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(Reuters) - Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is expected to be the top pick in Thursday's National Football League Draft in Chicago, provided 'character' issues do not throw him for a loss.
The big, strong-armed Winston has all the tools for NFL success but a list of troubling off-field incidents raises some red flags, with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon also commanding interest as the next best rated quarterback.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the first after finishing last overall in 2014, with the Tennessee Titans, who could also use a quarterback, selecting second.
"I would say, how can they afford not to take him," former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, a Thuzio Executive Club spokesman, told Reuters about the Bucs' view on Winston.
The stakes are sky high as no other position on the gridiron can impact the fortunes of a franchise more than quarterback and hitting the jackpot at that spot can turn a team into a perennial playoff threat.
Strikes against Winston include a sexual assault allegation against him, a shoplifting citation, and a game suspension for getting up on a table on campus and screaming a sexually charged phrase made popular on the Internet -- and whether his conduct was simply immature or betrayed a darker side.
Tampa Bay has done due diligence, according to Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who told the Tampa Tribune that the team spoke to some 75 people about Winston and that he "couldn't feel more confident about the process we have gone through."
Despite a season that proved embarrassing to the NFL over a rash of domestic abuse cases and its handling of them, Winston is a heavy favorite to go first overall.
"When you're in a hole, you got to start digging out and get it right," said Angelo. "It's critical. Not only picking a player of value, but we all know the value of the quarterback position. If you don't get it right, then you're going to stay in the abyss."
Mariota is blessed with speed, a good arm and a squeaky clean profile, but unlike Winston, who played in a pro-style offense, he played the spread offense favored by many colleges but not by most NFL teams.
The first round is also expected to feature wide receivers topped by Amari Cooper of Alabama and Kevin White of West Virginia, and pass rushers including Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida), Vic Beasley (Clemson) and Randy Gregory (Nebraska).
Gregory hurt his case by testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue