Is Johnny Manziel ready for the NFL?
Shifting QB trends could make Heisman winner most fascinating prospect of 2014
ast spring, on a fairly nondescript morning in San Diego, the college football universe shifted in unforeseeable ways. An ambitious third-string quarterback from Texas A&M -- a kid with ordinary size and a quick smile -- had come to work with George Whitfield, a noted quarterback mentor who had trained the likes of NFL stars Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in recent years. All Johnny Manziel wanted was an opportunity to grow. With a new coaching staff in College Station and former Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill having become the eighth selection in the 2012 draft, Manziel sensed his chance to snatch his team's starting job.
Whitfield didn't know much about Manziel when he told the 19-year-old from Kerrville, Texas, to lace up his cleats and warm up. He learned plenty in the minutes that followed. As Whitfield walked away to set up a drill, Manziel grabbed the coach by the arm and said, "If you help me iron out my throwing motion, I'll take it from there." Whitfield nodded and quickly turned to get back to what he was doing. That's when Manziel tugged at the coach's arm again. "I don't think you understand," Manziel said intensely. "You teach me this and I'll go tear it up."
It wasn't merely the confidence Manziel displayed that morning that made Whitfield believe the teenager was unique. It was the certainty that blew Whitfield away. It wasn't enough that Manziel's mother had set up this tutorial to help her son improve his game in time for that year's spring practices at A&M. Manziel was seeing far beyond controlled scrimmages and an upcoming quarterback competition with two other underclassmen. He was anticipating his destiny and telling Whitfield that he had better be ready to keep up.
That combination of intensity and athleticism propelled Manziel to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. The question he likely will face after this coming season is whether it's enough to make him a successful NFL quarterback. It's easy to see him entering the draft with another great year -- Manziel will be eligible after spending three seasons in college (he redshirted in 2011) -- and he recently told ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, "You never know how things might play out; if an opportunity comes to go to the NFL, you have to evaluate that just like you evaluate everything else in your life." The harder scenario to predict, however, is how the league will receive Manziel once he does enter the draft.
If 2003 standards were still in vogue, 6-foot-1, 208-pound Manziel might be written off as a fluke force of nature, a more skilled Tim Tebow or a slightly taller Doug Flutie. Because it's 2013, Manziel is facing an NFL that is far more excited about the possibilities of dual-threat signal-callers, primarily because of the recent success of versatile stars such as Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.
As one NFC general manager said, "Johnny Manziel isn't the same kind of guy as a Russell Wilson. Russell Wilson is mature way beyond his years. Manziel is more like a Brett Favre. He's got some cowboy in him. Plus, mobility is way higher on the charts now, and he definitely has that."
"Johnny has enough of the physical stuff [to succeed in the NFL]," said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer. "He has enough arm strength. He obviously has sick feet. But more than anything, he has high-level NFL instincts. When you watch him play, there are things he does that I knew I needed to do to be a great player. And I could never do those things."
Dilfer became a Manziel fan late last year. Despite rarely watching college football, Dilfer found himself on the couch one afternoon as Manziel led A&M in a road win against eventual national champion Alabama. Most people believe Manziel won the Heisman that day as he bamboozled the Crimson Tide with 345 total yards and two touchdowns in a 29-24 Aggies victory. Dilfer was mesmerized by the flashes of brilliance he saw on his TV screen that day, so much so that he kept asking himself one question: "What is that?"
The simple answer is that it's a sign of the times. As Alabama coach Nick Saban told Sports Illustrated, "Johnny Manziel may be the most challenging player in college football right now." Former A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, said he became a better pass-blocker because of Manziel's ability to extend plays. Another former A&M teammate, receiver Ryan Swope, added that the "one word that describes [Manziel] is elusive. He's a playmaker when he's back there. He can make people miss."
That electric athleticism helped Manziel produce some crazy numbers in his redshirt freshman season -- 3,706 passing yards, 1,410 rushing yards and 47 touchdowns (26 passing, 21 rushing). As much as the wide-open offense of Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin played into those statistics, Manziel's success revealed that he could be just as special in the right NFL offense. He completed 68 percent of his passes, and more than 900 of his rushing yards resulted from scrambling. Whitfield has studied several recent pro quarterbacks -- including Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and Newton -- who excel at improvisation. Said Whitfield: "Johnny may already be better at that aspect than those guys were at the same age."
The other dynamic that plays into Manziel's favor is the evolution of offensive football in the NFL. Dilfer said a recent study indicated that 44 percent of the pass plays called in today's game actually work as called. That means the remainder of those plays require a sandlot mentality. Said one AFC quarterbacks coach: "In today's game, there's the play that is called and the play that actually happens. You need quarterbacks who can handle those situations when things break down."
"It used to be that being 6-foot-2 was the cutoff for playing quarterback in the NFL unless you did other things to justify your presence," Dilfer said. "But if you can threaten the line of scrimmage with your athleticism and ability to create space, you're dangerous. Whether it's quickness or instincts or however you impact the game, it doesn't matter how big you are. You're making life harder on the defensive linemen because they don't know what you're going to do."
