Pictures of Winston during the Buccaneers' training camp practices.
Through his first two NFL seasons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston completed 59.6% of his passes and averaged 7.38 yards per attempt. The first number was below league average during that span, but the second one was above league average.
Though the first two preseason games of 2017, Winston has completed 71.9% of his passes and averaged 7.02 yards per attempt. That occurred in roughly three quarters of play, while the numbers above were generated in 32 games, so it would be a stretch to make any concrete claims based on that comparison. Still, those 2017 numbers may represent the beginning of another evolution in Winston's game.
Namely, the third-year quarterback is doing a better job of taking what the opposing defense is giving him, as opposed to forcing passes to certain targets or trying too often to make something out of nothing. Last Thursday's game in Jacksonville was a good example. Winston led the Buccaneers to points on each of their first two drives, in the process completing two passes each to Doug Martin, Cameron Brate, Adam Humphries and O.J. Howard, plus one to Mike Evans. Only one went for more than 15 yards.
"They were taking deep drops, they were playing zone defense – I think he had five check-downs in the first half, so that's a good sign," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We've been preaching patience to him and he started off that way."
Obviously, the Buccaneers would like to see Winston's completion percentage rise without a loss in yards per attempt. One of the ways the young passer has excelled in his first two seasons is with medium-range passes, often to Evans. Winston's average of 12.38 yards per completion over the past two years ranks third in the league, and Koetter's offense emphasizes pushing the ball down the field, potentially at the expense of a 65 to 70% completion rate.
Still, the offense is in search of more explosive plays this season, which led to the signing of big-play wideout DeSean Jackson and the first-round pick of Howard. The results of the first two preseason games are not an indication that this philosophy has changed. If Winston continues to pick apart the underside of a soft defense as he did in Jacksonville, and if the running game remains effective (130 yards against the Jaguars), there will eventually be opportunities for the deep ball. In fact, Winston found such an opportunity early in the second quarter, throwing long to Evans who had slipped behind the defense, but the receiver couldn't quite haul it in.
In practice on Sunday, Winston and Jackson provided the highlight of the morning with a perfect 55-yard touchdown hook-up down the right sideline. Koetter said that he believes Winston is throwing the deep ball better this year.
WATCH: HIGHLIGHTS FROM PRACTICE
"The beautiful one to DeSean, I think Jameis threw it as far as he could and DeSean went and got it," said Koetter. "Jameis overthrew that other one over here on the left side to Adam a little bit, but overall you can't argue with how Jameis has done. He threw a beautiful deep one to Mike in the game the other night, so I think Jameis improved across the board."
The hope for the Buccaneers' offense after the additions of Jackson, Howard and rookie wideout Chris Godwin is that there will simply be too many weapons on the field for opposing defenses to contend with. So far this summer, Winston has found that to be the case…and found the open man far more often than not. While we provided a caveat on the numbers at the top, it should be noted that Koetter and his coaching staff chart every Winston pass in practice, as well, dating back to spring OTAs. Koetter said Winston's completion-percentage improvement of around 10% in the games has been mirrored on the practice field.
"I think Jameis, one of his gifts, I think he always sees the field pretty good -- sometimes too good," said Koetter. "I think Jameis threw 29 passes [against Jacksonville]. He made 27 pretty good decisions, one not-so-good and one terrible decision. You're always chasing perfection at that position and he had a good night. He had a couple of balls dropped that would've gotten his numbers higher. He moved the team. As a team – it's not all just Jameis – we still need to finish better in the red zone. That's been a pretty consistent issue here that we need to get solved."
Winston also stressed the need for red zone improvement, a valid point given that the first-team offense has moved the ball consistently but has produced just one touchdown so far. As for it being a full-team issue, Winston echoed that thought, but in a positive way, giving credit to his teammates for his hot start and putting the onus on himself to keep his completion percentage on the rise.
"I just feel like everyone's playing good," he said. "It's getting real close to [regular-season] game time. I'm happy that I can get those compliments from coach, but at the end of the day we've still got to go out there and play. Just because [the completion numbers] are up right now…they've got to be up for the whole year.
"Everyone's been talking about the hype and how good the offense has been going, but execution is the most important thing. Right now, that's all that matters. Actions speak way louder than words and we have to continue to have effective drives. What I'm looking for is going out there and scoring in the red zone."
Those words came after another sharp practice for Winston, who followed up his 21-of-29 outing in Jacksonville with a weekend of precise passing. That included some very good work in the red zone. He took four snaps from the six-yard line to start a red zone seven-on-seven drill and appeared to throw four touchdowns in succession to Brate, Howard, Jackson and Brate again. Jackson's catch was the only one not in the end zone, and it looked like he beat his defender to the left front pylon. A few minutes later, at the start of a full-team drill, Winston dropped a perfect pass over a defender and to Evans in the back right corner of the end zone, a sight camp fans have been treated to regularly this summer.
"Me and Mike have kind of like a deal – you're in the red zone and you get one-on-one, 'Alright, we've got it,'' said Winston, who threw 12 touchdown passes to Evans last season. "That's the mentality, that's the type of receiver he is. He feels that…he knows that he cannot be stopped, especially down there. It's on me to execute with him, but the guy's special."
The Buccaneers believe they have a special quarterback, as well, one who is on the verge of another big step forward after two very promising seasons. Winston's obviously improved accuracy – in preseason games and in practice after practice – is a fantastic sign that the team is right.