|ESPN.com: NFL||[Print without images]|
|Very large hands are just two of the reasons Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is such a dynamic and promising NFL QB prospect.|
I spent the last month trying to talk myself into Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, EJ Manuel and any of the other can't-miss quarterbacks in this draft crop. I finally agreed with Hall of Fame QB and Denver executive vice president John Elway, who said he was glad he didn't need a quarterback this year.
Next year will be very different.
Next year, if Johnny Manziel enters the draft after three years at Texas A&M, as he almost certainly will, some lucky team picking at or near the top will get the rookie equivalent of Robert Griffin III.
Yes, I'm already ready to go out on this limb faster than Johnny Football gets to end zones: He'll be a National Football League STAR. Everything about this kid is RARE. We're talking Michael Vick meets Doug Flutie meets Fran Tarkenton meets Brett Favre meets Drew Brees -- with a sometimes dangerous dose of Broadway Joe Namath thrown in off the field.
This kid will lead the league in total yards and splash.
Crazy talk? I've been pretty good at evaluating quarterbacks over the years -- more on that in a moment. I'm just listening to my eyes.
My TV screen did not lie when Manziel took apart Nick Saban's Alabama defense in Tuscaloosa or when he embarrassed my Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. Think about this: In America's toughest conference, the SEC, 19-year-old first-year starter Manziel shattered Cam Newton's single-season total offense record IN TWO FEWER GAMES, then merely became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
I'll also be the first to predict that, before next year's draft, some bad team picking high -- some think-inside-the-box outfit -- will try talking itself OUT of Manziel. Too short. Too uncoachable. Too much of Bad Brett Favre, a gamblin' scrambler. Too Flutie and not enough mighty-armed Elway.
For very different reasons, Johnny Football will become the most polarizing draftee since another college legend, Tim Tebow, went 25th in the first round to Denver (before Elway took over).
Over the phone from Lubbock, new Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury couldn't resist gigging me. Last year, Kingsbury served as Manziel's coordinator at Texas A&M. Kingsbury dryly said: "Skip, Johnny's better than Tebow."
Without hesitation,: "I agree. Way better."
I've been known as Tebow's biggest (and sometimes only) media supporter. Yet all I said before Tebow's draft was that I would take him late in the first round because he can win games as a starting quarterback in the NFL. Did he ever, when given the opportunity in his second season in Denver.
Manziel can be THE reason an NFL team wins Super Bowls. He is wildly athletic -- as fast as he is quick -- with a lightning release and a deadly accurate arm capable of picking you apart or burning you deep.
I could almost hear Kingsbury's eyes roll when I asked about Manziel's doubters. As Texas Tech's QB, Kingsbury set 17 NCAA passing records before he was drafted in the sixth round by New England and bounced around three other NFL teams. "I've seen my share of arms," he said. "I have never seen anything like this."
Kingsbury continued in a "trust me" tone. "The ball just jumps out of his hand. … His hand is so big it just engulfs yours. It really helps that he can wrap his hand all the way around the ball. … There's nothing 'little' about him. He's put together [and listed at 200 pounds]."
|Kingsbury had his own experience to draw on when coaching Manziel.|
Kingsbury continued: "He just has that aura when he walks on the field. He just knows he's the best player, even at Alabama. … He's just so football instinctive that he can extend plays and keep you guessing then hit you with a 50-yard strike or outrun you 80 to the end zone. ... He made three throws late at Alabama that were as good as I've seen."
Including the game-breaker, a beautifully arced corner route over Dee Milliner, the cornerback the Jets took ninth overall to replace Darrelle Revis. "Most fearless player I've ever been around," Kingsbury said.
I mentioned that when Manziel bolts into secondaries he often makes defenders miss as if he's a punt returner. Kingsbury stunned me by comparing Manziel with the player I thought was the best in this draft, Tavon Austin, who went eighth to St. Louis. "Lot of similarities to the 300 yards Tavon Austin had against Oklahoma," Kingsbury said of Austin's 344 yards on 21 carries. Manziel went for 229 yards on 17 carries and added 287 yards passing for a Cotton Bowl record 516 total yards.
