- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Johnny Manziel's decision to break the mold for quarterback pro day workouts came about innocently enough, over a lunchtime conversation in February with his personal coach, George Whitfield.
That's when Whitfield proposed to the former Heisman Trophy winner that he try something that no elite quarterback prospect had previously attempted at his pro day at Texas A&M: throw passes while wearing shoulder pads and a helmet.
But Manziel, whose by-the-seat-of-his-pants style turned him into a college football folk legend, was game.
"He didn't say anything for about five minutes and he goes, 'You think we can pull that off?'" Whitfield said. "And I said, 'How do you do on Thursday practices? You've got to try to take the high-wire act out of it. It's a Thursday practice.' He goes, 'Shoot, now that you say that, I've been killing teams in pads all my life.'"
The only opponents Manziel needed to defeat at pro day were the scouts and analysts who said his skills wouldn't translate to the NFL game. But he answered those criticisms with great success, thanks in part to the carefully scripted battery of passes that Whitfield designed for the workout.
As the NFL draft begins tonight, we'll know if the pro days achieved their desired results. That's their purpose, especially for quarterbacks. They want to show off what they do well and also address any concerns about physical limitations that NFL clubs might have in order to improve their draft stock.
Manziel is not a traditional quarterback, but he had more of the typical questions to answer than did fellow SEC stars Zach Mettenberger of LSU and Aaron Murray of Georgia.
Mettenberger and Murray both underwent offseason knee surgeries following ACL tears suffered in November, so the No. 1 purpose of their April throwing sessions was to prove that they would be physically prepared to play once rookie camps begin.
"I think just my knee health and mobility was a lot in question and I was able to roll out and throw some accurate balls with something behind them," Mettenberger said after completing 93 of 107 passes at LSU's pro day.
Like Manziel, he also threw while wearing pads, giving scouts an up-close look at how the rocket-armed quarterback can perform under conditions that are more like an actual game.
"It's something that I've always believed guys should do," said LSU offensive coordinator and former NFL coach Cam Cameron, who directed Mettenberger's passing session. "Now guys get nervous about doing it because if it doesn't work out well, then they'd blame it on the pads. ... Zach had planned on doing it before we even saw [Manziel's] workout, and George [Whitfield] and I have talked about it: Some QBs can throw without a helmet and shoulder pads on. Some put a helmet and shoulder pads on and it's like they forgot how to throw."
Murray proved in becoming the SEC's all-time leading passer that he can throw just fine in helmet and pads, so he opted against wearing them at pro day. He showed the scouts a variety of drops, rollouts and agility drills in his passing session in order to alleviate concerns about his knee.
Murray completed 48 of 54 passes in the session -- including three drops -- and said afterward that he accomplished his main goal.
"Pro day's a huge day for everyone, just the amount of hype that gets put on every player about their pro day and their performance," Murray said. "I think it was a little bigger considering that it was the first time that I was moving and cutting and showing off in front of people. I've always been doing it by myself for the past month, but my first time showing everyone that I am healthy, so I guess there was a little added something-something."
Scouts visit every pro day with questions in need of answers. Is the quarterback capable of taking snaps under center? Can he throw the intermediate and deep routes that NFL quarterbacks must be able to complete? Can he do it with enough velocity?
For instance, Whitfield worked with eventual No. 1 overall picks Cam Newton and Andrew Luck prior to recent drafts and structured each quarterback's workout differently to respond to some of those concerns.
Newton, one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in SEC history, needed to prove that he could function as a traditional quarterback. He threw 35 passes -- all after taking a snap from under center -- at a private media workout and then threw again at the NFL combine and at the Tigers' team pro day.
Newton was trying to pass Missouri's Blaine Gabbert to become the top quarterback selected, though. Already the presumptive No. 1 pick, Luck didn't have to do anything as ambitious as throw in pads at his pro day.
"It really wouldn't have made sense to try to do that with Luck. ... He's already up front. Go in, answer all the questions, roll," Whitfield said.
But Manziel also had plenty of issues to address -- such as whether he was able to tone down the backyard football routine that made him a household name and also succeed as a pocket passer.
That's where his pro day was a smashing success. If Manziel has in fact changed the pro day process, it's because of the splash he created that afternoon. He took 66 snaps -- all under center, using a variety of drop depths -- and completed most. And he still did it with some of his "Johnny Football" swagger, with rap music playing in the background and even a chest bump or two after big plays.
"We wanted to make it challenging," Manziel told ESPN.com afterward. "We wanted to show that we didn't have anything to hide and that we could come out here and go through our seven-step footwork, go through all the footwork that we thought these guys wanted to see."
But it didn't come without extra work. Whitfield knew running Manziel through 60-plus pass attempts would be laborious, particularly with the pads, so he devoted part of their training regimen to building Manziel's endurance. Their preparation sessions in San Diego often included 70 or 75 throws so that Manziel's physical burden wouldn't feel particularly heavy when the big day arrived.
"If you go out and pick a fight like that -- which is basically what we did -- if you go out there and you choose to do that, you'd better go and train like Clubber Lang on the back end, from 'Rocky III,'" Whitfield said. "There ain't no such thing as having some mai tais and talking about it and hoping for everything to be the best."
Making all the throws
Slightly undersized quarterbacks Murray and Manziel aren't blessed with the powerful throwing arm that the 6-foot-5 Mettenberger possesses, so another component of their workouts was to prove that they can be NFL-caliber passers.
Manziel showed off a genuine talent throwing the deep ball at his pro day, while Murray looked sharp even while throwing some of the tougher downfield routes toward the sideline.
Murray's personal coach Terry Shea -- a former NFL assistant who has worked with quarterbacks such as Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Robert Griffin III during the run-up to recent drafts -- said it showed scouts exactly what they needed to see.
"I want to see that his mechanics are clean, first of all, as a quarterback," Shea said. "At the NFL level, you can't afford to try to reinvent the wheel, so you've got to have a clean mechanical quarterback in his throwing, and that's what Aaron demonstrates. They want to see what kind of ball he has where he has to drive it about 10 feet off the ground rather than 15 feet. So you try to demonstrate that, and Aaron can drive the ball."
Let's be honest, everything around Manziel feels like a circus. His pro day was no different, and Whitfield said he could detect both curiosity and doubt in the air when pro scouts gathered to watch Johnny Football do his thing.
"It's not like even all those NFL people are fans," Whitfield said. "Some of them really want to be proved right in saying, 'Let's go, let's get this on, let's just see it. There couldn't possibly be anything we saw down in Orlando [at Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles' pro day]. And from a long-term standpoint, you're not even as good as the kid up in Louisville [Teddy Bridgewater]. But let's go kid, you have your chance.' You had that feeling in there, too.
"Then there was just some intrigue just to see, 'OK, what can you do? Are you going to throw the ball off your chest and catch it back again and throw it? What are you going to do?' And I told him, 'You'll already speak volumes just by accepting the challenge of gearing up. But for us, it's a Thursday practice, when everybody else it's a walk-through. Let's treat it like that."
It remains to be seen where Manziel, Mettenberger and Murray end up once this draft concludes. Manziel is probably the only first-round pick in the group, but all three should be off the board by the third or fourth round.
Obviously the teams that select these players will have taken into account far more than what they accomplished at pro day, but it also can play a major role. It allowed Mettenberger and Murray to prove that their knees are rapidly improving, and it allowed Manziel to show that there's more to his game than the high-wire routine that makes him so exciting to watch.
If a quarterback's résumé was enough to attract the right personnel execs to pro day, it can make a big difference. Just ask Shea, who has participated in the draft both with NFL teams and as a coach to some of the players.
"If the right decision-makers are at this kind of an event, it's huge. If it's just the quarterback coach, sometimes the quarterback coach has to go back and report what he saw in person. And that plays a part in the decision. But you like to have the head coach at these kind of events, and the general manager if possible, because that helps. You'd better find a way to be on the field with the NFL quarterback that you're going to draft out of college."
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