Jameis Winston needs to attend draft

There's no rule that states quarterback Jameis Winston must attend the 2015 NFL draft. Even if Winston, who is widely projected to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick, ultimately decides to spend time with family and friends at home in Alabama instead of at the draft in Chicago, he can still link up with his new team by phone.

But for Winston, skipping the draft would be a bad look.

The fact is, after a college career marked almost as much by off-field controversy as on-field highlights, the former Florida State star isn't close to completing his sorely needed image makeover. Performing well on a big stage is a good way to show growth. In professional sports, few stages are bigger than the NFL draft.

The league's No. 2 marquee event -- obviously, the Super Bowl gets top billing -- is a three-day, made-for-television spectacle that puts the future faces of the sport in the spotlight. Nothing stirs buzz like a gathering of new talent. When the cameras come on at Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University in Chicago, Winston should be seated in the "A" group. It appears he possesses the tools to remain there throughout his professional career, which begins at the draft.

Top prospects aren't merely invited to participate in photo ops and receive red-carpet treatment. They're expected to do their part in the process that helps the NFL maintain its bedrock-strong bottom line.

That's why it would be unusual for Winston to skip the draft. You have to go all the way back to 1994 to find the last draft in which the No. 1 overall pick did not attend. (Dan Wilkinson was taken by the Bengals with the first selection that year.) By showing up and conducting themselves well, players inspire confidence in the league's future workforce.

Granted, a couple of well-timed smiles and impressive on-camera interviews won't erase some observers' lingering doubts about Winston. Rehabilitating Winston's image will be a long process -- not a one-day job.

But Winston began walking this path during the NFL scouting combine in February, receiving high marks for his candor (wisely, he acknowledged mistakes) during a group media session and many conversations with league officials. He'll have a bigger spotlight -- and more opportunity to impress -- at the draft. Winston should embrace it.

Being far away from the draft and surrounded by family and friends could be good for Winston, one line of thinking goes. Presumably, the comforting support system would create a positive environment for the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner as he begins a new chapter in his life. And if family and friends help keep him grounded, that's a good thing.

Family time, though, isn't supposed to occur when you're on the clock for work. Soon, Winston will become the face of a franchise, a multimillionaire and someone whom the entire NFL will rely on to keep the machine rolling. He'll have time to relax after his first official day at the office.

It seems highly unlikely that spending a short period of time away from his family and friends would ruin the positive work Winston seems to have done to allay concerns about his decision-making.

That brings us to Winston's recent meeting in New York with commissioner Roger Goodell and other high-ranking league officials. Let's be clear: It's unknown what Goodell and his underlings discussed with Winston.

What is known is that the league, and Goodell in particular, was deservedly criticized last season for both mishandling the Ray Rice situation and having behind-the-times views on domestic violence in general. While in college, Winston was accused of rape but never charged.

Considering that Winston still is a polarizing figure, and the league's initial boneheaded moves in disciplining Rice resulted in widespread anger that only intensified after a video of the running back assaulting his then-fiancée in an elevator became public, it would be easy to understand why some in the NFL office may not want Winston to hug it out with Goodell and pose for pictures after being drafted. Such photos would likely provide the foundation of Internet memes the league would rather not see.

If Winston's past and the NFL's public relations problems last season are, in fact, factors in whether Winston will attend the draft, then that's a problem. The league shouldn't attempt to hide from its mistakes.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the decision not to attend is Winston's and notes that previous top prospects such as Joe Thomas, Tim Tebow and Rick Mirer also elected to skip the event.

"Jameis Winston informed us when he visited our office [on March 5] that he preferred to be with his family and friends for the draft," Aiello said via email. "We respect his decision."

Having Winston attend the draft wouldn't be a black eye for the NFL. You know what would be? If someone in the league office persuaded Winston to stay away in fear of negative spin. All you can do is acknowledge your mistakes, learn from them and hope for the best moving forward.

That's what Winston says he wants to do. By putting one foot in front of the other on the draft stage, Winston would continue along that road.