Mike Evans on Jameis Winston: 'He's going to be one of the best quarterbacks ever to do it'

Leadership an important trait to Winston (1:24)

Dan Graziano relates his conversation with Jameis Winston, who explained why leadership is a big priority for him. (1:24)

TAMPA, Florida -- Jameis Winston gets to work at 5:45 a.m., before anyone else is in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' building. He stays until everyone else is gone. Before a game, he personally fist-bumps every one of his teammates and tells them, "I've got your back."

If you've watched the first two episodes of "Hard Knocks," you already know this. And if you think it's all for show, you're not totally wrong. But the show goes on even when the cameras aren't there. And the show isn't for us. It's for his teammates.

"Honestly, that's just a mentality," Winston, the Bucs' third-year quarterback, said after a late July training camp practice. "I could come in just like everyone else, but the fact that I'm up here first, it gives everyone that trust factor. That's a form of leadership for people to just look at, and instead of waking up and just coming in 10 minutes before a meeting, they look and say, 'Jameis was up in here at 5:45. Maybe I'll come in at least 30 minutes before.'"

So yeah, Winston is image-conscious. But it isn't his public image that matters to him. Winston wants to make sure he's projecting the right image of leadership within the walls of One Buc Place, at all times, for his teammates and coaches to see. That's why veterans and rookies alike speak of Winston with reverent smiles on their faces. That's why, looking back on the decision they had to make at the top of the 2015 draft, the Buccaneers are sure they got it right.

"I like Marcus Mariota, and the question comes up all the time, and I always say it's fine if both of them become good," Bucs GM Jason Licht said of the quarterback who went No. 2 overall to the Tennessee Titans. "That's a great thing. That's what I want. I'd be excited if I were the GM and Marcus Mariota were the quarterback. [Titans GM] Jon Robinson should be jacked up. But it was ... this town, this team needed that leader. We needed to change the culture. And he's that guy. And you know, he's pretty special."

Winston, whose Bucs take on the Jacksonville Jaguars at 8 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN, is only 23 years old, yet he has the Bucs convinced that they have their man -- a franchise quarterback who combines all the requisite physical tools with a sincere devotion to his position's considerable intangibles.

Tampa Bay spent its offseason beefing up Winston's arsenal of passing-game targets, signing veteran free-agent wideout DeSean Jackson and drafting tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. Believing they have their guy, they're in the mode of building as strong a team as possible around him. The Bucs finished 9-7 last season and barely missed the playoffs, and they're hoping to build on that and put Winston in position to play -- and win -- his first NFL postseason games.

For his part, Winston recognizes his place in his team's leadership structure and works on it the same way he works on footwork and throwing mechanics. He took a class on leadership at Florida State this offseason. Asked why, he flashed a wide, self-deprecating smile.

"Because I'm trying to graduate," he said. "That's why I did it. But I learned a lot from it. One of the most important things I learned from it: The best way to lead is to be a follower. If you're willing to serve others, that's the way you can get guys to be willing to serve you."

Example? Travis Rudolph has one from 2014. The former Florida State receiver, now in camp with the New York Giants, remembers his first day on campus that summer in Tallahassee. Rudolph and his brother-in-law were getting his room set up when the reigning Heisman Trophy winner knocked on the door and said, "Let's go run some routes."

"He just took me out there and went over basically the whole route tree," Rudolph recalled. "Just me and him, and he was just going over everything, just telling me about the steps and the hash reads and reading the coverages and all that stuff. It was kind of random, but I get what he was doing. He just loves to win."

That year wasn't a smooth one for Winston. Long before a crushing loss to Mariota's Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl, a series of off-field incidents had everyone, starting with the police, questioning him. They weren't limited to shoplifting or a well-publicized sexual assault allegation, either. That all led to a one-game suspension and significant damage to the young star's reputation. This story seeks neither to condemn nor exonerate Winston on those matters, neither to highlight nor minimize the gravity of the issues involved. The Buccaneers did their research on Winston as a person and reached a point of comfort with it. But while all of this was going on, Winston managed to maintain his strong presence as a leader and player within the confines of the Florida State football team, and he carried that with him into the draft process.

