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In this poker game, Mariota is the ace, not Winston

In a high-stakes poker game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pushed their chips to the middle of the table and went all-in on Jameis Winston. It was a predictable move but a bold one, because the team holding the No. 1 pick needs to turn over an ace.

But the odds are Winston will turn out to be a joker in the deck.

The Buccaneers passed on the best quarterback on the board and played a weak hand, risking their future on a player with a disturbing past off the field and questionable potential on it.

Feel free to argue. The first round of the NFL Draft is compelling because it’s all about differing opinions, and for a day we all become amateur scouts with the clairvoyance of a psychic. In five years — maybe three — we find out if we’re right or wrong.

“When you talk about the draft,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said, “to me it’s still the best reality show because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

You don’t know if San Diego will trade quarterback Philip Rivers for the No. 2 pick. You don’t know if Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly will make a monster deal. You don’t know if Minnesota will trade running back Adrian Peterson.

None of that happened Thursday. It was a mostly uneventful reality show. The trade rumors that circulated for weeks turned out to be just spit hitting the fans.

The NFL moved the draft from New York to Chicago, and someone decided to play a cruel joke on Bears fans and float the possibility of a Jay Cutler trade. There was electricity in the air at the thought of Cutler taking his lack of talent and albatross of a contract to Tennessee, but that never happened, either.

“I think the biggest surprise is there were no trades. It has been kind of true to form,” said Esposito, who hosted a draft party that drew a Sunday morning-in-September type crowd to Club Madrid inside Sunset Station.

Beer was flowing, the hot dogs were cheap and there were no obvious winners or losers at the end of the night. The draft is a guessing game. My guess is Winston will disappoint the Buccaneers, and Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback who went No. 2 to the Titans, will have a better pro career.

The most important priorities for an NFL quarterback are making plays, avoiding turnovers and leading the team. Mariota checks all three boxes. As a three-year starter for the Ducks, he passed for 105 touchdowns with only 14 interceptions

Winston’s questionable decision-making ability off the field has shown up on the field. He threw 18 interceptions last season at Florida State. He’s physically impressive, but he’s not as fast as Mariota.

He was a big winner, until he ran into Mariota, and the Seminoles were shredded 59-20 by Oregon in the Rose Bowl. That was just one game. Another issue with Winston is his personal problems, which are many. But the Buccaneers are betting on his character, and they had better be right.

“I think he is a little bit of a risk,” Esposito said. “On the field, he’s a phenomenal quarterback. He’s got all the tools — the size, the arm. You have to worry a little bit about some of the off-field issues. You have to hope he matures and he can grasp the moment and take the next step as an NFL quarterback.”

I agree with Jon Gruden, the ESPN analyst who coached the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win before they assumed their more familiar position in the basement of the league.

“I don’t understand why (Mariota) isn’t the No. 1 player in this draft on Mel Kiper’s Big Board,” Gruden told ESPN.com. “I don’t know anybody in this draft that can do for a football team what Mariota can do. I see him functioning in the pocket, out of the pocket … he’ll rip the defense apart. He is like Russell Wilson, only he is 6-4.”

Winston could be Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell. He also has been compared to Ben Roethlisberger in a flattering way.

“Look at how many quarterbacks have been selected in the first round and have not panned out,” Esposito said, “so there’s always that fear factor there.”

The first round is not all about the top two quarterbacks. Oakland gambled by grabbing Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper at No. 4. The New York Jets were fortunate to get Southern California defensive end Leonard Williams at No. 6. New Orleans filled a need by taking Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat, a future Pro Bowler, at No. 13.

The Chargers wisely held on to Rivers and traded up two spots to No. 15 for Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. The Eagles didn’t get Mariota but emerged in good shape with USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor at No. 20.

Week 1 lines are posted, and nothing that happened Thursday will change those numbers. Regular-season win totals are going up Sunday at the Westgate Las Vegas sports book.

It’s business as usual for NFL bettors.

The Buccaneers showed their cards, and going all-in on Winston is risky business.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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