While Texas A&M quarterback Johnny "Football" Manziel may have a solid chance to be the best quarterback from a stacked 2014 draft class, there's also a great chance he ends up a colossal waste of a pick.
Wait, hold your trolling, flame-warring and other types of fuming. There is a huge difference between saying Manziel will be bad and he can be. In a world where every single draft pick carries some risk, Manziel carries more than most quarterbacks for a number of reasons.
Indeed, some of the best Manziel highlights end up making scouts and NFL evaluators cringe as they anticipate NFL-level talent reacting moments sooner on a deep pass—making it an interception rather than a touchdown. Worse yet, much of Manziel's in-the-backfield scrambling would end awfully quick with one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers smacking him in the face for holding the ball too long.
In scouting terms, a "boom-or-bust" prospect isn't necessarily a bad thing. Every single prospect has a chance at "booming" or "busting," but a true boom-or-bust guy like Manziel has little room in between those two extremes.
The team that drafts Manziel will either get one of the greats or be updating its resume in a few years.
The Qualifications of a "Boom-or-Bust" Player
Again, logically, any player can boom or bust, but what is it about some prospects that leaves so little room for middle ground?
First, the quality that exemplifies the excitement of the possibility of a boom is inherent natural traits—"What momma and the good Lord gave ya." Yes, players can be successful without elite physical traits (paging Tom Brady), but from a projection perspective, scouts and coaches want to see something that will propel a player physically beyond even the toughest of NFL competition.
In my scouting system—the same system used by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his personnel tree—players are graded using numbers eight and lower. Within each whole number, the "10th" place represents different qualifiers on a player's projection.
When we talk about starting-caliber prospects, we want to know about the matchups they can win and how they can win them. If I believe a player can win some matchups at the NFL level, I'll still take him and put him in my starting lineup, but not if I have a shot at the guy who can win most matchups.
With Manziel, there's little concern of him not winning matchups at the next level. The athleticism is certainly there. At the combine, Manziel was among the leaders for his position in every athletic test. The arm strength, too, is more than good enough for Sundays. Accuracy on short-, mid- and long-range throws all check out more than adequate.
“I love his competitiveness. In the right system, with the right support, I really think he can be a success.” Jon Gruden on Johnny Manziel— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 28, 2014
The potential is there for Manziel to be the best player in a great draft class.
To get the "or bust" added to "boom," players typically have something(s) holding them back. For some, it's character issues or legal red flags. For others, it's an injury history. Level of competition can factor in, as well as college scheme. No matter what the reason, players who are labeled as such have something that sticks in the craw of talent evaluators.
"I just don't see a bright future for Johnny Manziel in the NFL." - Ron Jaworski— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 26, 2014
Simply put, had Manziel been able to enter the draft following the previous season—where he won the Heisman—he may not have been a first- or second-round pick. Great collegiate player? Absolutely! Electrifying? You bet! Effective NFL-level passer? Not even close.
What Manziel has been able to do in his progression as a passer in the past 12 months with the guidance of quarterback guru George Whitfield has been outstanding. Yet the progression can't be over. This is why a player like Manziel doesn't throw at the combine. He's just not ready to showcase an arm that is being ripped apart and refined over and over again.
Throw the character stuff aside and let ESPN hash that out. Manziel can be "Johnny Football" at the NFL level, and we'll all lap it up like the pups we are.
No, if Manziel busts, it'll be because he, as a passer, simply isn't up to snuff.
College Scheme Concerns Overblown, but Still a Factor
The Air Raid is in my wheelhouse, and Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M offense has been a favorite of mine since he was running it in Houston.
As you'll see in the article linked above, concepts of the Air Raid are bread-and-butter in most NFL schemes these days. It wouldn't be weird, in any way, for a team that drafts Manziel to run more WR/bubble screens, crossing and mesh routes or four verticals down the field. Nor would it be beyond the pale for the team that drafts him to make those prominent plays on the call sheet—they probably already are.
