Projecting Johnny Manziel magic in NFL?

February, 28, 2014
2/28/14
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Johnny ManzielChuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesSteve Muench of Scouts Inc. says Johnny Manziel's freewheeling style doesn't translate to the NFL.
Russell Wilson's success is the worst thing that could have happened to the 2014 draft debate. Suddenly, no one thinks twice about projecting an exciting but undersized quarterback prospect as the No. 1 overall pick.

Here is the problem: Johnny Manziel is no Russell Wilson, who proved off the charts in every way except height in 2012 -- and still lasted until the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the third round. There seems little doubt that someone will make Manziel a first-round draft choice this spring, but the Houston Texans would be wrong to do it at No. 1 overall. The best parts of his college game will be less effective in the NFL, and there are at least four players in this draft -- including two quarterbacks -- who would make more sense at No. 1.

I discussed Manziel at length this week with Steve Muench of Scouts Inc., which evaluates and ranks college players for ESPN. Neither of us is sitting in the Texans' personnel meetings, of course, but we agreed on this set of scenarios if it were up to us:

If the Texans want a fresh start at quarterback to begin the Bill O'Brien Era, which makes perfect sense, they would be better off with Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. If they are concerned about Bridgewater's stature or "upside," O'Brien's background as a quarterback guru would justify the selection of Central Florida's Blake Bortles, who probably needs some development time.

Should O'Brien desire a lower-round quarterback to develop, Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson is worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. And if the Texans are willing to take a risk in exchange for perhaps the biggest reward of the 2014 draft, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would look awfully imposing on the same defense with All-Pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt.

Manziel isn't a risky pick as much as he would simply be overrated at No. 1 overall. The myth begins with the idea that Wilson paved the way for Manziel to be accepted by NFL talent evaluators in a way that he was not. It's true both measured under 6-feet at their respective combines, and each ran the second-fastest 40 times for quarterbacks there. But Wilson's time was notably faster (4.55 compared to 4.68), and his hand measurement (10 1/4 inches compared to 9 7/8) gives him more control and better accuracy. His legendary leadership qualities, meanwhile, stand in contrast to Manziel's uneven off-field resume.

Most important, Wilson demonstrated in his final college season that he could excel as a pocket passer. Manziel struggled in that regard against SEC schools such as LSU and Missouri last season, requiring far more projection work than should be necessary for the No. 1 overall pick.

There is no doubt Manziel has some unique physical traits and running instincts that helped him make some special plays at Texas A&M. But an NFL team hoping to capture that magic outside of the pocket is going to be disappointed, according to Muench.

"What he's known for is his ability to extend plays and make highlight reel-type plays," Muench said. "That's entertaining and exciting to watch, but it doesn't really translate well to the NFL in the long term. He's going against better athletes who will do a better job of keeping him bottled up. The SEC is the best college conference, but it's not the NFL. There will be better athletes doing a better job of keeping him in the pocket there. Defensive coordinators, the more tape they see of his tendencies, the tougher it's going to be for him to win with pure athletic ability.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergJohnny Manziel, center, hopes to be the No. 1 overall pick by Houston in May. His competition includes Teddy Bridgewater, left, and Blake Bortles.
"What we haven't seen, and maybe I'm being especially tough on him, is consistent success in the pocket. I don't know what he brings to you there. I think he has a hard time seeing the field. Has a hard time getting rid of the ball quickly. He's always trying to make something big happen."

Scouts Inc. gave Manziel a "4" rating for accuracy, Insider which is below average. If you're considering him at No. 1 overall, you're either planning an offense that features him scrambling as a primary strategy -- an unenviable task for a 5-11, 207-pound player -- or you're hoping he can remake his game. All successful NFL quarterbacks, regardless of athletic ability, make plays consistently from the pocket. In my mind, the No. 1 overall pick shouldn't enter the league needing a makeover.

"If you're a general manager," Muench said, "you ask, is this a quarterback who can take us to the Super Bowl? I'm not sure how you can be confident saying that given what Manziel will be up against. Can he make those changes? Sure. But that's a lot of projecting."

So what then? The Texans need a long-term plan at quarterback, and if they decide to go that route in 2014, Muench suggests Bridgewater because of his accuracy, sophistication in the pocket and toughness. Bortles is bigger, but still has good pocket mobility and, Muench said, "I wouldn't argue with them if that's who they decided to draft."

Robinson will be some team's left tackle for the next decade, but the Texans are two years removed from signing incumbent Duane Brown to a $53.4 million contract. That brings us to Clowney, who shook up the combine by running his 40 faster than Manziel -- and Wilson, for that matter -- at 4.53 seconds. Pass-rushers are perhaps the second-most valued commodity in football after quarterbacks, and the role of dominant defensive fronts in recent Super Bowl victories -- the 2007 New York Giants and 2013 Seahawks, among others -- makes Clowney a tempting choice to pair with Watt.

Clowney requires some projection, but it's a different kind than Manziel. To take Clowney at No. 1 overall, you must believe that his freakish athletic skills will generate more production in the NFL than they did in college. To be fair, that is hardly an unprecedented expectation. Last season's No. 5 overall pick, Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, nearly doubled his college sack total (4.5) as an NFL rookie (8.0). It can happen.

I will admit 2014 is the Year of Manziel. If you have a pick in the top half of the first round, one of your first decisions is to make a call on him. We've done that. The assessment here, based on Muench's extensive feedback, is the Texans would be better off taking Bridgewater, Bortles, Robinson or Clowney than Manziel at No. 1.

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