciplinary process.
Winston is the ultimate test case for the NFL's revamped policy. The former Heisman Trophy winner brings a litany of baggage with him. In 2012, campus security detained Winston for firing a BB gun at squirrels, but no charges were filed. Subsequently, there have been two police reports of shoplifting, and he was cited for stealing crab legs. The most serious allegation was that he had raped a fellow student. Charges were never filed, in part because a police investigation did not initially go forward. The alleged victim has never recanted.
Based on the New York Times report, the way the rape case was handled by the Tallahassee Police Department is not dissimilar to the treatment Ben Roethlisberger received in Milledgeville, Georgia, when his 2010 rape case did not go forward, due in part to an incomplete investigation. In that case, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell initially implemented a six-game suspension (later reduced to four) for Roethlisberger's violation of the league's code of conduct policy. Charges were never filed, but Goodell said NFL players will be held to a higher standard.
That was well before Ray Rice was captured on an elevator camera punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer and rendering her unconscious. The result is a new code of conduct policy that mandates those found by the league to have been involved with crimes of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse be issued a minimum six-game suspension. A second offense means a player will be banned.
That, obviously, has a huge impact on someone with a track record like Winston. The NFL plans to take into account a player's history when issuing suspensions, and that history is relevant whether it happened in the NFL, college or earlier. Sources at the NFL say the league office has already been talking about Winston and how the rape allegation and shoplifting citation would factor into his future with the league.
Under the new policy, if there were an allegation made against a player such as Winston, he could immediately be placed on unpaid leave. Earlier this year, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson were named to the commissioner's exempt list after a domestic violence conviction and child abuse allegation, respectively.
Just this past fall, paid leave was a new idea. Now that treatment has been codified. Depending on how much a player is paid, an owner might pay hundreds of thousands of dollars while a player sits at home waiting for his case to go to trial. That's exactly what happened with Hardy, who appealed his conviction and is awaiting a new trial.
This will be the first draft since that rule, and it tips the balance of risk and reward. When Colts linebacker Josh McNary was charged with rape earlier this month, the team asked the NFL to put McNary on paid leave within a day of learning of the charge, despite the fact that the Colts had a playoff game that weekend.
Over the next few months, teams will work out Winston and probably be awed by his rare athletic gifts and his 27-1 record as a college player. On talent alone, he'll be tough to pass up. But for that kind of investment, he might require special attention by whichever team entrusts him with the keys to the franchise. That could mean imposing curfews or keeping team security close as much as possible, as the Cowboys did with Dez Bryant in 2012.
The NFL Players Association and player agents will resist these kinds of restrictions, as evidenced by a recent grievance filed against the league.
But owners might look at restrictions as protecting an investment. Winston's legal baggage will come with him to the NFL, and that's a first for everyone.