"Film study is one thing, but what I remember is the day we brought him in here on his '30' visit [one of the 30 pre-draft visits teams are allowed with prospects]," said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, who was the offensive coordinator when Winston was drafted. "We took him downstairs. [Quarterbacks coach] Mike Bajakian did an hour-and-a-half install in our terminology, went and had lunch, [Winston] had a couple of other meetings, and we went back in there two or three hours later and asked him to give it back to us. And that's when I knew his football IQ. That was the 'A-ha!' moment for me, when he spit that install back to us."

That whole "first-in, last-out" thing goes a long way toward helping a quarterback nail the X's and O's. But the way it looks to veteran teammates might be just as important. Everybody seems to have a story:

  • "We had meetings this morning at 7:45, and we have to do a hydration test, measure your urine to see if you're hydrated or not," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Jameis came in, and he was slightly dehydrated. And it was like, 'Man, you've got to keep drinking,' and he said, 'Well, I just got out of the weight room.' He had already got a workout in. Seven o'clock in the morning, and we're in training camp, and he's already up and working out."

  • "When you're a backup quarterback, one of the things you really need in order to stay sane is you've really got to respect the starter -- what he does, how he approaches it, how he plays," 13-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "And that part of it is going to be very easy for me. Just during OTAs, I get in early. I'm an early riser. And it looked like his car had already been here an hour. Essentially, he lives in the building. It's a cliché, but he eats, breathes and sleeps football. He really does. And that's pretty exciting to be around."

  • "You see those locker room speeches, and there's more than what you see, but they're definitely not fake," second-year defensive end Noah Spence said. "That's him. That's what he is."

Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith was a senior at Florida State in 2013 when Winston was a redshirt freshman quarterback. A senior-led defense with national title aspirations had heard all about Winston's high school accomplishments and spent the summer "getting after him" in practice. It took one game for Winston to prove himself to them.

"It's a cliché, but he eats, breathes and sleeps football. He really does. And that's pretty exciting to be around."
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, on Jameis Winston.

"That first game, he came out, and he went like 21-for-21 (actually 25-for-27 for 356 yards and four touchdowns), something crazy, like he didn't miss a pass," Smith recalled. "And that's when I knew, 'Yeah, that's our guy.' And that's when we knew: Not only did we have the defense and the seniors to take us there, but we had a quarterback who was going to take us all the way."

Winston sees this as his job: To make his teammates, his coaches, his fans and everyone around him believe this about him and about themselves. It's why he's at work before dawn, why he's taking leadership classes and why he enjoys talking about that aspect of his job.

"One of the chapters we studied was called 'authentic leadership,'" Winston said. "No one likes a fake, so you have to be yourself. There's no way you can prep yourself to be a leader. You have it, or you want to lead, or you don't."

Winston has it. Again, he's 23. He still needs to get his turnover issues under control. (Only Blake Bortles and Philip Rivers have more turnovers the past two seasons.) There are football-specific aspects of his game that will require more time. Even the brightest optimists in the Buccaneers' building know Winston isn't a finished product, and Koetter finds himself having to remind people how important patience is.

"An example would be deep ball accuracy," Koetter said. "But guess what? Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson aren't going to go out there and run 60 'go' routes for him. You want to get better at it, but you don't get to throw a million of those. He's got 32 starts. I think he's always learning, always getting better, always challenging himself. And you know, the sky's the limit. But I think it's just a process that he has to go through."

The Bucs knew it would be a process with Winston, but there's no doubt about the leadership traits that convinced them Winston was their man in the 2015 draft. It's what they continue to see every day that convinces them that they were right and that the future of their franchise is in good hands.

"We trust him, and we believe in him so much," Evans said. "I think he's going to be one of the best quarterbacks ever to do it."