The recent Twitter assertion from Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel that he "can't wait to leave College Station" has many wondering if it's time to scout him as a 2014 draft prospect. Manziel, the NCAA's leader in total yards in 2012 and the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, would certainly fly to the tops of many draft boards based on his athletic potential, and the fact that the NFL is far more hospitable to mobile quarterbacks than it has been. CBS' Mike Freeman recently spoke to a number of NFL personnel people about Manziel's prospects, and opinion is all over the place. One general manager told Freeman that Manziel could be a better pure passer than Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, or Russell Wilson, while one scout said that Manziel "has Canada written all over him."
Projecting a one-year college quarterback to the NFL is tough to do, but we thought it would be an interesting exercise to put Manziel under the same "Shutdown 50" Microscope we give the best draft prospects every year, just to see what the tape shows. As you would expect from a kid who racked up the awards and numbers in his first collegiate season, there are an equal number of ridiculously positive and alarmingly underdeveloped sides to his game.
Pros: As a pure runner, Manziel is as good as any quarterback who's come down the pike. He's not a straight-line sprinter like Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III, but he's a lot more quick and elusive than, say, Tim Tebow. He reads open gaps well on designed runs, follows his blocks patiently, shows excellent acceleration at the second level, and gets around fast linebackers and most safeties. His performance on the ground against Alabama was a real wake-up call for a lot of people -- if he could do that against a feeder stream of pro-level talent, what could he accomplish at the next level? Manziel does possess a positive improvisational quality to his game -- with his mobility and pure guts under fire (so to speak), he will make plays other quarterbacks simply can't, because it wouldn't occur to them, and they're not physically able.
Has a basic and developing ability to roll outside the pocket under duress and make deeper throws into tight coverage. While he doesn't have a proverbial cannon for an arm, Manziel is able to make most NFL throws. Not only is he mobile, but Manziel will also keep things alive in the pocket with very quick feet -- he uses this attribute to read the field until something opens up. Has an outstanding feel for play action and can use it in an advanced sense, implementing the fake throw/playfake combo at times. With time and work, Manziel's passing ability should be able to fit nearly any overall concept.
Cons: Though he is able to think outside the box if his rushing lanes are closed up the middle, Manziel has been directed to read run too quickly at the collegiate level, and he'll have to learn to process more in the NFL. Primarily, he's succeeded in an offense where he's his own draw option a lot of the time, and that leaves him ill-equipped to do what all NFL quarterbacks must do, no matter how mobile they are -- stand in the pocket, look the defense off, and make the killer stick throw. Has a hitchy, slightly over-exaggerated overhead delivery that works for quick passes, but has him struggling at times with longer throws and timing routes. Automatically looks to run rather than throw when the pocket breaks down, which will not serve him well in the NFL. Tends to push the ball and needs to develop more zip on his release. Must learn to consistently re-set and drop the hammer when he's flushed out of the pocket.
The positives surrounding Manziel's improvisational bent come with a pretty heavy set of negatives at this point in his career -- as much as he's able to repeat throws under coverage, he has not yet put together a big enough reel of plays in which he throws outside the pocket -- specifically, I have not seen enough truly impressive throws in which he does what Drew Brees and Russell Wilson developed as an adaptive strategy to offset height issues, which is to wait for sight gaps to open. Too often, Manziel is busy running when those gaps open. Needs to refine his footwork; Manziel throws from an unstable base at times because he doesn't lead the throwing motion with his lower body with optimal timing. Will clamp down and run when faced with more complex coverages, which rolls right back to the fact that putting the ball down is too much of a default reaction.
Conclusion: Affronted Manziel believers will contend that it's nuts to do an NFL scouting report on a kid who just completed his freshman season. But if we're talking about a player with an intent to make himself available to the pros for the 2014 NFL draft, this is as good a time as any to review the aspects of his game that will obviously require refinement. And that's the key word when describing what's left for Manziel to do -- refinement, more than improvement. It's clear that Johnny Manziel has as many natural gifts as any college quarterback you'll see, and given time, he could develop them into something truly special. Right now, and this is totally understandable given his lack of experience, his game has too much playground and not enough playbook to be taken seriously by NFL defenses.
If Manziel enhances his game with more of a throwing game in which he adheres to more of a pass-first mentality, he'll learn to make those plays that define the best NFL quarterbacks. If he puts that into another year (or preferably more) of dealing with SEC defenses, that'll help, too. My point is that it's far too soon to take what Manziel has shown us and extrapolate that into NFL success. To say that "hey, other running quarterback succeed these days, so why not Johnny Football?" is to completely undervalue how amazingly guys like Cam Newton, RG3, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson have put it together. Manziel is on the right track, but he's nowhere near the destination that propelled those other quarterbacks to success under an entirely different level of defensive pressure.