Johnny Manziel is the most polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft class, but he is also the quarterback with the greatest potential to become a perennial Pro Bowler at the next level.
I know the latter part of that statement will make his staunchest critics cringe, but I believe he exhibits all of the core characteristics needed to be a blue-chip player in the NFL. From his dynamic skills as a dual-threat playmaker to his infectious swagger and ultra-competitive personality, Manziel exudes the transcendent star qualities that are expected of franchise players at any position.
Now, I must admit that I didn't always view Manziel in that light. A year ago, I openly questioned if the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner could develop into a disciplined pocket passer after terrorizing the SEC with his remarkable improvisational skills as a redshirt freshman. Additionally, I wondered if his game would fit into a traditional pro-style system, based on his tendency to run around at the first sight of trouble. Although he rushed for an SEC-best 1,410 rushing yards in his first season, I didn't believe he could survive in the NFL as a run-around playmaker with his slender build.
To his credit, Manziel made substantial leaps in traditional quarterbacking last season. He improved in nearly every major passing category (yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating), while exhibiting better pocket poise and presence. He showed evaluators that he could pick apart opponents with pinpoint passes from the pocket, as opposed to just living on improvisational plays on the perimeter. Of course, Manziel still tormented opponents with his speed, quickness and running skills, but he significantly cut back on his rushing attempts to avoid taking big hits from defenders in space.
This development definitely boosted Manziel's rep in the NFL scouting community, but his big-game savvy is what convinced me that he will be a standout performer at the next level. I watched Manziel put it on Nick Saban's vaunted Alabama defense in back-to-back years; I was in the Georgia Dome when he rallied the Aggies back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, showcasing his traits as a potential franchise signal-caller.
With those images leaving an indelible mark on my mind with regard to his immense talent, I simply needed to see him check the boxes at his pro day workout to confirm his status as a top talent. Manziel did so in grand fashion with an epic performance seen by the entire football world -- and one former President of the United States, to boot! He showed the ability to make every throw in the book with zip and velocity, while also displaying remarkable skills as a touch passer on the move. Most importantly, Manziel sufficiently answered questions about his arm strength and footwork with his performance on Thursday.
At this point, I see Manziel as the No. 1 quarterback in this draft class. Teams at the top of the board must consider Manziel as a franchise guy, despite concerns about his durability, football character and scheme fit. While those issues must be addressed in private workouts and team meetings, Manziel's overall talent and "it" factor make him one of the gems of the 2014 NFL Draft. With that in mind, I've come up with a few great NFL fits for the Texas A&M product.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that could best utilize Manziel's talents, regardless of draft position or how the rest of the pre-draft process plays out.
Houston Texans (No. 1 overall pick)
A marriage of Bill O'Brien and Manziel wouldn't appear to be a good one on the surface, but the grizzled coaching veteran has an appreciation for ultra-competitive leaders after spending time with Tom Brady in New England. Manziel is unquestionably an alpha dog with the dynamic personality and game to galvanize a locker room. Additionally, he is an underrated decision maker with the ability to direct the game from the line of scrimmage. Although O'Brien has a preference for traditional drop-back passers with disciplined games from the pocket, Manziel still qualifies as a logical fit due to his dramatic improvement as a pocket passer from his redshirt freshman season to this point. With Manziel also displaying a high football IQ and keen understanding of the pro passing game (thanks in part to Mike Sherman, who recruited him to Texas A&M and coached him during his redshirt year), it's possible the energetic playmaker is seriously in play as the No. 1 overall pick.
Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3)
In his final season with the Seattle Seahawks back in 2012, Gus Bradley saw Russell Wilson immediately emerge as a rookie stud, despite substandard physical dimensions. Now in his second year as Jacksonville's head coach, Bradley could be inclined to roll the dice on Manziel and his relatively unorthodox game. The 21-year-old displays the leadership and moxie that the Jaguars desperately need at quarterback after struggling through the Blaine Gabbert era. He has a knack for playing his best on the biggest and brightest stages. If Manziel can continue to show Bradley and Co. that he is mature enough to handle the responsibility of being the face of the franchise in Jacksonville, the diminutive playmaker could be the spark plug to make the Jags a legitimate contender in the AFC South.
Cleveland Browns (No. 4)
Don't underestimate the Browns' interest in Manziel, despite the team's absence from Thursday's pro day. New GM Ray Farmer is a savvy decision maker who understands what Manziel brings to the table as an explosive playmaker with a unique skill set. Farmer spent his formative years in the league working with the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the Michael Vick experience, so he has a tremendous appreciation for the energy and confidence that a dynamic player adds to the lineup. Farmer watched Vick lead the Falcons to an appearance in the 2004 NFC Championship Game on the strength of his improvisational playmaking ability. With Manziel showing strong similarities as a versatile threat from the pocket, Farmer could be willing to hand the keys of the franchise to Johnny Football.
Oakland Raiders (No. 5)
Yes, the Raiders just traded for Matt Schaub, but upon closer inspection of the contract details, it's essentially a one-year commitment for Oakland. Thus, nothing's stopping Reggie McKenzie from adding a young signal-caller in May. Manziel would add juice to an offense that has struggled scoring points over the past few years. As an improvisational wizard, Manziel's ability to run around on the perimeter would create chaos for opposing defenses, opening up the field in the passing game. Given the success the Raiders briefly enjoyed with Terrelle Pryor under center, the presence of a more explosive and dynamic weapon at the position would give Oakland a better chance to compete with the heavyweights of the AFC.
Minnesota Vikings (No. 8)
Defensive coaches have a special appreciation for the challenges Manziel presents to opponents. Mike Zimmer certainly falls into that camp -- the longtime defensive coordinator is in his first year as a head coach in Minnesota. Manziel not only would give the Vikings a potent player at the game's most important position, but he would serve as an effective complement to the power running game fueled by Adrian Peterson. Of course, Manziel would need to show competent skills from the pocket to make the experiment work in Minnesota, but Zimmer certainly would enjoy the opportunity to drive foes nuts in the fall with a dual-threat playmaker under center.
Any chance of a Manziel/Kelly pairing in Philly?
Chip Kelly very nearly lured Manziel to Oregon when the QB was coming out of high school. In fact, Manziel verbally committed to Oregon before eventually switching to Texas A&M. Now head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Kelly attended Thursday's pro day, and it's impossible not to imagine Manziel as the ideal triggerman for Kelly's wide-open offense. Of course, the Eagles certainly don't have a glaring need at the position, with Nick Foles fresh off a stellar, Pro Bowl campaign. (Not to mention, Philly just signed Mark Sanchez as a backup and the franchise drafted Matt Barkley in the fourth round last April.) Another road block to this potential pairing: The Eagles pick 22nd in Round 1, meaning they'd almost certainly have to trade up to acquire Manziel. All that said, given Kelly's mastery of the spread offense and his familiarity with Manziel's game, it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. Philadelphia could select Manziel and give him plenty of time to develop on the sideline behind Foles. It might not sound like a great idea now, but it's the kind of plan that helped Aaron Rodgers become a great one in Green Bay after biding his time on the bench. That said, it's hard to imagine Manziel enjoying any type of substantial waiting game. ...
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.