While Johnny Manziel has played in a ton of big games in his brief career, I thought it was important to see how well the former Heisman Trophy winner performed in the Chick fil-A Bowl against Duke after finishing the regular season with a pair of lackluster games. With a national television audience paying close attention to his every move, Manziel put on an epic performance that cemented his status as one of the top quarterbacks in college football, and a future franchise player at the next level. Watching it up close and personal, here are my thoughts on Manziel's game and how it projects in the NFL:
Johnny Football took the college football world by storm a season ago by showcasing a sandlot game built on improvisational playmaking. Part of his success stemmed from his exceptional speed, quickness and movement skills. Few quarterbacks in the college game can rival his elusiveness in tight quarters, making him a rare commodity at the position.
Watching Manziel work his magic on the Georgia Dome turf against the Blue Devils, I was blown away by his sudden acceleration and burst. He is quicker than a hiccup in space, with a knack for making defenders miss in the hole. Although he has scaled back on his impromptu runs this season, it's nearly impossible to contain Manziel when he elects to use his legs as a primary weapon.
I must express some concern about his durability based on his diminutive stature and willingness to seek out contact, but I don't believe it will be a major issue because of his combination of instincts and athleticism. He has a knack for avoiding the big shot, which is why he is such a threat when he gets on the perimeter.
Questions about Manziel's arm strength and range dominated the discussion in the NFL scouting community during the offseason. Evaluators wondered if Manziel could make big-boy throws from the pocket, particularly the deep out from the opposite hash and the go-route down the boundary.
Watching Manziel pick apart the Blue Devils, there's no doubt in my mind that he can make every throw in the book. He attacked every area of the field with a variety of fastballs and rainbows to open receivers. Additionally, Manziel showed the ability to squeeze the ball into tight windows between the hashes. While those traits are expected of a franchise quarterback, I believe Manziel's unique ability to deliver accurate throws from various throwing platforms separates him from the pack. He will use a sidearm or three-quarters release to avoid rushers in close proximity, yet the ball still hits receivers in the strike zone. This characteristic makes him a threat to create big plays against the blitz from anywhere on the field.
Given the relentless blitz tactics favored by the majority of NFL defensive coaches, Manziel's unique arm talent could make him indefensible as a pro.
Manziel needed to prove to scouts that he could perform from the pocket to be considered a franchise-caliber quarterback. Although coaches and scouts love his improvisational skills, Manziel will be forced to play inside the pocket at the next level. Defensive coordinators will attempt to clog running lanes on the interior and dare the diminutive signal caller to make a series of accurate throws with a multitude of big bodies in his face.
Looking at Manziel operate against Duke, I believe he has grown immensely as a pocket passer. He comfortably makes pinpoint throws from the pocket, exhibiting quiet feet and solid mechanics. Manziel's displayed outstanding timing, ball placement and anticipation on quick-rhythm and intermediate throws. Although he was unable to consistently connect on the deep ball, Manziel's rainbow tosses were delivered on time, with plenty of arc to allow his receivers to settle under the throw.
Manziel's freewheeling style leads some observers to overlook his brilliant football mind. But astute evaluators can appreciate the mastery of the pre-snap phase when they take a hard look at his game.
Watching Manziel direct the Aggies' fast-paced offense, I was encouraged by his ability to quickly decipher fronts and coverage at the line of scrimmage. He routinely pointed out the potential rushers, and hit the predetermined hot reads to counter the blitz. Facing soft coverage, Manziel worked through his reads to hit the open receiver in the progression. Although he ran around on occasion before doing so, Manziel displayed plenty of discipline and awareness playing "connect the dots" from the pocket. NFL offensive coordinators will rave about his feel for the game when studying this tape, leading to rise up the charts when draft day approaches.
The term "swagger" is overused in sports today, but Manziel's game is dipped in confidence and self-belief. He seemingly walks on the field with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, yet his teammates respond to his bodacious leadership style. Watching the Aggies rally back from an enormous deficit, I witnessed Manziel's teammates feed off his energy and enthusiasm. After he put together a series of spectacular plays, the team started to play with the bounce of a heavyweight champion. Manziel continued to build the momentum by delivering big plays in key moments. From his terrific back-shoulder fade toss to Mike Evans to the nifty bootleg jaunt to pull the Aggies to within three points, Manziel made every play down the stretch to keep his team in the game.
Manziel hasn't decided whether to enter the 2014 draft, but I'm sure there are several NFL coaches and scouts clamoring for a playmaker of his caliber at the quarterback position. He has all of the tools and confidence to emerge as a franchise player at the position despite lacking ideal physical dimensions for the spot.
While it will take an innovative offensive coordinator to craft a scheme to maximize his talents, I can see Manziel fitting into a West Coast offense that features a ton of movement/waggle passes like the Houston Texans utilized under Gary Kubiak. Additionally, I can see Manziel thriving in an uptempo scheme that mixes spread formations with a rapid pace. Given the freedom to operate in a wide-open offense, Manziel could help an offense produce fireworks with a capable supporting cast.