Last December, Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel was the first freshman to be awarded the Heisman Trophy. Since then no player in college football has been in the spotlight or been talked about more than Manziel.
This was mostly of his own doing not only with him being in the post-Heisman limelight but also because he had a long timeline of questionable decisions and incidents during the offseason, which included leaving the Manning passing camp early to allegations that he received money from brokers in exchange for his autograph. These distractions eventually leaked into the regular season, when Manziel was suspended for the first half of the opener against Rice and eventually benched by head coach Kevin Sumlin after drawing a dead ball personal foul for taunting.
Last Saturday, Manziel was under the microscope when he faced his first real test of the season against No. 1 Alabama, a game that had been highly anticipated since last November when Manziel handed the eventual national champions their only loss of the year. Despite dealing with all of the distractions, Manziel passed with flying colors. Although he had two interceptions, with one being returned for a touchdown, Manziel finished the game with 562 total yards of offense, including a career-high 464 yards passing and five touchdown passes.
From an evaluation standpoint, the Alabama defense is a great gauge for scouts as the Crimson Tide are the closest thing Manziel will see in college to what he'll see at the next level from a scheme and personnel standpoint. Manziel's performance has sparked a heavy debate this week about the undersized quarterback's pro potential.
Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down and watch the coaches' copy tape of Manziel’s performance against Alabama. While his stats lived up to the hype, there are still some concerns about Manziel’s game translating to the NFL level.
Below are a few thoughts I had from a scouting perspective and my overall view on Manziel at this point.
Manziel is an undersized (6-foot, 200 pounds) and unorthodox quarterback. He flashes the capability to work from inside the pocket but he is at his best when able to improvise and work off schedule. There is no denying his playmaking ability as a thrower and a runner. Manziel plays with a gunslinger's mentality and his game has no blueprint. That type of unpredictability will often frustrate and force defensive coordinators to not only adjust game plans, but also force them to get away from their core values from a scheme standpoint.
One area that stands out about Manziel is his torso flexibility and ability to change release points. This provides him with the ability to make accurate throws while off balance and make eye-opening throws on the run that few quarterbacks can manufacture. It also helps Manziel mask his lack of height in the pocket and allows him to exploit throwing lanes to deliver accurate passes attacking the middle of the field.
Manziel can also do plenty of damage with his feet. He has the rare ability to escape pressure and extend plays, often creating chaos in downfield coverage. Manziel also is one of the more dynamic runners I’ve ever evaluated at the position. He has an excellent blend of elusiveness, speed and vision to use his blockers. Manziel is very savvy as a runner and often does not take big hits. On Saturday, his lateral quickness rarely allowed Alabama defenders to get a clean hit on him and he was extremely smart about sliding and stepping out of bounds. This ability to avoid extra hits helps to ease concerns about the toll a grueling NFL season will have on the undersized dual-threat quarterback.
The best trait I believe Manziel possesses is his competitive edge on the field. He seems to embrace the spotlight and is not intimidated by the big stage or his opponent. Manziel plays with the type of fearlessness that can be infectious to teammates. His pulse rate does not seem to vary in the midst of chaos. Manziel also shows natural football instincts when improvising and has consistently shown the ability to dial up a big play when needed and deliver in the clutch.
Manziel must improve as a thrower from inside the pocket. Like his overall game, Manziel’s mechanics are loose. Footwork is the biggest issue I saw throughout Saturday's game tape. Manziel does not always marry his feet with his eyes when getting through his progressions. This often results in him not always stepping into his target with his throws. Moving forward to the next level, Manziel must make an assertive effort to improve his mechanics and footwork if he wants to find consistent accuracy that is necessary throwing from the pocket.
Finally there will always be a tug of war at the NFL level between allowing Manziel the ability to maximize his skill set and playing within the confines of an offense. Manziel’s game is predicated on manufacturing big plays. However, with those big plays comes an abundance of risks and the carelessness he shows with the football. Manziel put the ball up for grabs on several occasions against Alabama. He was bailed out on more than a handful of throws by WR Mike Evans, who won jump balls thanks to his size and strength. The biggest question that will need to be answered for Manziel: Will he be able to get away with this type of style at the next level?
Speaking with NFL executives and people close to college football, the belief is Manziel will declare for the draft after this season. In terms of his draft stock, we won’t have a clear gauge until after the season when the evaluation process gets into full swing and we are able to gather more information.
The biggest issues for teams will be digging during their own investigations to find out the truth behind the incidents along with figuring out Manziel’s character and intangibles -- categories that are so critical for the position. One thing appears to be clear, though: Manziel will be one of the more heavily debated and polarizing draft prospects to come out in recent years.
THIS WEEKEND’S SCOUTING TRIP
I am in Raleigh this weekend and will take in the Clemson versus NC State game Thursday night and will be heading to see Pitt at Duke on Saturday afternoon. While from a college football fan's perspective this is far from a premier matchup, there still is plenty of interest from scouting perspective.
I am most interested in getting a look at Pitt DT Aaron Donald, who is off to a strong start to the season with five tackles for loss and three sacks. Donald is undersized (6-0½, 281 pounds) but displays very good quickness in terms of hands and feet. He is an ideal one-gap defender who brings a pass-rushing presence from the interior.