Determining which draft eligible quarterbacks will end up earning the coveted “franchise quarterback” label is the most difficult yet most important thing a quarterback-needy NFL general manager needs to do. And as teams and fans alike have learned from past failures, college success doesn’t always translate to an NFL future at quarterback.
Combine those two factors, along with Johnny Manziel lack of ideal size and his concerning behavior off the field throughout this off-season, it’s easy to see why teams may be hesitate to give Manziel the keys to the franchise.
While his off the field persona may be an issue team’s deal with throughout the draft process, Manziel has shown enough on it over the past year and a half to earn being in the discussion for a starter-worthy draft selection. He may not be the prototypical quarterback, but Manziel has a unique skill set that just might make him an NFL starter one day.
The most obvious concern for Manziel’s NFL future is his height. Listed at 6’1, Manziel may measure in at or below the 6’0 threshold that team’s so badly want their quarterbacks to be. Adding to this concern is his lack of an ideal height on his throwing release. From now to the foreseeable future, quarterbacks less than 6’2 will be compared to Drew Brees and/or Russell Wilson. But both of those passers have very smooth, compact, and high finishing throwing motions, giving them a throwing height of closer to 6’4 then at the 6’0 level Manziel generally throws from. The shrinking of throwing windows and length of defensive linemen at the NFL could make his lack of a high release point an instant problem on drag and interior hitch routes in the NFL.
Adding to his concerns as a thrower from the pocket, Manziel has developed (though improved in 2013) bad habits with his footwork in the pocket. His steps in his drop back are inconsistent, leading him to unnecessarily throw off balance, forcing his passes to sail and forcing him to be near perfect with his timing and velocity control downfield. Again, he’s improved in this area in 2013, especially on designed in-pocket half field reads, but he still makes far too many throws more difficult than he has to. Part of this also may be due to his reliance and ambition as a runner. Defenses are forced to be concerned about him as a runner and he very much embraces the opportunity to evade rushers, but this near desire to make rushers/tacklers miss appears to also be a factor in his feet rarely being composed and consistently balanced.
Finally, his lack of in-pocket progression work is concerning, especially considering he’ll need to be very efficient pre- and post-snap to make up for his lack of height to find throwing windows. Going back to short passer success stories Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, both quarterbacks rely on intense film study, use of hot-reads pre-snap, and comfort-ability in how the defense is trying to attack them post-snap. Manziel doesn’t consistently showcase this next-level ability yet, partially thanks to his success as a runner and partially thanks to Kevin Sumlin not forcing him to win from the pocket.
After leading off with where Manziel struggles, it’s important to recognize that his creativity, elusiveness as a quarterback and open-field runner, and production against top caliber defenses shouldn’t be overlooked as “college-only” success factors. Kevin Sumlin’s offense and receiver Mike Evans physicality and ball skills certainly deserves ample credit for the Texas A&M offensive success the past two seasons. But Manziel is the only quarterback to throw for four touchdowns against a Nick Saban-lead Alabama defense in one game (earlier this year), as he was able to beat them with his feet first, forcing Alabama’s NFL prospect filled defense to play off balance for the only times in the past two years.
Possessing elite foot quickness and escape-ability from the pocket, his ability to evade rushers and either attack open field as a runner or find a receiver in a one-on-one match-up downfield reminds of young Michael Vick-type elusiveness, including his time at Virginia Tech. While he’s had the luxury of three future NFL starters as his offensive tackles (Luke Joeckel last year, Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi this year), Manziel has consistently been able to make one or more rushers miss in their pursuit, forcing teams to have five or six defenders in the box against him, allowing for a more spread out field and potential for one on one match-ups.
Despite his lack of ideal size, Manziel has an adequate arm to make throws across the field, especially when he’s set. While he does labor at times when he throws fastballs past 15-20 yards, he’s able to generate ample velocity on a large majority of his throws, which shouldn’t lead to many issues once he’s placed in an NFL offense, especially since throwing windows will be wider for him than many other passers thanks to his running threat. He has resorted to more and more jump balls for his Anquan Boldin-type receiver Mike Evans this year, but his placement on in-breaking routes, vertical throws, and throws off his initial read have all been on target.
Getting back to his overall productivity and college success, Manziel is a “fun to watch” playmaker thanks in large part to his athleticism, flexibility, and creativity as a quarterback. As an evaluator or fan, you’re unsure if any one tackler will bring him down, or what he’ll pull off next drive, next play, or the next step he takes. That holds true for defensive coordinators and players. He’s athletic enough to make plays with his feet and off balance, he’s flexible enough avoid major collisions and break tackles, and possesses creativity and overall football IQ to give defenses uncertainty on how to stop a certain formation, play, or route combination. While it’s not necessarily a “box on the scouting report”, his craftiness as a quarterback is an innate skill that many undersized and less talented quarterbacks were able to use to defy the odds and have NFL success.
How He May Fit in the NFL
Not every NFL team will have Johnny Manziel on their draft board. Whether it’s because of the team’s current quarterback situation, concerns about his off the field antics, or his lack of size for their offense, he won’t be considered by more than half the team’s in the NFL, barring he reaches the tail end of the draft.
However, today’s NFL may be even more open to quarterback prospects like Manziel than ever before. The addition of the read option to most NFL playbooks, the success of running threats like Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson early in their NFL careers, and the impressiveness of Chip Kelly’s offense are all signs that this trend of athletic, running quarterbacks is here to stay.
In projecting Manziel to the NFL level, he has a unique skill set that, if used correctly, could translate his college excitement to NFL wins. The offense needs to be tailored initially to his threat as a runner, forcing defenses to contain and spy him. Also, he’ll need at least one big bodied target, as Mike Evans has been for him in his Texas A&M career. And finally, he’ll need time and patience before he can be NFL consistent.
Pinning Manziel to one NFL comparison isn’t an easy task, as he’s such a unique talent that simply wouldn’t have gotten much of an NFL chance 10 years ago. However, I think he falls somewhere between Doug Flutie, thanks to his size concerns but also better than you’d expect arm talent, and Tony Romo, thanks to his creativity and improvisation as a quarterback. While that may not be a glowing review or a sign that he’s a future Super Bowl winner, having those combined skill sets in an offense could make for a tremendously fun offense to watch and a brutal one to slow down.
Ideally, he’ll stay for at least one more season at Texas A&M before the NFL jump, but that seems unlikely. If that’s the case, I’ll stand by the 3rd round grade we gave him after last year’s draft with the potential for him to end in the 2nd round depending on team need. However, that is primarily excluding off the field issues, which may be overblown or a major deterrent for an NFL team to draft him in the Top 100.
Some NFL franchises will view Manziel’s skill set as intriguing and appealing, while others will find it sporadic and non-translatable. When his NFL Draft process time does come, he’ll have plenty of questions and concerns to answer for. He may not be perfect, nor prototypical, nor clean cut. But he’s impressed enough on the field, from a scouting perspective, to earn a chance to play quarterback at the NFL level.