By Russ Lande
Leading up to the Super Bowl, Sports on Earth will be offering up an introduction to five players who we are confident will be selected within the top 10 picks of the 2014 NFL draft, what NFL teams know about them and what they want to find out. We started on Monday with a look at University of Buffalo defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack, then on Tuesday we focused the spotlight on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. On Wednesday, we took aim at UCLA defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Barr, and today we take on the "elephant in the room," Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
When you watch a football game on television, it is usually easy to get an impression as to whether a quarterback has the tools to play in the NFL. With Manziel, however, it takes a lot more time studying film and breaking him down to determine what his NFL future holds. I have spoken with numerous respected NFL scouts about him, and it's an understatement to say that opinions are split. A few have told me they feel he is the best quarterback in the draft, which is high praise indeed. But on the other hand, others have actually said they would not draft him. Needless to say, opinions split that drastically on a player are rare.
The first thing that grabbed my attention is that Manziel definitely has what scouts call a "plus arm," which means he can make every NFL throw with ease. While he often looks like he is playing schoolyard football, he has consistently shown quickness in getting rid of the ball and can make throws to lead receivers that few other passers can. Both in the pocket and on the move, Manziel's ability to throw accurately 16-plus yards downfield is outstanding, and you can see from watching film that he has spent a lot of time working with his receivers, as their timing on back-shoulder throws is remarkable. Although some of his moves to escape sacks will get him killed in the NFL, he does possess a rare ability to avoid pressure and sacks to buy himself a second chance that can extend plays longer than any quarterback I have ever evaluated.
Having to throw as many passes as he did, it's also impressive that Manziel throws few, if any, passes that defenders can get their hands on. Of the top five quarterbacks I have evaluated so far (Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Bridgewater, Zach Mettenberger and Manziel), he has the lowest error/interception rate of any of them. Not only does Manziel have the passing skills to succeed in the NFL, but his ability to lead his team and carry them on his back to comebacks consistently has been incredible.
After evaluating film, I was shocked by how good Manziel is as a passer, but that's often not what people associate with him when his name comes up. Despite the media reports, nearly everything I have been able to dig up on Manziel's character has been positive. (Having worked for two NFL teams, I completely understand that scouts lie to media all the time to deceive and hide intentions, but I have tremendous confidence in my sources on this subject.) No one I spoke to will deny that Manziel can act like a spoiled kid who is still maturing as a young man, but none expressed great concern about his true character, with the consensus being that football is very important to Manziel and that he consistently does more than is asked to make sure he is successful.
Manziel is viewed within the program as a rare competitor who will do anything to succeed, and this shows in his willingness to play through pain and confront teammates when needed as leaders must do. One thing that shocked me when speaking to scouts is that prior to practice and games, Manziel actually goes through the process of making tough throws from awkward positions when he cannot set his feet and this shows up in his ability to make great throws despite terrible positioning. Not that his raw footwork is good when he has a clean pocket or time and space to reset feet, but it clearly pays dividends when outside the pocket.
Apart from positive character reports, scouts definitely expressed some real concerns that he must address in order to be as successful in the NFL as he was in college. High on that list is Manziel's tendency to overstride when trying to put extra zip on the ball, which leads to passes sailing on him. When he goes through progressions in the pocket and tries to make short (5 to 15 yard) throws quickly, his accuracy is inconsistent and too often his passes dip in front of the receiver. One issue that I found very concerning on film and addressed with NFL people is Manziel's tendency to vacate the pocket out the back, which rarely works in the NFL and can lead to major errors. He will need to become much more consistent stepping up in the pocket to avoid deep pressure if he hopes to become a successful NFL passer.
The last thing scouts raised as an issue is that Manziel is not especially large for a quarterback and needs to learn to get down or out of bounds when running with the ball. Otherwise, he will expose himself to too many violent hits, which will cause his body to break down if he does not learn to better protect himself. (Russell Wilson is a great example of a player who gains yards scrambling with the ball, but is so smart that he rarely takes a hard hit.)
Despite all of the analysis and my thorough charting out of Manziel, the debate about his likelihood for success in the NFL will likely continue until he proves himself or fails. Whatever team drafts him better have a smart offensive coordinator whose ego is not so big that he will force Manziel to fit his system. He will need to be willing to tailor an offense around Manziel's very unique skill set in order for them both to be successful.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.