Florida State signed perhaps its strongest recruiting class in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure a little over a week ago, but the biggest buzz coming out of Fisher’s National Signing Day press conference concerned Fisher’s comments about a player already on the roster: Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
"Everybody says, well he's going to stay one [more] year and leave,” Fisher observed. “I think it'll be two."
To give credit where it’s due, the possibility that Winston may stay two more years first leaked through former NoleDigest publisher Nate Greer a week or two before Fisher’s presser, but Fisher’s sentiments were still surprising to most onlookers.
Many NFL draft evaluators have stated Winston would be the top pick in this year’s draft were he eligible, and it’s difficult to imagine Winston would readily turn down those guaranteed millions. For every Andrew Luck who has returned for an extra year and retained his spot at the top of the draft, there is a Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley whose stock drops the next season. Or worse, there is the possibility of a career-threatening injury like Brandon Jenkins’ Lisfranc injury in 2012.
Conventional thinking would put Winston in the 2015 NFL draft nine times out of ten. Most players who return for an extra season do so because of a sense of “unfinished business,” wanting to win a title that has evaded them or perhaps hoping for an honor that has previously been missed.
Winston, however, has already won a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship, and the 2014 campaign could conceivably involve a repeat of each, given FSU’s loaded roster. Why return to college when he’s already accomplished nearly everything possible at the college level?
Baseball: Winston’s Other True Love
The answer is that Winston is cut from a different kind of cloth than most elite football prospects, let alone top quarterbacks. Instead of “only” wanting to be the next Peyton Manning or Cam Newton, Winston also looks to fellow Bessemer, AL, native Bo Jackson as an example of what he wants to replicate.
“Being from Bessemer, all you heard about was Bo. Bo this, Bo that,” Winston explains. “Obviously you had Deion and people like that. … That also influenced me because people [were] telling me what I need to do and I’m going to have to make a decision, and I’m just like, “Hey, they’re doing it … so why can’t I do it?”
Winston loves baseball at least as much as football and doesn’t want to drop his dream of playing both at the next level, regardless of how bright his football future appears. “After I won the Heisman I think a lot of people were thinking I wouldn’t set foot on a baseball field, but I love this game, too,” Winston said. “That’s what some people fail to realize.”
Winston has confirmed that Fisher’s expectations of two more years “most likely is true” in large part due to the baseball factor. "Obviously I'm a big baseball person, so that's an accurate statement because I plan on playing baseball next season anyway."
Winston’s plan to play baseball in 2015 would indeed impact the typical process for an NFL prospect, given the timing of the NFL Combine and predraft interviews and workouts. Most early entries leave school in January in order to go through this arduous process, and it would be next to impossible for Winston to prepare for the combine and predraft process while playing college baseball.
The Bo Jackson Roadmap
Winston is also surely not unaware of just how Bo Jackson wound up playing both sports professionally. After being drafted against his will by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jackson followed through on a threat that he would play baseball rather than go to Tampa, signing with the Kansas City Royals after being drafted in the fourth round.
The Royals wound up sharing Jackson with the Oakland Raiders after that first season, but because Jackson was already a professional baseball player, he was able to sign with the Raiders on his own terms, preserving his ability to play both sports at the top level.
If Winston truly wants to play both sports professionally, the easiest path would be to play two more seasons (including the present baseball season) at Florida State, becoming eligible first for the MLB draft in June of 2015 and then entering the NFL draft in the spring of 2016.
This would ensure that he gets the best possible opportunity to play pro baseball while also having leverage upon entering the NFL, as it is difficult to imagine an NFL team permitting him to enter the MLB draft after signing him to be the quarterback of the future. If, however, he is already playing pro baseball, it may drop his draft status for teams worried about injury risks or his commitment to football but would give him leverage for whatever team decided the risk was worth it.
In addition, because he would then presumably have a season and a half of pro baseball under his belt by the time of his first NFL game, Winston would have a fairly firm grasp of his realistic opportunities in pro baseball, at which time he could decide to hold or fold with a good sense of the odds.
Winston does have elite baseball potential, though it is unclear how well it can develop given the limitations of a two-sport schedule. Seminole baseball coach Mike Martin has compared his talent level to Buster Posey, stating, “If he was to go into pro ball as a hitter and an outfielder and things didn’t work, there’s no doubt in my mind he could pitch, and vice-versa. He’s that talented. … He just, of course, needs what we say in football—reps.”
Similarly, Yahoo Sports has reported that three scouts and executives have stated off the record that Winston would have been a first-round pick rather than a 15th rounder in the 2012 MLB draft had he committed to baseball rather than football out of high school.
The reality, however, is that his football future looks brighter than his baseball potential at this point, and prospective baseball teams will have to consider how much they’re willing to invest in a player whose NFL commitments are sure to come first.
Florida State will also lose nearly its entire offense—including all five starters on the offensive line—after the 2014 season, which is sure to have some impact on Winston’s decision. Would he really want to return to an entirely new offensive line and a young group of skill players after benefitting from the veteran groups in 2013 and 2014?
Regardless of how good a prospect Winston may be in each sport, pulling the professional double in these sports is significantly more difficult than what Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders accomplished because Winston is a quarterback.
The NFL is a year-round sport, especially for a quarterback, who is expected to help lead a team in OTAs and minicamps throughout the offseason, while also studying his brains out all year to prepare for the mental barrage he will undergo each week during the season. Attempting to play baseball in the offseason would obviously interfere with that.
The baseball and football seasons also overlap, with the NFL preseason beginning in August and the baseball playoffs ending in late October, a fact that led to Deion Sanders actually suiting up for an NFL game and MLB playoff game on the same day in 1992.
No NFL team would allow its quarterback to continue playing baseball after the start of the NFL season, much less skip the early part of the NFL season the way Jackson did with the Raiders. It’s also hard to imagine an MLB team being willing to let Winston pitch during the regular season but miss a prospective postseason.
Were Winston to try to make it as a position player in baseball, he’d need to get significantly better at the plate, something that takes lots of reps—exactly what splitting time makes so difficult. And again, finding a way to work out an arrangement where he wouldn’t miss the playoffs entirely due to football would be a major obstacle.
Winston is aware of these problems but doesn’t want to abandon his dream of playing quarterback in the NFL while still playing major league baseball just yet. “It’s like, I’m not even worried about what your opinion is. I’m worried about what my goals are and what I’m trying to do in life.”
Martin sees this commitment up close every day, “I think that’s something that drives Jameis. I really do. I think he wants to be the next two-sport major leaguer, NFLer.”
And whether that dream includes a future in both professional leagues, Winston is committed to playing for championships at the college level in both sports. “Obviously, I’m not even worried about the draft and stuff like that. I’m worried about winning championships here at Florida State.”
“I love to dream big. If you’re going to dream, why not dream big?”
That's a sentiment with which Florida State fans hoping for two more years of "Jaboo" can only agree.