Johnny Manziel uses circus-like pro day to provide glimpse into his NFL future
It was a pro day like we've never seen before. Former President George HW Bush and wife Barbara were in attendance, as was current Texas governor Rick Perry. Music from Drake filled Texas A&M's indoor facility as quarterback Johnny Manziel walked onto the field wearing shoulder pads, and music continued throughout the event. Manziel, who has always scrambled to the beat of his own orchestra, did something no other draft-eligible quarterback has ever done -- he went through his group workout for NFL executives, coaches and scouts wearing helmet and shoulder pads. He also wore camouflage shorts and spoke with those in attendance from the NFL before the workout started, to introduce the teammates to whom he'd be throwing. So, it started out as the kind of circus with which Manziel is all too familiar and comfortable. Representatives from the Texans, Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings and Eagles -- among others -- were also in attendance, adding a football-like feel to the opening ceremonies, as well.
And in the end, Manziel proved that his offseason work with performance coaches George Whitfield and Kevin O'Connell paid great dividends. Pro days are always hothouse environments at their best, but Manziel, who took one snap under center in the Aggies' 2013 season, did his whole workout that way on Thursday. He looked good with that adjustment, and that doesn't always happen. When Cam Newton came out of college and worked under center at first, he was hopping all over the place. But Manziel's footwork was compact for the most part (he got a bit jumpy at times and tended to cross his feet on longer drops), and that helped lead to an overall performance that was very strong. Manziel completed 61-of-64 passes, with one ball out of bounds, one hitting the turf and one receiver drop. He threw several deep passes of 40 yards and more to his targets, including fellow first-round prospect Mike Evans, and ended the festivities with a 55-yard deep post touchdown to Evans, which Manziel celebrated with a resounding "Boom!" and a running trip to greet his former teammate.
It went about as well -- and as typically -- as a Manziel pro day could go, right down to the immediate marketing.
The future starts today. Don't get left behind. The @JManziel2 Pro Day Collection http://t.co/B6TDicu0db pic.twitter.com/GFp2raByoV
— Nike.com (@nikestore) March 27, 2014
"It did," Manziel said when asked by Paul Burmeister of the NFL Network if the workout went the way he wanted. "My main thing is, I'm not scared of anything. I don't play that way on the field, why come out here in a scripted workout and be scared of anything? It's a game we all love -- throw the pigskin around and have some fun. It's a football player's dream. So for us, let's make it as challenging as we possibly could -- let's get throws on the run, let's get stuff in the pocket to reset, and let's go out and have fun more than anything."
We all know about Manziel's random weirdness at times -- he doesn't always do repeatable things when he should, and he discussed an awareness of that at the scouting combine. At his pro day, he showed the potential to take his splash plays and integrate them into a more functional package, and that had to excite NFL shot-callers.
Like most quarterbacks, Manziel started off with quick, short routes, and no surprise that these were all easy completions. When he started throwing the ball deeper, he did show an interesting mechanical oddity I've seen on tape -- he plants and leans back when arcing the ball downfield, and I wonder at times how he'll do against NFL defenses when he doesn't have time to set up like that. But I was very, very impressed with how quickly he got into position to make those deep throws -- at his pro day, Blake Bortles had a tendency to hesitate and wing it on deeper stuff, leading to some weird incompletions. You can tell that the deep ball is a totally natural part of Manziel's game, especially when he's on the run and throwing deep. On occasion, he would backpedal and throw to his left, zinging the ball 30-plus yards downfield accurately and with outstanding touch. And that's tough to do no matter when environment you've created.
It's to Manziel's credit that he wanted to challenge himself in this way, and with the extra equipment. He clearly wanted to make a statement -- and he certainly did.
"It was more my idea on that stuff, especially the two rollouts on the deep slot corners," Manziel said after the fact. "They didn't know if I could go on the run and make a throw like that -- it was probably 50-something yards on the run. I felt comfortable doing it, felt extremely comfortable with Mike [Evans] running the routes. The main thing was, we were striving for perfection. One ball hit the ground, and I'm a little disappointed in that, but I wanted to make it as challenging as possible and show these guys that I'm not scared of anything. I can make any throw on this field, and hopefully compete with anybody. The receivers did a good job of making their splits perfect and breaking it off and going through everything. A ton of credit to them. Six great guys."
In addition, I liked that Manziel was able to make these throws accurately and consistently off his back foot and when he was not optimally set up in the pocket. We still need to see him excel in the pocket with pressure in his face, and that won't really happen until he hits an NFL field for the first time. But he can clearly throw under duress, and he's going to have to do it in new ways at the next level.
Former quarterback Kurt Warner, who now works for the NFL Network, was similarly impressed.
"Most guys can make the short throws," he said. "Most guys can make the intermediate throws. How do you make those deeper throws? Do you throw them the right way, and that's the thing that impresses me -- he threw the ball the right way. I don't care if you just get a completion; I want to see it thrown the right way. His deep balls -- great touch. Great trajectory. The deep plays he made on the run, and I know how difficult that is to keep your body balanced while you're running away from someone and being able to put the ball 45 yards downfield ... those things don't happen every day. Twenty of the starting quarterbacks [in the NFL] can't do those things. He was doing something consistently that not a lot of guys do."
There were other little things that impressed -- how Manziel quickly looked off the imaginary safety on shorter timing throws. How he threw from his front foot with touch and aim on seam throws of 15 to 20 yards. How he throws from low to high -- that is to say, he understands how to create velocity with his lower body and use his entire body to his benefit as a pure thrower. Yes, we know: Pro days don't tell the whole story. But in this particular case, a player who has specific questions about his NFL readiness and dedication to the game came out and showed that he's been working very hard on the things that he'll need at the next level. That's about as much as you can ask, and it makes Johnny Manziel's pro day an absolute victory.