And remember, Manziel isn't befuddling college defenses with a read-option scheme. Kingsbury said A&M ran no more than 10 option plays all season.
Do I think Manziel is as fast as a young Vick? Not quite, but take it from Heisman winner Flutie, who spent time around Manziel at the Heisman ceremony and has studied his game as an NBC analyst: "Johnny can split defensive backs the way Vick did. Just that one cut between two guys and he's gone. ... Johnny has my quickness, but he's much faster than I was downfield. ... But Johnny's like Fran Tarkenton was. He understands the advantage of scrambling behind the line to restart the play. ... He throws the deep ball very well."
Can he stay healthy in the NFL? "I think Johnny won't get as banged up [as other running QBs]," Flutie said. "Robert [Griffin III] is more long and lanky. Johnny's just so elusive, and at his size, he'll be smart enough to get down."
Will Manziel be coachable? "We put a ton on our quarterbacks, and by the sixth or seventh game, he was really good, checking us into the right plays," Kingsbury said. "But a couple of times against Arkansas [453 yards passing and three touchdowns and 104 yards running and another TD] he came off after scoring a touchdown and said, 'My bad' [because he had broken the play]. I just shrugged and high-fived him and said, 'It's all good.'"
Can Manziel be an NFL star? Flutie, who was a spectacular scrambler and made a Pro Bowl in 1998, said: "Absolutely. Of course, I'm for the little guys. Breezy [Brees] isn't quite 6 feet."
Flutie's concern: "A kid with his athleticism can get lazy."
Yes, a 20-year-old playing in the SEC could feel like he doesn't have much left to prove. He could get careless, as Manziel sometimes has off the field. That's why it's too bad NFL rules prevented Manziel from being in last week's draft. He is made far more for pro than college football.
|Flutie is in a unique position to evaluate Manziel's pro potential.|
Manziel is taking courses online because, he says, he's often mobbed on campus. Manziel has played fast and loose on Twitter, posting pictures of his winnings at a casino and partying with his buddies or with his model girlfriend. In interviews, Manziel handles himself like a 30-year-old. In truth, said Kingsbury, "He's just a kid trying to figure all this out."
The most troubling incident happened before Johnny Football became nationally famous. On June 29, in the wee hours, Manziel and a close friend were leaving a College Station bar when the friend called a passing black man a racial slur, according to a police officer's written statement and reported by Sports Illustrated. The black man came after Manziel's friend. Manziel intervened and tried to calm the man down by saying his friend hadn't meant what he said. The man swung at Manziel, who hit back. Manziel was arrested and found to have two fake IDs. The officer said Manziel appeared to be so intoxicated he couldn't answer questions.
If NFL teams shy away from Manziel because of any issue raised by this incident, that will be understandable. But any team that passes on him based strictly on football evaluation will make a monumental mistake.
On "First Take" over the years, I've predicted before the draft that RG III will prove to be better than Luck, that Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder will always frustrate their fans, that Sam Bradford was being way overdrafted and overpaid, that I wasn't sold on Mark Sanchez but that Josh Freeman was a steal at 17th overall (in 2009), that JaMarcus Russell would be a huge mistake at No. 1 overall (in 2007) and Brady Quinn (also 2007) was just a backup and that Vince Young and Jay Cutler would be much better than Matt Leinart.
I missed on Russell Wilson, but apparently Seattle, and the other 31 NFL teams, weren't quite sure, either; he wasn't taken until the 75th overall pick, in the third round. But Wilson's stunning success, at about 5-11 and 206 pounds, certainly helped blaze the trail for Manziel.
Still, as Kingsbury and Flutie stressed, the team that drafts Manziel must completely buy into what he does. Young was offensive rookie of the year, made two Pro Bowls and went 31-19 as a starter in spite of Jeff Fisher, who wasn't completely on board with drafting him third overall.
"What Mike Shanahan did for RG III was masterful," Kingsbury said. "You have to build an offense around Johnny. You can't force a square peg in a round hole."
Then again, maybe it won't matter what offense a team tries to make Manziel run.
Before we hung up, Kingsbury repeated: "Never seen anything like this."