With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to start this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players listed were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
45. E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
We continue this year's series with Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel, perhaps the most interesting quarterback prospect in a draft class full of projects at his position. Despite some impressive stats in 2012 (263 completions in 387 attempts for 3,397 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, as well as 310 yards and four touchdowns on 103 rushing attempts), Manuel is seen by many as a player with an incomplete grade. There are questions about his on-field decision-making ability, his ability to read defenses at an advanced level, how well he throws under pressure, and how able he is to throw with a sense of anticipation.
On the positive side (yes, there is a positive side), the 6-foot-5, 237-pound Manuel has all of the physical tools you'd want in a modern NFL quarterback. He has the arm to make every throw, and he's the only quarterback in this draft class with the running ability to take on the league's increasing number of read-option, zone-option, and Pistol packages. He was the best quarterback during Senior Bowl week, showing off some pretty good throws in practices, and he was named Most Outstanding Player in the game. He did this despite dealing with his mother's fight against breast cancer. More than any other quarterback that week, he seemed to be able to take new practice concepts into a game -- his seam throw to Alabama tight end Michael Williams for a touchdown in the game was the exact same throw he made during Wednesday practice, and it was one of the more impressive throws of the week in both instances.
So, the question is whether E.J. Manuel is a running quarterback whose skill set has topped off, or a relatively raw player who can be coached into something more special. Based on what I've seen, I think Manuel is hitting the NFL at exactly the right time.
Pros: Excellent play-action and boot-action quarterback with good touch on first-read screens and slants out of simple rollouts. Sells playfakes very well, especially on reverse boot rollouts. Smooth and elusive runner for his size who gains acceleration the longer he's carrying the ball. Will keep his eyes downfield even as he's running (a must for any option quarterback who can actually throw the ball). Can run to break pressure when the pocket collapses, but this is not a run-first guy who sees the pass as an afterthought. Good pocket presence and movement -- will slide around out of pressure without losing his bearings and can shift out of the pocket and still make accurate downfield throws. Reads blitzes and pressure well and can adapt on the fly. Practiced at stepping up in the pocket and driving the ball. Has a quick, efficient, overhead delivery for the most part -- doesn't revert to sandlot stuff, and you can tell that he's trying to keep technique in mind.
E.J. Manuel was hit-and-miss during combine throwing drills. (USAT Sports Images)
Has the velocity, accuracy. and confidence to throw into tight windows. Nice touch on downfield timing throws -- he doesn't hang everything on a rope. Ideal shotgun quarterback, but he's lined up under center more than enough, and his dropback is quick, smooth, and without obvious mechanical issues.
Cons: Though Manuel will scan the field and find second and third receivers, he is primarily a "see it/throw it" passer in an offense designed for quick and easy first reads. That's common in college and more prevalent in the NFL these days (it's basically what Tim Tebow did for the Denver Broncos in 2011), but Manuel will have to develop the multi-read aspect of his game. Will occasionally get too fine with his delivery, try to over-finesse throws, and lose his bearings for a few snaps at a time.
The concerns about his relative inability to throw with anticipation are legitimate -- though he was not often asked to do so, you can see instances in which he can throw his receivers open and doesn't. Must learn to make stick throws to receivers tied up in zone defenses -- this is still a clear weakness. Will occasionally pull the ball down and go with receivers open in these situations. Benefitted from a lot of open receivers -- will need to learn to better deal with receiver re-distribution at the NFL level.
Conclusion: When I first saw Colin Kaepernick at Nevada a few years back, I wondered if a guy with an elongated "pizza delivery" throwing motion, a gangly running style, and a primary role in one specific style of offense (the Pistol under Chris Ault, the man who invented it), I wondered if he could become a legitimate NFL quarterback. Jim Harbaugh saw what a lot of other people didn't, took Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, and built a perfect weapon for his run-heavy/deep-passing offense.
Similarly, I think that E.J. Manuel is a willing student under the right kind of teacher, and that became apparent to me during Senior Bowl week. Working with new coaches (the Detroit Lions' staff) and a bunch of receivers he'd never timed before, Manuel looked to grasp a system he'd had little time to prepare for.
My final thought on Kaepernick back then was that he could be drafted a lot higher than people think, and that he had the potential to be a star in the right system. I think the same two things are true of E.J. Manuel, and if I were a general manager, this is the one quarterback in this draft class I would specifically covet -- but only if I could get him in the second round.
NFL Comparison: Colin Kaepernick, Nevada, 2010
More Shutdown 50:
#50: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State | #49: John Jenkins, DL, Georgia | #48: Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State | #47: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State | #46: Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse
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