2014 NFL Draft: Evaluating Johnny Manziel’s Win over Ole Miss

Johnny ManzielFlashing his signature “money” hand gesture early in the game and leading a prayer with teammates late with the game on the line, Johnny Manziel was true to his polarizing form in Texas A&M’s road win against Ole Miss. Teammates gravitate towards him, media members are split on him, and it can be very difficult to differentiate important info from meaningless prying. I’ll only dive into his onfield play here, but the big questions for NFL teams (weigh-in measurables and mental makeup) won’t be answered until much later in the draft process.

How He Beat Ole Miss
Converting critical downs with his legs, Manziel once again proved himself to be the most unique and difficult quarterback to gameplan against in college football. Ole Miss tried to go after him with extra rushers, went the 3-man rush + QB spy route late, but couldn’t come up with the stops they needed. Competiveness, confidence, and poise are apt descriptions for his demeanor on the field, and more importantly you see a player that embraces the bright lights. That same mental approach and “swagger” combine as the main reasons people either love or hate Johnny. 

Further on his road performance, Manziel had an early game scare versus Ole Miss, as he appeared to sprain his left knee while rolling to his left and delivering a cross body throw downfield to Mike Evans. Not surprisingly, Manziel returned and continued to work his magic with the ball in his hands, putting on display the instinctive, sandlot style of play that draws the ire of football scouts and lore of football fans. Capable of toying with defenders in the open field and very natural in his ball carrier movements, Manziel’s mobility and creativity as a runner make him a truly unique prospect. What separates Manziel from other mobile, athletic quarterbacks is the trait that made former Auburn quarterback and current Carolina Panther Cam Newton such a special collegiate player –spatial awareness. Having a sixth sense for the pursuit of defenders and unpredictable with his cuts thereafter, Manziel can create positive plays whether or not the defense is in proper positioning. Add in his high level of comfort as a rollout passer and you’ve got a dynamic dual threat at the college level.

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As a passer, while Manziel continues to improve his composure within the pocket and overall zip on intermediate throws, there still are real concerns regarding his anticipation downfield and ability to complete tight window throws. When the progression demands a high difficulty throw and pocket pressure increases, Manziel’s instinct is to either fade away from the pending hit or bail the pocket entirely. Even when presented with room to climb, reset and deliver downfield, Manziel struggled to properly diagnose and anticipate route development. More inclined to leave the pocket and stress the defense with his feet, Manziel continued to operate solely on instincts in this game. Again, I will point out his improvement in terms of zip and timing in the intermediate passing game, but extended pass drops have given Manziel trouble as he lacks rhythm or feel required to fully work through his progression.

The Concerns
In addition to questions regarding his anticipation and ability to operate with balance, rhythm and fluidity in progressions, Manziel’s limited range showed up on multiple occasions in this outing. Severely underthrowing multiple deep fades to Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel is entirely too dependent on catch point adjustments and timing to complete passes beyond 30 yards. That’s a limitation teams will have to come to accept before committing to him at the next level.

Interestingly enough, Manziel’s biggest issue isn’t his arm but rather his feet on deeper throws from within the pocket. Bouncing too frequently and lacking sound base fundamentals, Manziel rarely sets his back foot and strides into the throw with ideal weight transfer. Instead of setting a foundation and creating power from the ground up, you see more of a hopping, jumping release that saps any potential range. Manziel has a more than adequate arm with the ability to make most of the throws; however, with his mechanics continuing to revert back to instinctive maneuvers that have bailed him out at the college level, I worry just how long it will take for his footwork to get where it needs to be.

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As It Stands Now
Manziel is highly successful in packaged run-pass plays, snapping off short and intermediate throws with a rapid-fire delivery. Manziel also continues to develop as a decision maker, with notable signs of progress regarding presnap awareness and functional football intelligence on conversion downs. What Manziel has done and continues to do in the SEC, is nothing short of extraordinary; nevertheless, there’s one non-negotiable aspect to the position that will require further improvement before he’s prepared to translate his skills to the NFL level.

To win in the NFL, a quarterback must be confident, comfortable and consistent at producing from within the pocket. Currently I’m not sold on Manziel’s ability to operate from within a constricted pocket, but, as is the case with every prospect, his final draft day value remains to be seen and he has time to show me otherwise. Manziel’s rare football instincts, from extending plays behind the line of scrimmage to eluding multiple defenders downfield, are impossible to overlook and there’s no questioning this kid’s poise in critical game situations. Moving forward, I want to see improved base footwork, weight transfer and more willingness to deliver within a tight pocket.