By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Selecting a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback won’t end the debate about who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should take with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
In a sense, it’ll just be beginning if the offensively challenged Bucs _ as expected _ choose either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota to become the face of a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game in more than a decade.
“Both quarterbacks are excellent players and both are going to have a lot of success in the league, so there should be different opinions,” coach Lovie Smith said.
“We were impressed with both of them,” general manager Jason Licht chimed in, reflecting on extensive research, interviews and private workouts the team conducted over the past three-plus months. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
Despite trying to do everything they can to avoid revealing their plan, the Bucs are believed to be leaning toward Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, on Thursday night.
Winston’s dazzling career at Florida State was also marked by off-the-field issues that raised questions whether a NFL team can trust him to make good decisions and stay out of trouble as a highly paid pro.
Smith and Licht have said repeatedly they are comfortable with the prospect of taking the 21-year-old, who was accused of _ but never arrested or charged with _ sexually assaulting an FSU student in 2012. The Glazer family, which owns the team, also on is record as being comfortable with the organization’s vetting process.
“As much as you can, you just spend as much time with them and you talk to as many people as you possibly can and get information,” Smith said.
It’s not the first time Licht has been part of an organization in a similar position. The Bucs GM was vice president of player personnel in Arizona when the Cardinals drafted Tyrann Mathieu, albeit in the third round _ not with the No. 1 overall pick _ two years ago. Mathieu had been kicked off the team at LSU.
Licht said while the background work performed on Winston was exhaustive and necessary, he didn’t find the process unsettling.
“Sometimes you find out more and more good as you go,” the GM said. “So, it’s not unsettling that we are doing this much. It’s actually comforting that we are putting as much work into it as we are.”
Tampa Bay went 2-14 in its first season under Smith and Licht, missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year and, uh, earning the first pick for the first time since 1987, when Vinny Testaverde _ another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback _ was the choice.
Winston led unbeaten Florida State to the national championship two years ago. He finished 26-1 in his college career, his only loss coming to Mariota-led Oregon in this year’s college football playoffs.
After the Bucs ranked 29th in scoring and 30th in total offense, Smith increased the likelihood of using the No. 1 pick on a quarterback by releasing incumbent Josh McCown.
While scouts generally agree Winston, who played in a pro-style offense in college, has the skill set to make the transition to playing in the NFL quicker than Mariota, others note the problems he’s had off the field that make him a bigger risk.
Licht said the Bucs have a “leader in the clubhouse” but will use all of their allotted time to make a decision in case another team proposes a trade Tampa Bay can’t resist.
“ But it would have to be an offer that sets this franchise even further ahead than what you thought you were going to be,” Licht said.
STATUS IS EARNED: Whoever the Bucs select, Licht rejects the notion a rookie becomes the face of the franchise just because he’s the top pick. “I think that term, `face of the franchise,’ that’s a title that is earned. … Right now, Gerald McCoy is the face of the franchise. We have several faces of the franchise.”
SUPPORT SYSTEM: Regardless of who goes first, the Bucs say he’ll need help making the transition to the NFL. And McCoy, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and third overall pick in 2010, plans to do his part as a mentor. “It will be a great opportunity for me because I didn’t have that when I came in,” the defensive tackle said. “People have to realize these guys are still kids coming in. … It’s not all about talent, what you do on the field. There’s a lot that goes into being a professional.”
OTHER NEEDS: QB is not the only hole the Bucs need to plug. The offensive line was a weakness, running back is a priority with Doug Martin’s production slipping the past two seasons, and there’s a need for another wide receiver _ even though Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson both had 1,000 yards receiving last year. Safety is a need, although the team already bolstered the defense by adding tackle Henry Melton, linebacker Bruce Carter, safety Chris Conte and cornerback Sterling Moore in free agency.
EIGHT IS ENOUGH: Barring trades, Tampa Bay has three of the first 65 picks, eight selections overall. “It’s probably the biggest draft in the history of the organization,” Licht said. “We have a real chance to … at least get us to a level that we think we’re going to be at this year, which is competing for championships.”
NO. 1 HISTORY: It’s the fifth time the Bucs have had the first overall pick. They selected Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon in 1976, Ricky Bell in 1977, Bo Jackson in 1986 and Testaverde, the club’s all-time passing leader, in 1987. Jackson never played for them.