The SI 64, No. 13: QB Johnny Manziel
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. Holding the 13th spot in our rankings is the quarterback who, for all kinds of reasons, may define this draft when all is said and done.
Bio: Johnny Manziel has produced more noise, both positive and negative, than any collegiate prospect since Tim Tebow flew out of Florida in 2010. The point at which it all got away from him may have been when ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, one of the better-educated and well-respected people in the business, famously said that he wouldn't take Manziel in the first three rounds of the draft, based on Jaworski's own preferences for quarterbacks who play within the pocket and within structure. This created its own news cycle, of course, and now that Jaws has seen more Manziel tape, he's backed off his stance and pushed Johnny Football up his board.
Jon Gruden, another current ESPN analyst who crunches a great deal of tape, had a more positive opinion after sitting down with Manziel for his QB Camp series.
"I had more fun with Manziel than I did most guys," Gruden told USA Today's Jim Corbett. "I'd love to have him. It takes courage to pull the ball down and reverse field and do some of the crazy things that Favre and Manziel do. There's going to be consequences when sometimes it doesn't work out. But it takes a tremendous amount of guts and courage to go make a play when there's nothing there instead of throwing the ball away."
And that's Manziel in a nutshell. He will make plays other quarterbacks simply won't, and will try to make plays no quarterback should, and alternately inspire and frustrate in equal measures. But here's one thing to be sure: Nobody completes 68.9 percent of his passes for 7,820 yards, 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, adding 2,169 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns, without something on the ball. The question is, of course, how will this all transfer to the (cue Jaworski voice): "National. Football. League?"
Strengths: With all the folderol about his on-field escapades and off-field persona, it's quite possible that Manziel is still wildly underrated as a pure quarterback -- but he has all the tools to succeed at any level. First, he's not a run-around guy. He looks to pass first on designed pass plays, even when he's flushed out of the pocket. He's very light on his feet in the pocket, and when he has to run, he's incredibly good at resetting and driving the ball downfield. Has an unusual feel for throwing accurately out of weird positions, which is both a positive and negative. When he drives the ball, he can make any throw from the deep fade to the skinny post to all manner of short and intermediate timing throws. Has a plus-arm, though it's not a Howitzer, and he's learned to put air under the ball to help receivers with their timing. He's a master at extending plays beyond their logical conclusions and directing receivers along the way. Has an innate sense of how to create holes in pass coverage with motion and redirection, and he's coming into the NFL at a time when this attribute is far more prized than it used to be.
Manziel isn't just a scrambler, he's an outstanding pure runner -- when he calls his own number on draws, he gets up to speed quickly, reads gaps patiently and has an extra gear in the open field. He's very quick to set and throw -- once he makes his decision to throw, there's very little delay or wasted motion. Can make deep, accurate throws across his body, even when on the run. In general, he's a rare thrower when under duress.
Manziel showed specific and impressive improvements at his pro day, which proved that he's been working hard in the offseason, and taking what performance coaches George Whitfield and Kevin O'Connell are teaching him very seriously. Clearly has the desire to improve, and seems to have an inherent chip on his shoulder when doubted. Despite all the talk about his personality, Manziel appears to be a born on-field leader who can rally his teammates. With words and actions, he seems to inspire belief.
Weaknesses: Manziel's greatest strength is absolutely tied to his biggest weakness. His improvisational ability, while as impressive as any I've seen in a collegiate quarterback, has allowed him to get away with random and unrepeatable plays that won't have the same shelf life in the NFL. Part of the problem is that he isn't consistent with his mechanics -- when he drives through the throw with his body, he's as good a passer as there is in this draft class. But there are other times when he'll miss wildly because he's throwing off his back foot or off both feet, which limits how much torque he can generate. And though he can go through multiple reads at times, he'll have to do that more at the NFL level. Right now, there's a sandlot quality to his field vision that produces compelling results at times, but isn't sustainable against more complex concepts. At times, his deeper throws hang in the air, which could lead to more picks in the NFL.
Played almost exclusively in shotgun and pistol formations at A&M, and though he displayed an ease with dropping back when playing under center, the NFL team that takes him as a dropback guy would have to cross its fingers at first. Being away from the center gives him a timing edge at the snap and helps him see the field.
Tends to arch back when he throws longer passes with arc -- not necessarily a problem, but it's unusual. It may be an adaptive strategy to counter the issue related to his height; at just under 6-feet tall, Manziel has to work his game in the same ways everyone from Fran Tarkenton to Drew Brees to Russell Wilson has. There are simply some throws he will not be able to make in the pocket because he can't see what's happening until he either creates line splits by running, or waits for them to open up. And at 207 pounds, there will be legitimate concerns about how well and how often he'll be able to make plays on the run in designed situations. If that part of his play is reduced, that puts the pressure on him to do more as a passer -- which he has the potential to do, but he'll have to change some things about his modus operandi to make that happen.
Conclusion: Separating Johnny Manziel the media creation from Johnny Manziel the quarterback is hard to do at times, and that's his own fault as much as anyone else's. But we'll end the analyst breakdown with what former NFL quarterback (and possible future Hall of Famer) Kurt Warner said about Manziel after Manziel's pro day, as it seems to wrap his potential up pretty nicely.
“Most guys can make the short throws. 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.”
And that's why some NFL team will take Manziel in the first part of the first round of the 2014 draft, red flags be damned: His ability to transcend the norm is special and rare and unusual. If he corrals what he has and manages it to a new level, he could well be a spectacular NFL quarterback in the right system. If he doesn't, he'll likely be a spectacular flameout. Johnny Manziel's NFL future could go either way, but one thing's for sure ... it won't be boring.