If there is one player Manziel can thank for whatever opportunities he gets in the NFL, it is Wilson. While Griffin, Luck and Tannehill were being hyped for their potential as pro quarterbacks before last year's draft, Wilson was hoping to find one team that believed in his future. He had stunning statistics from his college days at NC State and Wisconsin and so much natural leadership ability that Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey called him the most impressive prospect he had interviewed in 25 years of assessing college players. The problem was that too many talent evaluators saw a player who stood 5-11 before they thought about anything else, and he wasn't drafted until the third round.
The anonymous quarterbacks coach who spoke for this story was one such person. After Wilson used a potent mix of savvy and mobility to help lead Seattle to the playoffs, that coach altered his thinking. "I realized the league is changing," he said. "Defenses are able to get to the quarterback more often than ever, and there are enough goofy coverages that they can take away the idea of throwing in rhythm. Feel for the game means more now. Understanding how to slide in the pocket and extend a play has greater significance. It breaks a team's back when a quarterback can gain 6 yards after the defense has him in trouble."
"The NFL is definitely becoming more open-minded to what a quarterback is supposed to be," said former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who has trained several top draft picks, including Griffin, Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford. "It used to be that coaches didn't believe you could throw routes that required three-step drops out of the shotgun [formation]. Now you see teams throwing every route out of the shotgun. And that means size doesn't mean as much anymore."
What does matter just as much is maturity and leadership ability. Wilson won people over with his character, but Manziel is earning a reputation as a kid who loves to play as much as he loves to work. His post-Heisman victory tour included hanging out with rap star Drake, watching marquee NBA games from courtside seats and partying in spots where people were far too willing to snap photos that reached the Internet. Most of this comes down to a 20-year-old kid from an affluent family enjoying the fruits of his labor, but another NFC general manager said, "If he decided to make good decisions off the field more consistently, he'd have a chance [to succeed] with his ability and the way our league is evolving."
Whitfield has become a close friend of Manziel's and swears that success hasn't tainted the kid who was just hoping to earn a job last season. If anything, Manziel has seen just as many negatives as positives come with his newfound fame. When he left the stadium after the Alabama game, he had four policemen escorting him and couldn't even see where the Aggies' team bus was after being separated from his teammates. Manziel had expected a huge game going into that contest, and his world had been turned upside down as a result.
"I told him he was going to go into that game as one thing and come out as something totally different," Whitfield said. "Now he has to send a friend to get a sandwich from his favorite sub shop because [Manziel] will get mobbed. He has to get gas early in the morning or late at night because fans will stop their cars and take pictures. But this is still a kid who came from a town of 5,000 people. [Kerrville's population is actually more than 20,000.] He did a lot of this on his own, and he understands more work needs to be done."
When Whitfield worked with Manziel last spring, the goals they mapped out were pretty ambitious for a kid who hadn't played at all the previous season. They wanted to make sure he had: (1) a clean throwing motion, (2) a solid understanding of how to transfer his weight so he wasn't relying solely on his arm when releasing the ball, and (3) the discipline to stay balanced on deep throws (to improve his accuracy) and to be as consistent in his timing as possible. The stuff outside the pocket wouldn't be a problem. It was making Manziel more dangerous inside that area that ultimately would take his game to new levels.
If Manziel decides to enter next year's NFL draft, he'll have to show even more improvement and brace himself for some predictable questions. Some scouts already question his durability -- "When you look at his size, the right shot could send him to the hospital at the next level," said the AFC personnel director -- but Dilfer believes Manziel has the necessary physical makeup. "He has a big butt, big thighs and a thick frame," Dilfer said. "He's not going to get hurt as easily as people think."
A&M quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley, who spent 10 years coaching in the NFL and served as Favre's offensive coordinator in Green Bay, told Aggiesports.com, "[Manziel] has huge hands and I can't tell you how important that is in the NFL. He has a quick release and is a lot more accurate than given credit for. I don't see his size being a hindrance. He is bigger than Russell Wilson and bigger than Drew Brees. I think he can be better."
Manziel already has more sessions planned with Whitfield this coming summer. The coach has advised him to stay focused on his sophomore year and let the NFL happen when he's ready. "We've talked about it, and he knows he has a lot to learn," Whitfield said. "The NFL isn't something you do only because you feel good about what you're doing in college. You have to respect what's going on up there."
Still, it's easy to wonder what the future holds for Manziel. Only one quarterback was taken in the first round of this year's draft (Buffalo selected Florida State's EJ Manuel at No. 16), and high-profile passers Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib had to deal with the frustrations of being drafted lower than expected. That trend doesn't speak just to the talent level available to personnel evaluators. It's also an indication that teams are becoming pickier about what they want in a signal-caller instead of relying on an outdated prototype to drive their selections.
Dilfer believes Manziel would've been the second-best quarterback in this year's class. It's already apparent that -- because of his skills and the evolution of the position -- Manziel could be the most fascinating player in next year's draft. "When you look at Johnny, you see a lot of energy," Dilfer said. "You can teach somebody like him the more traditional stuff more than you can teach a traditional quarterback the second-reaction [instinctive] stuff. I'd rather take the 6-1 guy who needs to learn some fundamental stuff than the 6-4, 192-pound kid who is clean mechanically. That's just how the game is trending. The dynamic quarterback is more in demand now."