Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel enters the 2013 college football season as the most polarizing, and perhaps the most confusing, of all draft-eligible players.
If the NFL is in Manziel's near future—he's eligible as a redshirt sophomore to enter the 2014 class—what changes will scouts and general managers be looking for?
What does this former quarterback coach and recruiter see in the most talked about college football player since Tim Tebow? After watching every game, every throw and every run of Manziel's 2012 season, here is an inside look at what he must change in order to become a successful NFL quarterback.
The most important aspect of quarterbacking is, without a doubt, accuracy. It's also the hardest thing to coach into a player, but Manziel has hope in this area if he can improve his mechanics.
Working with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield this offseason will undoubtedly correct some of the mechanical issues in Manziel's game, but the key to fixing any weakness is to first identify it.
Let's take a look at Manziel in mid-throw. Notice his left (non-throwing) arm is extended away from his body? That's not what we want from a quarterback before releasing the ball.
Take a look at Tom Brady throwing, and you see two hands on the ball until the moment he is ready to release the pass. This is for multiple reasons, but chief among them is ball control in the pocket.
The way Manziel is holding the ball, even with his big hands, he's opening himself up to a strip-sack by a defender on his backside. Two hands on the ball will limit the chances of that happening, as well as camouflaging his intention to throw.
Another area of concern, but a coachable area, is that Manziel struggles to step into passes. All quarterbacks, regardless of size or arm strength, should have follow-through in their lower body while throwing.
The front leg is pointed at the intended target, and the back leg swings through the throw to power the upper body and provide balance. Manziel too often throws flat-footed without stepping all the way through the throw.
2. Field Vision
Listed at 6'1", Manziel may be closer to an even 6'0" or slightly under. He cannot grow or change the fact that he's a shorter quarterback, but like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, he can learn to play above his height.
Wilson and Brees are experts at moving inside the pocket to open up passing windows. This is what makes the sub-6'0" Wilson such a dangerous passer within the pocket, because he's smart enough to slide his offensive line and find lanes between the guard and tackle to throw the ball.
Brees, like Wilson, is an expert at stepping up into the pocket—putting himself either even with or in front of pass-rushers who would bat down balls. Manziel can be coached up here and become better without growing another inch.
A short quarterback must be aware of his release point, timing and offensive linemen. On the flip side, the offensive linemen must be coached to help the quarterback by keeping the arms of the defensive linemen locked up throughout the play in passing situations.
That's something Texas A&M's elite offensive tackles didn't do enough of in 2012.
Instead of trying to throw the ball over or through defenders, Manziel has to learn to step into the openings created by his linemen and throw as he's stepping up. That saves time and will also allow him to throw into windows instead of trying to loft the ball over defenders.
It is all coaching and muscle memory at this point. The old adage that a quarterback had to be 6'2" or taller has been shattered by Brees, Wilson, Doug Flutie and others. Manziel just has to learn to play like the men who opened the path before him.
3. Velocity and Touch
Throwing with excellent touch helped make Steve Young and Joe Montana such prolific passers. It's what helps Brees and Brady connect with so many targets. It's what has kept strong-armed passers from being high-percentage passers.
When scouting Manziel, I noticed that he throws with good velocity and touch on underneath passes—think Y-Stick or screens—but didn't consistently put enough heat on passes outside the hashes. This could revert back to mechanics, but it's something worth watching closely in 2013.
Being able to throw with speed and a tight spiral to the outside allows quarterbacks to whip the ball into receivers without the defender having time to jump in front of the ball on a very long throw. Diagonal throws out of the pocket are the toughest test for any quarterback prospect, and currently they are a weakness for Manziel.
The key here is for him to throw with good balance and delivery—from top to bottom in his mechanics—to deliver a catchable, tight ball to the sideline. When he steps into throws, it's amazing to see what he can do with the football.
4. Pro-Style Offense
While not a complaint we hear as often these days, there are still concerns about option-style quarterbacks succeeding in the NFL. Those walls have been torn down thanks to Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and others, but Manziel will face criticism from the non-option-friendly teams because of the way Texas A&M uses him.
It's important to know up front that, when watching Manziel, you will rarely see him make more than one read on any given play. In fact, Texas A&M's go-to play requires him to catch the ball, read the middle linebacker ("MIKE") and react to what the linebacker does.
Shown above, the Aggies' Y-Stick option play highlights the one-read nature of the offense.
It's very, very important to stress here that Manziel does an amazing job with this read. It's rare to see him make the wrong read, no matter where the defense shifts the MIKE to.
He's also being asked to make a read in a split-second and decide to keep the ball, give it to the running back or throw it to the "Y" on an option route. It's a one-read, but not an easy read in what he's asked to do in such a short amount of time.
Manziel's read-and-reaction time is, without exaggeration, amazing. The question will be if he can translate that one-read reaction time into a multiple-read offense—something he's never run before.
There are undoubtedly good things about Manziel as a pro-level quarterback prospect.
In fact, there were many more positives uncovered during the intense film study than I had picked up on while scouting his Texas A&M teammates for the 2013 draft class.
A. Athletic Ability
You cannot mention Manziel without talking about his ability to contort his body, absorb punishment and run away from defenders. For a smaller quarterback, he's freakishly strong and possess a stiff-arm that will knock out would-be tacklers.
The Brees and Wilson comparisons will be made, but Manziel is much more agile and fluid than either of his counterparts. There truly is no comparison in today's game for what he can do as a raw athlete at his size.
As mentioned above, Manziel does things on film that you have to rewind and watch again. And again. He moves so well laterally to avoid pressure and tacklers, and when he pulls the ball down and leaves the pocket, it's jaw-dropping to see him skirt by tacklers or outrun defensive backs to the end zone.
One of the most inspiring aspects of his game is the ability to make defenders miss and find an opening when it appears that none exists. That's a skill that will translate well from the SEC to the NFL.
C. Reaction Time
Having one second—at best—to read the middle linebacker's intentions is a good test for Manziel as he prepares to play in the NFL.
While not as complex as an NFL offense, the Aggies are putting him in a position to identify the MIKE 'backer—something Peyton Manning does before every snap—and teaching him how to read and react in a flash. And he excels at it.
Manziel doesn't get play-calls from the sideline because he's being forced to read the defense on the field. He'll need to ramp up that ability and go from reading one player to reading multiple players, but the foundation he possesses is damn impressive.
D. Arm Talent
A catchy blanket term for arm strength and velocity, arm talent has become a one-stop-shop word for a player's ability as a raw passer. It doesn't mean he's a finished product in terms of mechanics or placement, but his arm talent is at an NFL level.
I've heard comparisons to Colt McCoy, and frankly I don't see it at all. Manziel throws deep down the field regularly, while also throwing from numerous angles and roll-out positions. Arm strength isn't a concern here.
Johnny Manziel remains a work in progress. It will be very telling to see how he has improved over the course of the offseason while taking on SEC defenses without No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel protecting his blindside.
There are off-field concerns with Manziel, but as someone who has never met him or yet talked to him, I won't speculate on what type of person he is or if he can be a leader at the NFL level. That day will come, likely at the NFL Scouting Combine, but until then I can't and won't comment on his personality.
The 2013 college football season will be fueled by speculation on if he will leave College Station for the NFL, and if Manziel thinks he's ready, I see the foundation for him to be a quarterback at the next level. Taking into consideration that his weaknesses are all fixable areas, you have to like the total package that he brings.
Consider this analyst a Manziel convert. I'm all-in on his ability as a future first-round draft pick.
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