Commentary

NFL has eye on Johnny Manziel

Pro evaluators see bad signs in Heisman winner's behavior as red flags pile up

Originally Published: August 8, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

There will be life beyond Texas A&M for Johnny Manziel one day, whether in early 2014 or a year after that. There will be the NFL scouting combine, and the questions. And it won't be pretty or easy.

Manziel has a football future beyond college. He has a chance to play in the National Football League. He has talent and potential, but he also has flaws that extend beyond the football field. His behavior has raised questions in league circles, and it continues to raise questions.

If Manziel aspires to play in the NFL, where he should be able to capitalize financially on the success that he has had as the Aggies' quarterback and a Heisman Trophy winner, then he has to look beyond the now. He has to quit hiding behind the notion that he's just a 20-year-old kid who makes mistakes like every other 20-year-old kid. He has to realize that the rules for him have changed and, whether he likes it or not, not only are folks on Twitter watching, but everyone in the NFL is too. Scouts. General managers. Coaches. Everyone.

So far, they haven't been impressed by what they've seen from him off the field.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
ESPN sourcesIn a photo provided to ESPN by a source, Johnny Manziel signs autographs in a hotel room. The NCAA is investigating whether the Texas A&M quarterback was paid for signing memorabilia.

Manziel's behavior has raised eyebrows in the league. There was an arrest in 2012. There were snippy, defiant Twitter responses to controversies. There was his premature exit from the Manning Passing Academy last month, when he missed and was late for practices because, as his father told The Dallas Morning News, he suffered from "dehydration."

His father also acknowledged to ESPN's Wright Thompson that, "Yeah, it could come unraveled. And when it does, it's gonna be bad. Real bad."

The latest controversy stems from an "Outside The Lines" report Sunday that the NCAA is investigating whether Manziel was paid for signing hundreds of autographs on photos and sports memorabilia. The report quoted two sources as saying Manziel agreed to sign memorabilia in exchange for a five-figure flat fee during a trip to Miami for the BCS National Championship Game.

A single alleged incident is one thing, but add it all together and NFL executives see major red flags. Whenever Manziel decides to leave college, the question will be: Is any team be willing to spend a first-round draft pick on him, guarantee him millions of dollars and make him the face of their franchise after how poorly he has responded to fame so far?

"To me, it is success coming too early to a young man who's not ready to handle success," one AFC general manager said. "Is he talented on the field? Yes. But I think when you win the Heisman Trophy, you have a responsibility to uphold the honors of that trophy and what it represents. All of this is allegedly what he's done, but if he's done it, he hasn't upheld the values of what that trophy represents."

"I've seen enough to know he has the skill set to succeed," another front office executive said. "He's a combination of Michael Vick and Russell Wilson, but there are big questions on his maturity and leadership right now."

"Some of the stuff is nonsense, pure nonsense," said Louis Riddick, former director of pro personnel for the Eagles. "You can conduct yourself that way if you want, but you can't conduct yourself and expect there won't be consequences by people evaluating you at the next level. That's just the way it is. You can like it or not, but that's the way it is."

In Riddick's estimation, Manziel has the talent to play in the NFL as long as he is paired with a system that is geared to his strengths, the way Washington and Seattle geared offenses to fit Robert Griffin III and Wilson. There are questions about Manziel's size -- Texas A&M lists him as 6-foot-1, but scouts have their doubts he is that tall -- and arm strength, but if he gets in a system that relies on easy throws over the middle, play-action and read-option, Manziel's skill set would transfer.

But there is more to it than that, particularly because of the position Manziel plays. There are questions about Manziel's character, makeup and leadership, Riddick said. While Manziel's competency on the football field is not in doubt -- he put Texas A&M on the Southeastern Conference map in one season -- there are questions about his credibility, because, as Riddick said, "nobody trusts him and that's what credibility is all about."

"RG III came in from Baylor with impeccable intangibles, character and leadership," Riddick added. "His was the best interview, the most composed interview I've ever been a part of. There were no questions directed to him about this decision you made or this picture that was taken of you at a party. That's what it's going to be about with Johnny. It better be. You can't afford to be wrong, and the higher you're thinking about taking him in the draft, the higher the stakes are.

"I think he has the skill set as long as he has the offense to match, but it's going to be much, much greater than that."

Said the AFC general manager: "He's going to have to be able to respond to the various situations that have evolved in the last eight, nine months."

What would ease NFL executives' minds about Manziel at this point? They'd like to see him handle adversity and failure -- and rebound. They'd like to see Manziel keep prosperity in its proper perspective. They'd like to see the poor off-the-field decisions and obstinate behavior end.

"To me, it's like anything in life: Take responsibility for your actions," the general manager said. "He's in a position where people now will look to him for the obvious reasons, plus he's playing at a major college football program. He should understand the responsibility he is obligated to uphold."

Manziel can play in the NFL. But to do so, he needs to see beyond the present and realize his future depends on how he acts moving forward, because his past is riddled with red flags.

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