Ahh… Johnny Manziel…
The Heisman Trophy winner is an enigma for people as we close in on the 2014 NFL Draft. On one hand, you can’t help but admire his ability to create plays and ad-lib. After all, it is that style of play that earned him that Trophy and the eye-popping stats that now follow him through the NFL Draft process. However, people seem torn by what may hold him back in the pros. Whether it be his height, his perceived attitude or his “celebrity lifestyle”, it isn’t hard to find someone who has a problem with the possible top-five pick. So, I, like so many before me, will try to make sense of this polarizing figure.
And I’ll be honest… I’m not buying into the fanfare.
Meet Johnny Manziel
It’s only fair to begin with the positives of Manziel, so let’s begin with the “it” factor. You’ll see this phrase thrown around oftentimes with these sorts of players. It references an innate ability to win games, to create big plays and achieve regardless of the obstacles. Guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and, most recently, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, have this “it” factor. They win games even when things seem bleak. Wilson and Luck can make plays with their feet and Brady and Brees play with a level of focus and determination that always keeps them in games. These are “it” factors. Manziel is one of those guys. He scrambles with the ball, avoiding defenders and finds an open receiver or he will make an exceptional throw at the end of the game to cement a comeback. However, nobody can truly define this “it” factor, so it also means, at least to me, that there is something unexplainable about their success. For example, there are countless players who had this element to their game only to be unsuccessful in the NFL. Heck, even Brady, for all his success, technically doesn’t have the exceptional physical tools that you would look for, stereotypically, in a quarterback. That doesn’t mean he isn’t exceptional because of his mental understanding of the game, but even with him there is something that is somewhat unexplainable about his success, so we attribute it to this “winning attitude”.
Manziel has great feet in how he moves out of trouble to make plays and can make people miss in the open field. He has a clear and genuine passion for the game and seems to get the best out of his teammates, as any quarterback should. His self-confidence, that sometimes rubs people the wrong way, is an incredible tool for him to use as he always believes that he can pull his team out of trouble. He excels in the big-moments, which is obviously a positive trait as he closes in on a NFL debut.
On top of that, Manziel was impressive at his media spectacle of a Pro Day with his ability to make all the throws on the field, even from the pocket. Following the impressive showing, many in the media project him to go in the top-five, maybe even first overall. Now, the opinions on Manziel are rather polarizing (Gruden says Manziel is “magical” vs. Zimmer feeling there are “red flags” with Manziel). Even Ron Jaworski, who said Manziel didn’t warrant being picked prior to the fourth-round, conceded that Manziel showed well in his pro day and said Manziel now was worthy of a third-round pick. Not a great change, but I’m more pointing to how “across the board” people are in regards to Manziel.
Even though there appears to be a lot to like, I can’t say I would take my chances with Manziel because, frankly, I don’t see the potential “superstar”. This may not be a popular opinion, but hear me out.
Let’s begin with the common “weaknesses”… First of all we have his height. Manziel is just under 6 feet tall (5’11”). The ideal quarterback height is 6’5″ or… Ben Roethlisberger size. There are examples of players who have excelled despite being shorter players, but it isn’t often. Brees measures in at around the same height as Manziel… as does Wilson. So, why can’t Manziel follow their success? I actually wrote about Wilson heading into Wilson’s rookie season, saying that he would excel despite his height. My reasoning was that Wilson was, and is, great at finding passing lanes. After all, that’s how Brees manages, despite not being able to see over the offensive line. Wilson and Brees, are both good at moving around in the pocket and using their understanding of the offense to position themselves so they can clearly see between their offensive lineman as the pass rush closes in around them exposing “lanes”. Manziel is more than capable of using this sort of strategy, but I worry that most of his experience comes from being on the move or having his offensive line, that was stacked with NFL talent, making passing lanes for him. He just doesn’t seem as natural when moving in the pocket and searching for passing lanes like Wilson or Brees. Sure, he is a great runner, but he almost seems to abandon plays too often, opting to run or scramble in hopes of making something happen instead of working his way around the pocket. This could be a issue that significantly complicates Manziel’s development as a pocket passer, as he will need to become in order to excel in the NFL.
Head Coach Kevin Sumlin
One thing that I haven’t heard many people talk about is Manziel’s offense. Texas A&M plays a more “pro-ready” offense than some college teams, but we need to take a couple things into account. First of all, most of their offense is out of the shotgun, which is something that has affected some college quarterbacks in the past as they adjust to taking snaps from under center. Also, we should mention that Texas A&M’s head coach, Kevin Sumlin, was the head coach at the University of Houston for a couple seasons prior to joining the Aggies in 2012 (when Manziel burst onto the scene). Does anybody remember what was happening at Houston when Sumlin was coaching there?
Keenum was terrorizing opposing defenses (sure, they were in Conference-USA, but still) on his way to becoming the first Division I FBS Conference quarterback to ever throw for over 5,000 yards in three seasons. His final season at Houston saw him finish with the most total offense and second most passing yards in the nation. Entering the NFL draft, Keenum received hardly any serious consideration as a potential starting quarterback as evaluators pointed to his undersized physical frame, struggles against pressure and a lack of pure physical skill in his arm strength. He was widely considered a prospect that was a “product of an effective, high-octane collegiate offense” and was one who would have to adjust to taking snaps under center and going through proper progressions from under center.
