|Melina Vastola/US Presswire|
|Already known for his physical talents, E.J. Manuel has faced questions about his big-game ability.|
Is E.J. Manuel a franchise quarterback?
That was the question circulating throughout the scouting community heading into Florida State's pivotal matchup with Clemson this past Saturday night. NFL evaluators wanted to see if Manuel had the game to match his immense talent and potential.
After closely watching the Florida State star in the biggest game of his career, I have a few observations regarding his talent as it projects at the next level:
Arm talent: Manuel has been viewed as a blue-chip talent since he arrived at Florida State from Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2009. However, during his one-and-a-half years as the Seminoles' starter, Manuel hasn't consistently played up to expectations. When I watched Manuel against Clemson, I saw a 6-foot-5, 240-pound athlete with an upper-echelon arm. He showed he can make all of the requisite pro-level throws with velocity, zip and accuracy. Manuel had good touch and ball placement on short and intermediate passes, and also had the strength to make on-target vertical throws to the outside areas of the field.
Manuel showcased his extraordinary arm strength and touch with a 29-yard touchdown throw to Rodney Smith in the third quarter, delivering a pinpoint pass over the shoulder of the trailing defender and into Smith's arms in the corner of the end zone.
Given the speed and skill of defensive backs in the NFL, Manuel's ability to make these kinds of throws will make him a favorite of quarterbacks coaches around the league.
Game management: As much as scouts emphasize the physical tools of elite quarterback prospects, football intelligence and awareness are what separate the great players from the rest of the pack. Manuel hasn't always been regarded as an efficient game manager at Florida State, but he made outstanding decisions against Clemson. He routinely found the second and third options in his route progression and avoided forcing throws into traffic. As a result, he didn't turn the ball over or put it in harm's way.
Manuel also showed he can make checks and adjustment at the line of scrimmage. When Clemson presented blitz-heavy looks, Manuel appeared to check out of a few plays, getting the ball to the Seminoles' top playmakers on quick passes or screens on the perimeter. When Manuel failed to anticipate blitzes prior to the snap, he managed to quickly get rid of the ball before the rush collapsed the pocket. This aspect of Manuel's game has improved immensely since his junior season, certainly boosting his value as a potential franchise quarterback.
Mobility: Due to his enormous physical dimensions, Manuel doesn't seem to stand out as a superior athlete at first glance. However, he shows outstanding elusiveness and agility when escaping the pocket. Manuel glides like a gazelle on the perimeter and is an effective runner when he decides to tuck the ball under his arm.
Against Clemson, he rushed for 102 yards on 12 carries, showing he can be a dangerous dual threat on the perimeter. With Manuel's running skills and outstanding arm talent, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is able to incorporate a variety of West Coast offense and spread-option principles in the Seminoles' game plan, making life difficult for opponents. An increasing number of NFL offensive coordinators are showing a willingness to build around their young quarterbacks; Manuel's athleticism and versatility could make him an intriguing prospect for a team in need of a franchise player.
Clutch factor: Quarterbacks are judged on their ability to win big games. Heading into Saturday's showdown with Clemson, Manuel had few skins on the wall; his biggest victory to that point had been an 18-14 win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl last season. Manuel's numerous failures against big-time competition (Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Clemson in 2011), meanwhile, led some to question whether he could perform on a big stage. That's why scouts were anxious to see how he would fare against a top-10 team in Clemson.
Manuel certainly answered some of their doubts on Saturday, completing 27 of 35 attempted passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns while throwing zero interceptions. Evaluators will consider Clemson's defensive woes against elite opponents, but the fact that Manuel played so well in a big game will alleviate some of the concerns about his ability to handle high-profile matchups.
Conclusion: Thanks to his outstanding physical tools, Manuel was viewed as a borderline Day 2 draft pick heading into this season. But a strong showing in a nationally televised showdown against a top 10 opponent Saturday has certainly raised his profile in the scouting community. Manuel needs to continue refining his overall game, but it's not a stretch to suggest he might be drafted as a legitimate future franchise quarterback next April.
