Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (Greg Nelson/SI)
The Browns were involved in three trades in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, and the third one may very well end up being the most impactful. To move up to 22 from 26, the Browns gave up a third-round pick and got Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for their trouble. And though there's been a lot of focus on Manziel's off-field drama, he's also a special athlete -- and with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan fresh off his time with Robert Griffin III, this looks to be a potentially perfect fit.
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.
Getting Manziel at this spot is a win for both sides. The Browns get the quarterback they so clearly need, and Manziel gets the pressure taken off a bit. The question is, who mentors him? New head coach Mike Pettine is a tough guy, Shanahan really isn't, but the risk has been taken. The upside is enormous, and the potential pitfall is just as deep.
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