Johnny Manziel might've lost out on his bid for his second consecutive Heisman Trophy award with his disappointing performance against LSU, but don't expect the showing to significantly impact his value in the eyes of NFL evaluators.
The redshirt sophomore has been spectacular for most of the season; Manziel has sufficiently answered most of the burning questions scouts and coaches had prior to the season about his game and ability to play at the next level.
Now, I'm sure that comment might come as a surprise considering how much Manziel struggled against a LSU defense loaded with NFL-caliber athletes, but his consistent production and spectacular performance throughout the year makes him a franchise quarterback, in my mind. And I say this fully aware of the deficiencies that some NFL evaluators will point out about his game.
For instance, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Manziel lacks ideal height and size for the position. Yet, a closer inspection of his big hands and feet (reportedly a size 14) suggests that he won't endure some of the problems that typically plague small quarterbacks. With massive mitts, Manziel won't have any problems with ball security in bad weather nor will he struggle holding onto the ball when he flees the pocket as a runner. Therefore, the worries about Michael Vick-like fumbles at the next level shouldn't rank as significant concerns based on his superb track record of ball security at Texas A&M.
Additionally, the worries about his toughness and durability due to his slender frame should also fall by the wayside based on Manziel's consistent availability throughout his career. Although he has logged 320 rushing attempts against mostly SEC competition, Manziel has not missed a game despite taking occasional shots outside the pocket. Sure, he has suffered through a series of minor bumps and bruises -- including an injury to his throwing shoulder -- but he has played through the discomfort and continued to shine as a dual-threat playmaker for the Aggies. This is a testament to his courage and toughness, as well as a testament to his ultra-competitive personality.
From a leadership standpoint, Manziel has passed all tests with flying colors following a misstep in the season opener against Rice (Manziel received a taunting penalty following a score and seemingly ignored Kevin Sumlin's instructions coming to the sideline). He has displayed poise and composure rallying his team from significant deficits throughout the season, while also exhibiting the unwavering confidence of a gunslinger in key moments. Manziel plays with the competitive arrogance that old-school players appreciate, which is why so many former players speak highly of his chances of enjoying a successful career at the next level.
Looking at Manziel's overall game this season compared to 2012, I believe he has significantly improved as a pocket passer in all aspects. He shows better anticipation and timing on rhythm throws. He is also more patient working through his progressions to get to his second and third options in the route. This aspect of Manziel's game is especially impressive because it requires him to resist the urge to rely on his athleticism and running skills when plays slowly develop in the pocket. As an athletic playmaker with remarkable skill, the fact that Manziel can display discipline within the pocket as a second-year starter tells me that his football IQ is far more advanced than some suggest. More importantly, it should give NFL coaches and scouts optimism that he can thrive in a traditional system at the next level.
To back up my assertion about Manziel's improved play as a passer, I compared his numbers from 2012 and 2013. He is on pace to surpass his completion percentage, passing yardage and touchdown totals this season, while averaging 1.4 more yards per attempt. This is significant because Manziel is attempting more downfield attempts, yet completing a higher percentage this season.
Given those dramatic statistical improvements and the tremendous progress Manziel has shown on the field, scouts and coaches will closely investigate his performance against LSU to see if there were some negative trends that haven't been spotted in his game in previous appearances. Evaluators will pore over the game film to see why Manziel only connected on 39 percent of his throws and tossed a pair of picks to a defense loaded with long, rangy athletes.
Watching a replay of the game this weekend, I believe Manziel was slightly thrown off his game by a clever game plan by LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. The crafty defensive play caller gave Manziel an assortment of looks (three-man fronts, overload blitzes and a variety of man coverage) that tested his post-snap judgment, leading to hesitancy and indecisiveness in the pocket. Additionally, Chavis instructed his edge players to only rush to the depth of the quarterback's drop, which prevented Manziel from escaping out of the backdoor against the rush. Finally, the Tigers used a spy on occasion to shadow the quarterback in the pocket, and take away his ability to wreak havoc with his legs.
While these are some of the tactics Manziel will face at the next level, I don't believe he will see his draft stock drastically altered by a performance that was impacted by a terrific game plan created by a clever schemer.