Keenum measured in at the NFL Combine at 6’1″, 208 lbs, while Manziel weighed in at around 5’11”, 207 lbs. Manziel is better against pressure, but that may be more because he has the natural athleticism to make plays under pressure (which I don’t think will be so easy in the NFL), and he has a pretty good deep ball when he steps into his throw and doesn’t throw off his back foot unnecessarily. However, Manziel plays in an offense implemented by the same coach who coached Keenum. Manziel is actually smaller than Keenum, who was severely hurt by his undersized frame in the draft process, and will have to make the same adjustments under center when he enters the league.
For example, let’s consult the videos below from Keenum’s college days. The first is a blowout win over Rice from 2011. In the game, he finished 24/37 for 534 passing yard, nine touchdowns and one interception. From the footage, you can see how easy it is for Keenum. Wide open receivers, easy short crossing patterns and swing plays. Of course, playing against Rice does, in fact, produce higher numbers, but nonetheless, just focus on the type of throws and the consistency with which players get open, which I would argue, has a lot to do with Sumlin’s offensive strategy.
Another example is against UTEP in 2010 where Keenum was 15/24 for 279 passing yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. Certainly not one of Keenum’s best games. If you watch the film though, you will see, again, a lot of short passes with deep shots and more intermediate routes sprinkled in, making the game look easier for Keenum. Like I said, it wasn’t one of Keenum’s best games, but Houston also ran the ball for 308 yards the game.
Now, watch Manziel. Below we have Manziel’s great game in 2012 against Alabama, which really made his Heisman season. He was 24/31 for 253 yards passing, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also ran for 92 yards on 18 carries with a 5.1 YPC. Keep an eye on the play-call. There are a lot of designed runs for Manziel, which is something Keenum wasn’t known for, but many of his throws are short, easy throws; all about taking what the defense gives you. The occasional shot downfield was successful, I would argue, more due to play-call rather than Manziel. Certainly his ability complicated how college defenses guarded receivers, but I think Manziel will not be as effective scrambling in the NFL, so I don’t think it plays a significant role in his future success.
The other game is against LSU in 2013 where Manziel struggled, going 16/41 with 224 yards passing, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had 54 yards on the ground with 12 carries. Once again, keep an eye on the play-call. The first thing you will notice is that LSU is prepared for the “simple” throws as seen against Alabama. They contain Manziel running ability and restrict the effectiveness of the entire offense, making me think that perhaps the offensive gameplan, with Manziel’s running ability being a major component, made things, perhaps, a little more straightforward for Manziel. This would go back to Case Keenum and Kevin Sumlin. Keenum was wildly successful in a similar offense (short, easy throws with deep shots), yet is viewed entirely different than Manziel because Manziel was able to scramble and improvise, something that is hard to expect against NFL defenders.
My point is, Sumlin clearly knows how to move the ball. He understands how to manipulate defenses and use different forms of misdirection to open up easy throwing lanes for his quarterbacks. I’m not saying this to take away from Manziel’s accomplishments, because as we pointed out, C-USA and the SEC are different beasts, but we should consider what this could mean. Keenum is playing with the Houston Texans now after going undrafted, yet he was one of the most prolific passers in the history of the game at the college level under Sumlin. Keenum will never be a Hall of Famer, yet people assume that Manziel will. This would concern me as a talent evaluator. Certainly Keenum and Manziel aren’t the same player, but I personally don’t believe Manziel’s numbers under Sumlin are reflective of what he will do in the pros and the fact that Sumlin has only worked with Manziel as his quarterback since taking over with the Aggies in 2012 is what I think makes people overlook Sumlin’s impact. If Sumlin turns the next Aggie quarterback into another prolific quarterback, we may have more reason to think Sumlin’s offense skews our judgement.
Speaking of assistance, I’ll just spend a little time on what many question… how good would Manziel have been without wide receiver Mike Evans? Evans is 6’5″, 225 lbs and is, understandably, one of the top receiver prospects in the NFL Draft this year. He is an exceptional talent in terms of snagging the ball out of the air and possesses the strength and speed to not only win jump balls, if anyone can reach his highest point, but also outrun some defenders. The perception among many is that Evans bailed out Manziel countless times and I tend to agree. Most of Manziel’s highlights are of him scrambling and buying time, which I don’t see happening at the NFL level to the same effectiveness, and throwing what sometimes turns into a jump ball to Evans or one of his other talented receivers. I don’t see that being a long-term “gameplan” in the pros. Evans has been receiving favorable comparisons to the likes of Randy Moss, Alshon Jeffery and Vincent Jackson. I tend to lean towards the Jackson comparison, but it is clear that Evans has the ability to be a big-time NFL receiver. For that reason, talent evaluators may be overlooking the impact of Evans on Manziel’s game tape.
I have heard people saying that Manziel is a “once-in-a-generation” talent and that his combination of skills are incredibly unique. He is unique and a fantastic football player, but there have been players before him that have achieved in college only to fail come the pros. I don’t think Manziel is a “head-case” like a Ryan Leaf, but when I see him play and consider Sumlin’s and Evan’s potential impacts, I can’t help but see some frightening comparisons. I have heard Warren Moon compare Manziel to Tim Tebow (*cringe*). I see that comparison in terms of the “it” factor that I referenced before. Everyone saw Tebow as a “winner” who could overcome obstacles, some of which was his own ability, to achieve and lead his team to victory. Well, now I see that with Manziel. The comparison with Tebow is also favorable, to some extent, with running ability. We need to understand that Manziel isn’t a burner and he isn’t a tank like Roethlisberger or Cam Newton, so how do you expect him to withstand/survive when he extends plays and runs with the ball? Tebow was/is bigger than Manziel, but they both have a “tough” running style that makes them difficult to bring down. That said, I think the more accurate comparison for Manziel and his future prospects is former Heisman Trophy winner, Troy Smith.
Smith was of similar size coming out of college, ran a similar 40-yard dash time (Manziel – 4.68, Smith – 4.72) and had a similar ad-lib, exciting, playmaker ability to him. Smith was elusive, like Manziel, and could throw the ball well. In fact, Smith was coming directly off his successful Heisman campaign and ultimately was selected in the fifth-round by Baltimore. Smith struggled with consistency, particularly in relation to accuracy, and was knocked for his size. I personally always felt Smith had more to offer than he had the opportunity to display in the NFL (he was supposed to start the 2007 season in place of then rookie Joe Flacco), but nonetheless, he now plays in the Canadian Football League with Montreal. Does Manziel have a higher ceiling in the NFL than Smith ever did? Definitely. But, I also think a lot of that comes down to how a team will develop an offense around Manziel, doing everything they can to allow him to succeed. Still, I stand by my comparison to Smith. Many of Smith’s “flash plays” are eerily similar to that of Manziel and even in retrospect, you have to wonder if playing with Ted Ginn Jr. (1st Round Pick – 2007 – Currently with Arizona), Anthony Gonzalez (1st Round Pick – 2007 – Currently out of the league), Brian Hartline (4th Round Pick – 2009 – Currently with Miami), Brian Robiskie (2nd Round Pick – 2009 – Currently with Tennessee) and Beanie Wells (1st Round Pick – 2009 – Currently a free agent due to knee injuries) perhaps inflated Smith’s numbers in a similar fashion as Evans and Sumlin have.
Below, keep an eye on Smith’s playmaking ability. He may not have the splash plays like Manziel has against the Alabama’s of the world, but you need to remember that Smith was a dominant college quarterback during his senior season and even the second half of his junior year. He could run designed run plays, he could scramble, find open receivers and pick apart defenses. His athletic ability, with the ball in his hands was similar to that of Manziel with tough, quick running.
Troy Smith Highlights
Johnny Manziel Highlights
Sure… the comparison may not be perfect, but I can’t help but notice similarities in their games. With that said, Manziel will have a real NFL career. Smith had an opportunity to start, but got very sick and missed his opportunity before floating around the league. Manziel, on the other hand, will most likely be drafted in the top-15 (I can’t honestly guarantee a top-five pick) with the offense being shaped around his skill set. This will allow Manziel to flourish, but I don’t think we will see the future Hall of Famer as people expect. I see Manziel going to a bad team, winning six or seven games as a rookie, being the main driver in those wins. High expectations and more “Tebow-like” media attention will follow and Manziel will be expected to take his team deep into the playoffs with another year under his belt. However, I believe that Manziel will plateau… capable of competing for the playoffs, but not necessarily achieving as you would expect from a top-five pick or a “once-in-a-generation” talent.
The question I continue to ask is what happens if things get tough. In all likelihood, Manziel is picked up by a team like Cleveland, Jacksonville or Oakland. If that is the case, what happens if Manziel takes too many hits, throws too many interceptions or is left to fend for himself on an offense that is outmatched. His self-confidence, that comes off as “cocky” and “arrogant” to so many people, is the “swagger” that fuels Manziel. If that is challenged and he questions himself in that context, I don’t think Manziel has the physical skills to bounce back. I said the same thing about Geno Smith from last season and following a rookie campaign that featured turnover after turnover and inconsistent play from himself and the Jets offense, Smith is now fighting for his job with Michael Vick. That signals to me that there is a feeling within that organization that Smith may not be the answer and that could very well be due to confidence issues. I could see Manziel, who has spent most of his football career succeeding in incredible ways, struggling with that potential situation if the other concerns above don’t derail his potential beforehand.
Manziel has the potential to be great, but I personally don’t think it happens. I think he ultimately is a solid quarterback, who lives a decent NFL career with above average results. I expect a six to seven win season as a rookie with those highlight plays from Texas A&M, but as his career progresses injuries, self-confidence issues and the speed of NFL defenses become too much. If he succeeds, Manziel will be electrifying… if not… everyone will look back questioning how they didn’t predict it earlier.
I warned you.
Johnny Manziel Scouting Reports
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