Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Spotlight on the Draft: Eric Winston

The Miami offensive tackle hopes his strong Combine performance erased doubts about his knee and improved his standing amid a strong draft class at his position

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Miami T Eric Winston (74) helped Miami's offense excel in 2005, starting every game at left tackle

(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Miami offensive tackle Eric Winston.)

Eric Winston knows the scouting report on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and endorses it. Surely he has also noticed that Ferguson, the standout offensive tackle from Virginia, is being projected by draftniks as high as the second overall pick later this month.

If those projections hold, it would take the Houston Texans suddenly souring on Reggie Bush and making a very surprising decision in order for Winston to be the first tackle taken in the draft. The big, quick-footed and hard-working University of Miami product may have to settle for a spot somewhere later in the first round than Ferguson, or perhaps early in the second round.

All of this Winston readily understands. However, he's not fully ready to concede that Ferguson is the best offensive lineman in this year's draft class, nor should he be. A former tight end who moved onto the line as a sophomore and quickly developed into a star, Winston still has room to grow and the confidence that he can do so.

"Ferguson is a great player, first of all," he said. "He's got the long arms and he can play. There's no doubt about it. He wouldn't have the hype if he couldn't play. But I look at everything I've done and the competition I've gone through. I started 13 games at Miami as a true sophomore. Those are things I take into account and the guys I've played against. Those are all things that weigh heavily in my favor. I think I can play any position on the line. I don't know if any other tackle in this draft can say that."

Indeed, given the talent and expectations that inform the Hurricanes program each year, it says quite a bit that Winston could switch jobs and immediately become a solid starter at one of the five most important positions on the field. By the end of that 2003 season, he was quite clearly a star-in-the-making, and maybe even a high first-rounder in 2005 if he decided to leave after his 2004 season.

However, a knee injury derailed that speeding train four games into 2004, and Winston spent the next offseason rehabbing instead of attending the combine and preparing for the draft. He made it back last fall and started every game again, but he never completely erased the doubts that always surround a major injury. Winston hopes he took care of that at February's NFL Scouting Combine.

"I think [the Combine] and the Senior Bowl week, with them getting a chance to know me and getting a chance to watch me up close, I think I'm kind of dispelling all those thoughts and anything like that," he said. "After the teams get a hold of the medical stuff and talk to doctors, I don't think that will be an issue."

What else would? Well, as proficient as he is in pass-blocking, thanks to his feet and his quickness, scouts wonder how strong of a drive-blocker he is. In addition, some observers would like to see him play with more of a mean streak. In the end, however, those aren't overwhelming concerns, especially considering that Winston is considered the type of young man who will work very hard to maximize his abilities and erase his deficiencies.

No, if there's anything holding Winston back from being a sure-fire top-15 pick, it's the strength of the talent at his position this year. In addition to Ferguson, who is getting the type of buzz that was previously attached to such prospects as Robert Gallery, Jonathan Ogden and Tony Boselli, Auburn's Marcus McNeill and USC's Winston Justice loom as possible first-round picks. Even if Ferguson does hear his name called during the first half-hour of the draft, it's anybody's guess as to how the rest of the tackle position will fall out in the first round.

For that reason, Winston chose to participate fully in the Combine activities, even as many of his highly-touted Miami teammates held back for the school's Pro Day.

"They had different situations," Winston explained. "I'm in the middle of a pack in a strong tackle class. You've got a lot of great players in the tackle class, where as sometimes you might be the lead guy and not have to risk it."

It was worth it. Winston nailed the Combine, running a 4.94-second 40-yard dash that was easily the best among the top prospects. He also led his group with a 4.44-second shuttle run and jumped 9-foot-0 in the broad jump. At Miami's Pro Day on March 4 he stood by his Combine dash but logged a 33-inch vertical leap and an 8-foot-3 broad jump. As such, he feels as if he has answered any lingering questions about his injury and his athleticism – many scouts agree – and that teams should start looking at the positives, such as his versatility along the line. Not only does he feel capable of playing either guard or tackle position, but he also seems quite willing to do so.

"I've always played left (tackle), so obviously left," said Winston when asked where he would prefer to start out. "I feel like I can play them all. I really feel I could play all four positions on the line. I could always play guard for a couple years or play either tackle. I'm pretty versatile. I think my athleticism helps me out. Right or left, it doesn't matter. Where ever they have a hole, you can put me in it."

Winston has experience to back up that claim. He was a star tight end in Texas, but he rather willingly moved to the line, as he sort of expected the Hurricanes would want him to do all along. He took to that switch about as rapidly as anyone could have hoped in Miami, and he may do the same thing on the pro level. But he's not expecting anything to be handed to him.

Would he like to start right from day one?

"Well, that's the plan," he said. "But it's like coming out of high school going to the college game. You've got to learn the speed, you've got to know what to expect and you've got to go in and fight for your position. It isn't something that should be given to you but it's something I'll try to go out there and earn."

Having completed his Combine and Pro Day work, sat for dozens of interviews and submitted to whatever poking and prodding various NFL teams wanted to do, Winston's draft fate is now in the hands of scouts and coaches across the league, many of whom will spend this month obsessively watching NCAA game tape. There is not much more Winston can do to impact his place in the draft, and it sure seems as if Virginia's Ferguson will be the first player off the board at his position.

Still, Winston admits that he would like to hear his name called first.

"It's always kind of in the back of your mind when you're getting ready and playing," he said. "I want to be the first guy taken but who knows what's going to happen? Who knows which teams are going to like you and which teams aren't going to like you? There are 32 teams out there and there are probably 32 different opinions and you only have to have one guy like you to take you.. I'm going to play hard and see what happens."

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