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NFL draft day: Jameis Winston goes No. 1

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have chosen Jameis Winston first in the NFL draft, making the controversial player the league's top pick for 2015.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have chosen Jameis Winston first in the NFL draft, making the controversial player the league's top pick for 2015. 

Winston, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Florida State University, was accused of rape in 2012 by Erica Kinsman, one of his former FSU classmates.

Winston was exonerated by FSU last year and was never charged with a crime by authorities due to insufficient evidence. He and his representatives have steadfastly maintained his innocence, and the Buccaneers had already said publicly they were "OK" with his history off the field.

RELATED: FSU quarterback cleared of wrong-doing

Yet the NFL is still reeling from a season under the spotlight for domestic abuse allegations against some of its marquee players, and there is concern that the ascent of Winston could present bad optics for a sport desperately trying to redeem its image. 

"He's ready to be an NFL player on the field. But he's not ready to be an NFL player off the field," Winston's own attorney, David Cornwell, said during a panel discussion at Villanova University earlier this month. He later tweeted, "I bet Jameis is more ready than most."

Meanwhile, Winston's accuser is not going away quietly. Kinsman can currently be seen on movie screens in a campus rape documentary called "The Hunting Ground," during which she recounts her allegations against Winston, and she has also recently filed a civil suit against him. “Since others have refused to hold him accountable, our client will,” Kinsman’s attorney, John Clune, said in a statement on April 17. Cornwell called the suit a "stunt" and a "ploy" in statement that same day, adding that, "Mr. Winston welcomes the opportunity to clear his name with the truth."

The 2015 NFL draft, held in Chicago for the first time in five decades, is the culmination of months of speculation and rumors, and as in previous years, a night filled with surprises both for fans and the college athletes looking to go professional.

There are other football dramas that will come into play on draft night. The fate of Winston's rival for the No. 1 pick -- Oregon's Marcus Mariotta -- is the source of considerable debate, as is the status of two highly-touted players who tested positive for marijuana use in the weeks before draft day.

However, Winston was arguably the biggest story heading into the event. "The seductive aspect of a Florida State Heisman quarterback for a Florida team will be too much financial incentive for their ownership to withstand," Dave Zirin, Edge of Sports writer, told msnbc Wednesday.

Zirin said he thinks Winston's draft status as the coveted No. 1 pick was all but assured because NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has remained in power despite widespread calls for his dismissal for his initial handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. "His very employment is a message to fans from every NFL owner that drafting Jameis Winston is a no-brainer," Zirin told msnbc.

Goodell has made several moves in recent months to turn the page -- from rolling out tougher penalties on players who violate the NFL's code-of-conduct policies, to ending the league's long-held tax exempt status. But the headlines have often outpaced him. For instance, Dallas Cowboys' defensive end Greg Hardy, was recently suspended for 10 games, in the wake of a domestic violence-related arrest last year.

RELATED: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: 'It has been a tough year'

"Frankly, I think the way all players are evaluated has changed," Stefen Lovelace, manager of sports marketing at IMRE, told msnbc on Wednesday. "As a team, you cannot take off-the-field issues with your players lightly. And with QB being the most important position on your team, it's even more critical to consider and evaluate everything."

The NFL quarterback has become commonly known as the "face" of their respective franchise. Stars like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are prized for how well they represent their teams off the field, as well as on it. Winston's talent as a football player has been widely hailed but his measure as a man remains a source of scrutiny.

"I'm rooting for him, but everything he does will be under a microscope," said Lovelace. "I'd be terrified if I were the Bucs and tasked with taking him first, or the NFL if they end up selecting him."