At this time last year, no one knew who was going to be the quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies as they prepared for their first season in the SEC.
Since then, “Johnny Football” has taken over the college football landscape in a Heisman trophy-winning, extra point-missing campaign. His innate ability to make terrific scrambles out of broken plays allowed him to become the first freshman-eligible player to win the Heisman since its inception in 1935.
At the ripe age of 20, Manziel has reached unimaginable heights that most players can only dream of before he can legally drink.
None of this, however, suggests that Manziel has what it takes to cut it in the NFL.
Johnny Manziel can make all of the crazy mad-lib plays he wants in the college ranks, but ultimately, his future as an NFL player will depend on his ability to hang in the pocket and make stick throws into tight windows—not running around in circles like he’s playing two-hand touch.
One of the most important elements of quarterback play that is extremely difficult to teach is the ability to move about the pocket and avoid the rush with subtle movements. Without looking directly at oncoming rushers, a quarterback must know when and where to step up into the pocket and deliver the football on time and with accuracy.
Johnny Manziel’s style of playing “kill the man with the ball” in the backfield until there is a coverage breakdown sure is fun to watch, but such a style is no way to run a consistent, effective offense in the NFL.
As great as Manziel was as a freshman, he was put in an ideal position to succeed. Both of his tackles, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, were among the best in college football: Joeckel was selected second overall by the Jaguars, and Matthews—who elected to return to College Station—would not have been taken much later.
Simply put, Manziel spent most of his Heisman-winning campaign in a seven-on-seven environment.
Despite this luxury of great edge protection, Manziel did not take full advantage of it. Too often, he abandoned a quality pocket in favor of trying to make a play with his legs—this makes for exciting television but is an inefficient way to move the football.
Here, Manziel has a perfect pocket to work with. He has plenty of room to step up, but the edge protection is so good he won’t have to.
For comparison, check out how much room Andrew Luck had before he stepped up to deliver a strike down the field:
Still, for some inexplicable reason, Manziel abandons his protection almost as soon as his back foot hits the turf in his drop back, and he takes off.
Whether or not Manziel was successful scrambling afterwards is irrelevant—when making improvisational plays, the results are mostly random; there is no way to organize and build an offense around it.
Here is another example of Manziel failing to take full advantage of a situation that NFL quarterbacks dream of.
Because of his mobility, the defense keeps in a linebacker as a spy, giving him a ton of single coverage to throw against. In the NFL, throwing against single coverage is virtually throwing to an open receiver. Additionally, he is sitting in a beautiful pocket with room to step into his throw.
Yet, once again, Manziel takes off and does not even try to push the ball down the field.
Whether or not the ensuing scrambles are irrelevant—as we saw with RGIII last year—asking your quarterback to use his running as a driving force of an offense will just shorten his career. Ultimately, NFL quarterbacks need to stand tall in the pocket, go through progressions and make accurate throws with velocity—which happen to be two other areas where Manziel comes up short.
Going Through Progressions
When Johnny Manziel did manage to stay in the pocket, it was because his first read was wide open—or else he likely would have taken off on his own.
Manziel was asked to do very little as a passer in terms of reading coverages and going through progressions. If his first read was not open, he looked to run. This type of offense is very common in the college ranks, especially with young, athletic quarterbacks with limited experience under their belt.
However, as effective as this elementary offense was for the Aggies, such an approach has no chance of working on a consistent basis in the NFL. Defenses are far too quick and adept in coverage to let receivers run free or allow a quarterback to run wild on a consistent basis.
Take a look at these two successive plays below. In the first play, Manziel looks at his first read, doesn’t like what he sees and decides to take off and run.
The very next play, Manziel’s first read is open and an easy completion is made.
Of course, this simplistic offense is not Manziel’s fault, and he could certainly get better in a pro-style system with some time and coaching. Still, as of now, Manziel has not shown the ability to make the fast, complex reads that are necessary to run an NFL offense.
Lack of Arm Talent
As difficult as it may be, Manziel has a chance to learn how to go through progressions and work a pocket like a seasoned NFL veteran, but there is one element of Manziel's game that will limit his NFL potential—his arm strength.
While Manziel does flash the ability to make downfield throws, those throws are normally completed because of his accuracy and timing rather than his arm strength. As a thrower, Manziel compares well to Matt Barkley as someone who has to make up for his average arm strength with tremendous accuracy and anticipation.
Accuracy and anticipation are two very important qualities for a quarterback, but without at least an above-average arm, Manziel’s pro potential will always be limited.
Take a look at this shallow-out pattern that Manziel completes. The ball is thrown before the receiver is open (anticipation) and with tremendous accuracy, right on the receiver’s hands.
However, Manziel does not quite drive the ball to the outside. He was able to easily get away with this “casual” pass to the sideline in this situation, but aggressive NFL cornerbacks are going to eat those kinds of passes alive.
With a few rare exceptions like Drew Brees, increasing arm strength in the NFL is a near-impossibility. Generally, arm strength is a product of rapid muscle movement that is largely determined by genetics—which is why you don’t see Joe Flacco—one of the strongest arms in the NFL—with huge, muscular arms.
The Next Russell Wilson? Not Quite
It will be tempting to compare Manziel to players like Russell Wilson because they both have the ability to scramble and make extended plays outside the pocket, but these two players are much different in how they use their scrambling ability.
Russell Wilson, ultra-athletic 5-foot-11, has really helped the future draft stock of Johnny Manziel, ultra-athletic 6-0.— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) January 13, 2013
However, despite Russell Wilson's rousing NFL success, we must temper our expectations for Manziel. Just because both players are short and athletic does not mean they will share the same success in the NFL.
For one, Wilson does not abandon the pocket until he runs out of time. He extends plays with his feet and is much more capable of delivering a ball with velocity. While he will need to learn how to get rid of the ball sooner as he loses speed with time, Wilson is not going to run around in circles unless he has to.
Manziel, on the other hand, scrambles long before the pocket collapses around him. Watching him, it almost looks as if he is actively trying to make plays with his legs before trusting his eyes and turning a ball loose.
Of course, none of this is to say that Manziel can never be a successful NFL quarterback; after all, he is just 20 years old and has just one year of starting experience under his belt.
However, Manziel is a classic case of a college player who will dominate draft talk among the media next season—assuming he decides to turn pro—because of his spectacular play at the college level rather than his great traits as a prospect.
Manziel does have a lot of tools to work with as a terrific athlete with a knack for making plays, but just as we saw with Tim Tebow, being able to “win” or “make plays” does not always translate to the next level. At all positions, the players who translate well into the professional ranks do so because they carry specific, rare traits that cannot be taught or duplicated easily.
For Manziel to succeed in the NFL, he will have to go to the right system, preferably a "West Coast" system that is predicated on timing and accuracy with some mobility to complement the offense.
Manziel is as entertaining of a player as any to watch, but what he does so well on the college field simply does not translate well in a league that demands precision and consistency.