The Bucs were picking first in the 2015 draft and, as is the case when you pick first, could have taken anyone they wanted. At any position. Todd Gurley II or David Johnson at running back. Leonard Williams on the defensive line. Marcus Peters or Landon Collins for the secondary. Some pretty good players in that draft, at least based on the three seasons since then.
But all right, let's say it had to be a quarterback. The Bucs were coming off a Josh McCown/Mike Glennon year and needed to bring some long-term stability to the situation. And there were two pretty good-looking options at the position. Florida State's Winston, who had gone undefeated and won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 2013-14, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who had won his own Heisman and knocked off Winston's still-undefeated Seminoles in a playoff game at the end of the 2014-15 season.
The Bucs went with Winston, and given the news that he's suspended for the first three games of this season for a personal conduct violation, it's fair to wonder if they'd do it differently if they could go back in time. Trade out of the pick and move down for someone like Gurley? Stay put and take Mariota instead? Or take Winston all over again, given what they know?
If you like Mariota and don't like Winston, this is an easy answer, right? Of course they should have taken Mariota. Clean prospect, no off-field concerns, and the metrics say his first three NFL seasons have been basically as good as Winston's. Heck, he won a playoff game last year; Winston hasn't played in one yet.
But if you like Mariota and don't like Winston, there's at least some chance you felt that way in April 2015 and would have taken Mariota first anyway, even without the benefit of hindsight.
So why'd the Bucs feel otherwise? Well, I happened to ask Bucs GM Jason Licht that question when I visited Tampa Bay's training camp last year. I'm going to print here what he told me, but it's important that you remember (A) that these comments are from July 2017 and (B) that the NFL and the Bucs didn't find out about the March 2016 incident that led to his current suspension until four months later.
"I like Marcus, and the question comes up all the time, and I always say it's fine if both of them become good," Licht said last summer. "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. When we were doing the research, every day there was something. Every day, information coming to me was better and better and better."
Remember that this suspension -- the result of a league investigation into allegations that Winston inappropriately touched a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016 -- is not the first time Winston has been in off-field trouble. Before the Bucs even knew they'd be picking first in the 2015 draft, Winston had avoided charges on a 2013 sexual assault allegation, been cited for shoplifting crab legs from a supermarket and been suspended for shouting a vulgar comment while standing on a tabletop in the Florida State student union. The Buccaneers knew about all of these things when it came time to decide on the top pick in the 2015 draft.
They took him anyway, and they did so because they learned enough things they liked about him during the pre-draft process to overcome the things they didn't. Did they make a mistake? Should they have weighed the off-field issues more seriously? You can certainly make that argument, but the fact is that they didn't. The Bucs felt Winston's positive characteristics as a football player outweighed the concerns about his bad behavior. They convinced themselves he would mature and that the off-field stuff would not continue to be a problem.
They turned out to be wrong, of course, which is why we're here asking the question of whether they'd do it differently if they could do it again. I'm inclined to think not. Because if you liked Winston better than Mariota at the time of the 2015 draft (as the Buccaneers did), there has been basically one thing that has happened since that might change your mind. Their careers have been fairly similar on the field. The Bucs have won 20 games in the past three years, the Titans 22 (including that one playoff win). Both QBs have missed time because of injury. Neither took the Year 3 leap that the Bucs and Titans were hoping for in 2017.
The one glaring thing that would make the Bucs change their mind on Winston is that, shortly after his first season in the league, he allegedly did a stupid and despicable thing that got him suspended for the first three games of his fourth season. You and I can sit here and say that should be enough to prompt a do-over if the Bucs were to get the chance at one, but we can't sit here and assume they'd take it. The latest incident happened 2½ years ago and doesn't really tell us anything about Winston that we didn't already know -- or at least believe -- in April 2015. In his statement after the suspension came down, Winston called the incident in question, "uncharacteristic of me," but his history argues otherwise.
The Bucs knew when they took Winston that he came with red flags and could land in more trouble, given the kind of trouble that followed him through college. They took him anyway. Looking back, it's easy to say they should have taken Mariota instead, but if you think that, you probably thought the same at the time. The Bucs didn't, which is why, if you asked them honestly, whether they'd do things differently if they had the 2015 draft to do again, I'd be surprised if they answered yes.