Breaking Down the Draft's Only True Read-Option QB Prospect: EJ Manuel
While writing about some of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft class, NFL Films' Greg Cosell noted that Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel is the only read-option quarterback available (via Yahoo!):
The success of Kaepernick, Wilson, Griffin and, to a lesser extent (based on wins), Newton has exaggerated the impact of the read option as the impetus for revolutionary change in the NFL. Look at this year’s group of quarterbacks in the draft. Only one, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, is capable of running the read option. None of the other top six or seven quarterbacks can do it.
It's debatable if Manuel is the only one, but it's certainly true that he's capable of running it.
The implementation of the read-option in offenses has given quarterbacks simplified responsibilities after the snap. It specifically allows them to make simpler throws in the short-to-intermediate range off of play fakes, which Manuel excels at.
Manuel has improved as a passer in the last couple of seasons, particularly at manipulating the pocket and finding his outlet receiver, and has done a good job of completing passes to receivers crossing the middle of the field. Crossing routes are a big part of the Seminoles' offense, which plays into Manuel's strengths.
In a game against the University of South Florida last season, he went 19-of-26 and threw one touchdown pass. One of the plays that stood out was a play-action fake that illustrated his improved ability to manipulate the pocket and make the throw in the middle of the field. I wrote about it in early March here.
On that play (6:54 mark), Manuel did a very good job of keeping the chains moving on first down with an effortless throw.
Initially under center, the FSU quarterback took the snap, opened up to his left and performed a play fake. The fake was well done because he kept his back-side (free) arm tucked into his body and immediately turned his head around. Defenders look at both parts of the quarterback to figure out if it is an actual handoff or a fake.
While waiting for the receivers to complete their crossing routes, Manuel was forced to slide to his left because of direct pressure from the middle. When he slid left, the rusher was picked up by the running back. Manuel was then able to reset his feet before firing a throw to the opposition's 40-yard line.
These are the kinds of throws Manuel will not only have to make in read-option offenses when making throws off of play action, but in general as well.
Another important part of Manuel's game is his aforementioned athleticism. At the combine, he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at 6'5" and 237 pounds, which was the second-best time. It fell short only to West Virginia's Geno Smith, who ran a 4.59 at nearly 20 pounds lighter.
Unlike Smith, Manuel's athleticism and speed shows up when watching his games. This was evident on several of Manuel's carries, which are not limited to scrambles.
He ran the speed option and quarterback power concepts while at FSU. He wasn't great in his decision making on the speed option, however, because he had a tendency to hold the ball too long. Despite that, his experience in it will help him get bumped over some of the other quarterbacks he's battling against in draft positioning and give him an upper hand in learning it.
When Manuel was asked about running the read-option, he was confident in his abilities (via philly.com):
I played in three different systems in college, including the read-option. I think that's something I've always been capable of. I have the skill set that fits any offense. I can play within the pocket, but I'm athletic enough to run that style of offense.
Against Clemson this past season, Manuel ran for 102 yards while extending drives on numerous occasions. One of the ones that stood out to me was his run on the previously mentioned quarterback power concept (0:38 mark).
On 2nd-and-7, Manuel caught the shotgun snap and ran to his right. His blockers were forming a wall to that side as he ran with the football. He covered ground very quickly and picked up nearly 30 yards in the process.
Manuel's mobility posed a problem to the Clemson defense all night and could do the same in the NFL when running the read-option.
The read-option (or zone read) is a concept that's growing in popularity because of the athleticism of a quarterback, but what's not being mentioned enough is that the signal-caller still has to be able to throw the football. Fortunately, Cosell did note it in the same review of the concept and the quarterback position I linked earlier:
There is absolutely nothing revolutionary or unconventional about any of this, and it will never change. Why? There are many reasons, but the simplest is this: Third down, especially third and long. That’s the possession down, the down in which defenses have the advantage with their multiplicity of pressures and coverages. Quarterbacks must be able to throw the ball effectively against sophisticated defenses specifically designed to challenge and disrupt them. If you can’t do that, you can’t play in the NFL.
The quarterback has to be able to read defenses and react accordingly, throw the football into proper windows and avoid turnovers. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins are able to do this consistently in addition to their mobility, which is why they were successful in their rookie seasons.
In Manuel's case, he will likely be over-drafted for his athleticism, but he also has physical tools to develop as a passer.
He is accurate and constantly improving, which is evident when watching his games from the last two seasons. He still needs to improve his footwork and understanding of the game but overall, he's a quality prospect that's worth bringing in and developing.
That, along with his mobility, is why he's a "capable" read-option quarterback, as Cosell said.
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