WORD ON THE STREET
I don't often consult Twitter when looking for the scoop on prospects, but I saw the following interesting tweet from renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield during the Florida State-Clemson game:
For all those 'waiting for EJ Manuel to breakout' - be careful of the broken glass! #CLEMvsFSU #HummerHybrid #Surgical— George Whitfield Jr. (@georgewhitfield) September 24, 2012
Whitfield and I have had several conversations about Manuel over the past year. Whitfield has said the Florida State quarterback compares favorably to his star pupil, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, at this stage of his development. Whitfield has also effusively praised Manuel's outstanding physical tools and football aptitude, saying that his ceiling as a player is through the roof.
I've watched Manuel at some Elite 11 events over the years and have come away impressed with his work ethic, demeanor and attitude. While he still needs to put together a few more standout performances on tape, it certainly looks like Manuel has the goods to be one of a few potential franchise quarterbacks available in the 2013 draft class.
|Tavon Austin has shown he can break open games with his play. (James Lang/US Presswire)|
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Despite all the attention Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith receives for directing one of college football's most explosive offenses, Austin's emergence as an electrifying playmaker has keyed West Virginia's high-powered attack. Austin, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, is a superb slot receiver who overwhelms defenders in space with his combination of speed and quickness. Austin displays remarkable stop-start explosiveness; his ability to suddenly accelerate in the open field routinely results in big plays. Against Maryland, Austin showcased his potential, grabbing 13 receptions for 179 yards and three scores. Playmakers are coveted by NFL evaluators, and Austin's penchant for game-changing catches will make him a hot commodity in scouting circles.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
Bell has quickly emerged as one of the top runners in college football, putting up a pair of 200-yard outings in the Spartans' first three games. The junior's combination of speed, strength and power allows him to thrive as a workhorse back in a power-based offense. Against Eastern Michigan, Bell totaled 253 rushing yards on 36 carries with a touchdown, further solidifying his reputation as one of the most physical runners in the game today.
Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
Hankins played like a man among boys during the Buckeyes' 29-15 win over Alabama-Birmingham. The junior controlled the middle of the line with his size and strength, using his non-stop motor to tally 10 total stops on the day. The level of competition he faced was a notch below Big Ten standards, but Hankins dominated the game from beginning to end, giving the kind of effort that makes some observers consider him the best interior defender in college football.
Chris McNeill, WR, Wyoming
McNeill is unheralded on the national scene, but scouts are well aware of the polished pass catcher from Wyoming. As one of the best pure route-runners at the collegiate level, McNeill excels at separating from defenders with nifty moves at the top of his routes and is a dependable pass catcher between the hashes. Against Idaho, McNeill showcased a refined game, tallying 219 receiving yards on eight catches, including a remarkable 73-yard catch-and-run that showcased his hands, ball skills and running ability.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
The Ducks' defense doesn't often steal headlines from college football's most explosive offense, but a 49-0 drubbing of Arizona showcased an opportunistic unit that specializes in taking the ball away. Ekpre-Olomu was the primary catalyst to the whitewashing; he nabbed two interceptions, including a 54-yard pick-six that put the game on ice in the fourth quarter.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Jones was viewed as one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2013 draft class prior to the season, but he certainly hasn't been impressive thus far. Jones has struggled with his accuracy, ball placement and decision-making, continuing to disappoint in those areas against Kansas State. He committed two costly turnovers and failed to connect on several key throws under duress. Jones' overall numbers would seem to indicate that he is having a solid year, but the fact that he continues to be plagued by the glaring flaws (regarding decision-making, footwork and ball security) that persisted during his junior season suggest that he is still a work in progress.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
After a disappointing showing against Stanford in Week 3, most expected Barkley to bounce back with a scintillating performance that would showcase his spectacular game. However, Barkley threw two interceptions for the second consecutive week, finishing with just 192 passing yards against a suspect Cal defense. While the Cover-2 shell employed by the Bears kept Barkley from taking shots down the field, he was unable to make the accurate strikes that would have allowed him to pick apart the defense, indicating that he remains out of sync as a pocket passer.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks