Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Draft 2014 [Print without images]

Monday, May 5, 2014
Manziel the next Russell Wilson?

By Sharon Katz and Toby Petitpas
ESPN Stats & Info

Heading into the 2014 NFL draft, several questions have emerged regarding Johnny Manziel's ability to make the transition to the pro game:

Is he too short? Can he throw from the pocket? Will he be able to outrun NFL defensive ends?

Manziel has tried to answer these questions in the weeks before the draft. He had a strong performance at the combine and received rave reviews for his performance, in shoulder pads and a helmet, at his pro day. Yet the questions remain.

Russell Wilson faced similar questions heading into the 2012 NFL draft. He ended up being selected in the third round, the sixth quarterback off the board. He has since played like a top-10 pick.

No starting quarterback in the past two years has won more games -- including playoff games and Super Bowl XLVIII -- than Wilson. His Total QBR ranks seventh in the NFL during his two seasons.

Manziel, during two seasons at Texas A&M, exhibited many of the same on-field characteristics that Wilson showed in college. Besides the obvious height comparison, both players showcased an ability to extend plays and excel on third down. And each refined his passing skill in his final collegiate season.

Ability to extend plays

Manziel showed a knack for making something out of nothing. He had 521 more rushing yards and 27 more first downs on scrambles than any other AQ quarterback in the past two seasons, and he led the SEC during that time with 29 rushes that gained 20 yards or more; about 72 percent of those runs were scrambles.

If you include his passing on scrambles, Texas A&M gained 2,546 yards as a result of Manziel's scrambling during his career. If you were to subtract those yards from Texas A&M's total, the Aggies would have gone from the third-most yards in the nation to 26th.

Two of Manziel's signature plays came when the play broke down. In 2012 at Alabama, Manziel had what many people considered his "Heisman Moment." After taking the snap, he spun, lost the ball, recovered it and then threw a touchdown to Ryan Swope in the middle of the end zone. In his final game for A&M, Manziel rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to defeat Duke, highlighted by a 19-yard touchdown pass on a play in which he jumped into one of his own lineman and then scrambled out to his left to find a wide-open receiver.

Wilson showed a similar ability during his final college season at Wisconsin. On scrambles, he led all AQ players with 416 rushing yards and 18 rushes that gained at least 10 yards.

Both players changed the course of games with their ability to extend plays. They each averaged at least nine yards per carry on scrambles and gained a first down on at least 40 percent of such carries. On third-and-long (seven or more yards to go), Wilson and Manziel ranked first and second in most rushing first downs during the past eight seasons.

Third down

Speaking of third down, often that's where an NFL quarterback makes his money. In the past five seasons, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck have led the NFL in third-down QBR. Those players had a combined record of 228-96 during that span.

Collegiate performance on third down can be correlated to NFL success. Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson all had a third-down Total QBR of 90 or higher in their final collegiate season. Manziel had a 97.0 third-down Total QBR while at Texas A&M, the highest for any qualified Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback in the past 10 seasons (as far back as ESPN has QBR data).

In Wilson's final season at Wisconsin, he led the nation with a 95.5 QBR and 16 touchdowns on third down.

Passing accuracy

One of the most underrated parts of Manziel's game is his accuracy from the pocket. He led all AQ players this season with a 73.5 completion percentage from inside the pocket. He completed at least 65 percent of such passes in every game during his sophomore season except for the Aggies' loss to LSU.

Manziel was not just completing short throws as a result of Texas A&M's spread offense. One out of every four passes he attempted from the pocket traveled at least 15 yards. On such throws, Manziel completed an SEC-high 54.9 percent, more than 15 percentage points higher than the AQ average (39.5 percent).

Just like Manziel, Wilson was outstanding from the pocket during his final FBS season. Wilson led the nation with a 76.3 completion percentage from the pocket and threw only three interceptions in 224 such attempts.

One difference is Manziel had several more interceptions from inside the pocket. With the Aggies' defense ranked last in the SEC in points per game allowed, Manziel took more chances and made more big plays.

Size and measurables

• Height: Since 2006, six quarterbacks have measured under 6 feet tall at the NFL combine. Wilson and Manziel were two of them.

But height has not seemed to affect their play. As noted, they were two of the top passers from the pocket, and neither player had more than three passes batted down in his final collegiate season despite playing behind offensive lines that had similar size to that of the average NFL offensive lineman (6-5, 312 pounds).

• Hand size: Both players have hand sizes that rank in the top 70 percent among quarterbacks. Hand size has shown to be more predictive of NFL success than height.

There have been 36 players with a hand size larger than or equal to Manziel's (9.88 inches) since 2008; 31 percent started at least eight NFL games, and four have made the Pro Bowl, including Wilson.

• Speed/quickness: As seen in their scrambling numbers, Manziel and Wilson were two of the most elusive quarterbacks during the past three FBS seasons.

Their results at the combine confirmed that, as prospects, each possessed NFL-level quickness and ability to change direction. There have been 108 quarterbacks since 2008 that have attempted the 20-yard shuttle. Wilson and Manziel ranked in the top five in that test. They were both quicker than the average running back and wide receiver at the combine since 2008.

The similarities between Wilson and Manziel in college are undeniable. They both produced at a high level and led their teams to improbable victories.

Wilson has successfully made the transition to the NFL. If Manziel continues down the same path as Wilson and stays healthy, he too can have a long, successful NFL career.