The Johnny Manziel mystery: Biggest questions GMs/coaches face in evaluating QB for draft
You're a general manager or a head coach in the NFL. The subject is Johnny Manziel. You're not interested in the white noise that saturates Manziel across the airwaves and social media. Or at any rate you shouldn't be. Your job may be on the line. You should be focused on the tape that defines Manziel as a player. That's your starting point. What do you see? How do you evaluate it? Do you believe he can transition well to the NFL?
You begin with his size: 5-foot-11¾, 207 pounds. How many NFL quarterbacks who fit that profile are successful? You have to visualize Manziel in the league, not on Saturday afternoons. Size matters for a quarterback in the NFL. You can't dismiss that, so you better think hard about it and have a plan for what you want to do with Manziel within the context of your team.
You immediately think Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. Brees is the foundation of his offense. He's brilliant both before and after the snap. He's a quick-twitch athlete with outstanding pocket command and movement. He throws with extraordinary anticipation and precise ball location. He's a master pocket passer.
Wilson is a complementary quarterback on a Seattle Seahawks team driven by the running game and the best defense in the NFL. He's not asked to throw as much as other quarterbacks. He's tightly managed. His aptitude for "structured improvisation," with wonderful intuitive awareness, is among the best in the NFL. He's never reckless or random in his movement.
Can Manziel develop into Brees down the road? That kind of quarterback demands uncommon mental and physical discipline, and high level football intelligence. Is Manziel that guy? Are you going to closely monitor Manziel and manage how he plays? Are you going to build your offense around a foundation runner? Do you have a defense that can keep every game close?
What was Manziel at Texas A&M? He was a shotgun spread quarterback who ran a relatively unsophisticated pass offense with basic route concepts and defined reads. He was not asked to do much involving pass protection. A film study of Manziel reveals he had little awareness of defensive fronts and pressures. His development will require a significant learning curve. That means time. How much is impossible to answer now.
You also see a lithe, fluid athlete with quick, almost ballet-like feet, outstanding agility and maneuverability, and movement outside the pocket. You see a quarterback with great vision and accuracy on the move, especially sprinting to his left. Not many quarterbacks can do that. You start to build a balance sheet of pros and cons. Where will you eventually fall?
The tape of the Vanderbilt and Mississippi State games reveals some good passes from the pocket, particularly seam throws. Those are NFL throws. You see flashes of coverage recognition and manipulation. He looks like a balanced pocket passer with good lower body mechanics, a loose arm and a natural throwing motion that featured good weight transfer to drive the ball with velocity. It isn't there consistently, but you see it. And you saw it throughout his 2013 season.
He does not have a refined sense of anticipation, and that's a concern considering the speed and reaction time of NFL defenses, but there were many throws in which he looked like a comfortable pocket quarterback. These are all positives about Manziel playing in your stadium on Sunday afternoons.
But you keep looking and evaluating. You watch every play. You pull up the LSU and Missouri games. And you find yourself seeing wide-open receivers, the primary reads on those routes, and Manziel, without any pressure, doesn't turn it loose. You noticed that against Vandy and Mississippi State, but it's more evident vs. LSU and Missouri. Why?
You put on more games and you're seeing it too often. Why is he not delivering the ball? Why is he not allowing the offense to work? Why is he not playing with the discipline that is the foundation of every passing game? Was he not coached to do that? Was he allowed to freelance whenever he wanted? Those are questions that need to be addressed.
You see a quarterback who creates his own problems with what appears to be a lack of understanding and discipline, and then once in a while he makes an unbelievable unstructured play. There's a sense that he makes it up as he goes, a shoot from the hip element that is so much fun and entertaining to watch. But you're not sure that will work in the NFL. Entertaining is great for fans and highlight shows, but it's not a quarterback attribute. A QB cannot live on the edge, play randomly and be consistently successful against NFL defenses.
Another thing stands out on tape: there's too wide a variation in his play. You love the throws when he has space in the pocket, whether the toss requires touch or a little juice. But there's too many in which he does not set his feet with balance, at times jumping in the air to throw the ball. Those throws didn't have much on them. You know in the NFL, those passes are interceptions waiting to happen.
The pocket throws are nice enough to make you think you have something to work with. You also visualize him breaking down defenses on third down with extended plays. Then his glaring lack of discipline pops into your head, all the throws he leaves on the field, and it makes you wonder: What will Manziel be in the NFL? Do I have a comfortable answer?
So you start debating with yourself, what kind of offense am I going to run if I draft Manziel early in the draft? Do I need to build a complete team around him, like the Seattle model with Wilson? Limit him as much as possible as he learns how to play NFL quarterback? Remember, Wilson ran an NFL offense at Wisconsin. Maybe put Manziel in the shotgun here and there to stress the defense, and make it account for read-option elements. Or take the opposite approach, and let Manziel basically run the same kind of offense he ran at Texas A&M? Spread it out, keep it simple, let him run around and hope he makes the spectacular plays that defined him in college. Is that viable in the NFL?
You think about how beat up Manziel was at the end of the season, and how it negatively impacted his overall performance. He was not the same player. Isn't it a big leap of faith to expect him to play that freewheeling style in the NFL? Bigger players, better athletes, all across the board. You know the SEC is the best conference in college football, but it's college football, not the NFL.
Decision time has come. You're on the clock. Is Johnny Manziel your guy? Are you willing to put your franchise in his hands?