Winston had a series of off-the-field issues at Florida State, including an allegation of sexual assault. But the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner wasn't charged with any crime stemming from that situation.
"Let's talk about the elephant in the room," Smith told three local reporters before addressing the national media Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine. "He's been accused of a crime. There's an allegation. I have faith in our court system. He went through it. He went through the school justice system, and he was cleared. He went through our court system and he was cleared, exonerated.
"He's gone through [adversity] a couple years now and he's answered the bell. That's what you have to do. You have to have tunnel vision and do your job. Looking from the outside, that's what he's been able to do."
Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith,
on Jameis Winston
"I would like to think that when people go through that, that you wouldn't bring that up the rest of your life on a 21-year-old, you wouldn't bring that up. We've already done a lot of research. We're going to do a lot more research on both guys. From what I know right now, yeah, we're OK with where he is."
"You look at the league right now," Smith said. "You look at the history of our league, and there's been some good players that have been accused of things and they're playing right now. Some we talk about. Some we don't even want to bring up. I'm talking about the ones that have been accused. There's guys accused and there's guys who have actually committed things.
"I think, with Jameis, he's accused. So for those people who are out there, if there's a group, I assume there should be a group of people who have been proven innocent. They should have a say also."
Smith said he's been impressed with how Winston has handled adversity.
"To me, I think he's told us an awful lot with how he's handled it," Smith said. "It's not like he's getting ready to go into the NFL and scrutiny is coming his way. He's gone through it a couple years now and he's answered the bell. That's what you have to do. You have to have tunnel vision and do your job. Looking from the outside, that's what he's been able to do."
Smith will meet Winston and Mariota for the first time this week at the combine, where teams can interview players for 15 minutes. Smith said the Bucs also will hold private visits for Winston and Mariota in Tampa later in the draft process.
Winston is 50-50 on whether he'll throw at the combine Saturday along with other QBs.
"I think, in the end, it will be a clear decision on who we should take," Smith said. "It will be obvious to see who the best player is to lead our franchise, to lead our team next year and get out of that cellar."
Winston was projected as the No. 1 overall pick to the Buccaneers in the latest mock draft released by ESPN NFL Draft Insider Mel Kiper Jr.