So, anyone telling you that Manziel is coming from a "niche" college offense is clearly stuck in the Bill Parcells days. Every NFL playbook will have some Air Raid influence in it. The team that drafts him will be wise to add even more.
Still, don't discount the conversion entirely.
Will Johnny Manziel Boom or Bust?
Robert Griffin III, Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Washington provide an interesting case study. In 2012, the Shanahans installed all kinds of read-option and Air Raid passing principles into their offense in order to give RGIII a boost in his rookie season.
Injury aside, it worked like a freaking charm.
Then, in 2013, Mike Shanahan reverted to his charming self and tried to shoehorn RGIII into a pure West Coast passing attack that neither fit RGIII's skill set nor was something that was comfortable to him.
It seems strange, but sometimes the hardest thing for a young football player is to forget the terminology that has become so ingrained in him—how much more for a quarterback!
Just think, it might be the same passing concept, but now Manziel will likely be handed a third name for it after high school, college and now the NFL. It's one thing if it's simple verbiage, but not everybody picks up stuff like "Spider-2-Y-Banana" like Jon Gruden.
Even if Manziel locks down the terminology, the way he reads the field will have to change. Manziel has never been asked to read the field in the way we're accustomed to seeing from the Bradys, Peyton Mannings and even Andrew Lucks of the world.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden didn't fail (at least thus far) at the NFL level because of his age or any physical shortcomings. No, he failed because he's always been accustomed to simple reads.
In the Air Raid, it's almost like the option: If "A" equals "B," do "X"...touchdown! The NFL, with more complex coverages and better defenses, often becomes the quantum physics version of that simple algebra.
Oh, and the whole game is moving about twice as fast.
The "YOLO Pass"
When all that goes wrong for Manziel, what's left?
One of my favorite ways to look at a prospect is to ask this question: When all else fails, what does this player lean back on—and is it a good enough trait to still win matchups at the next level?
Many players rely on speed, strength, acceleration, toughness, an encyclopedic knowledge of the game or even simply their physical size. For quarterbacks, though, it's not that easy, and it's far too easy (read: lazy) to think that Manziel relies upon his legs.
Unlike Tim Tebow, Cam Newton or RGIII, Manziel isn't going to be a consistent running threat at the NFL level. He'll run, yes, and he'll even have QB-designated runs drawn up for him. Yet being a consistent runner isn't the "fallback" part of his game.
No, he's more in the Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck mold, where—when he's running—it's usually behind the line of scrimmage in order to extend the play. I call it his "crazy eight" routine, where he just runs figure eights in the backfield and lets pass-rushers flail around him.
Manziel isn't doing that to run, though sometimes he does. No, he's doing it to break down the defense to throw what is increasingly being called "The YOLO Pass." (YOLO, for those of you who are lucky enough not to know what it means, is an acronym for the phrase "you only live once.")
Although Luck loved to extend plays with his athleticism in college and has had to do it increasingly at the next level, he doesn't really throw the YOLO pass. Roethlisberger does occasionally, but not to the degree Manziel thrives on the pass.
The YOLO isn't just a throw into coverage, and it isn't just a high-risk, high-reward throw. Instead, the YOLO pass is a heave down the field to a spot where one's receiver has to go and get it. Of course, at the NFL level, safeties tend to lick their chops at those as well.
Brett Favre made a living on the YOLO throw. He also threw an incredible number of interceptions that way. In today's NFL, with more zone blitzes and better single-high safety coverage, the deep heave down the field is even more risky.
Favre also had some fantastic receivers to go get those passes, and Manziel had Mike Evans at A&M. If Manziel ends up in a situation without a solid receiving corps (the Oakland Raiders come to mind, or the Jacksonville Jaguars if Justin Blackmon doesn't get his head screwed on straight), what happens to those passes?
None of this means Manziel won't succeed at the next level. If I were running a franchise, I wouldn't hesitate picking him up, because he has the chance to be truly special. If he's going to hit that ceiling, though, he's going to have to learn to play in new and advanced ways while learning to adapt his go-to move into something more NFL-friendly.
Otherwise, he won't be one of the best of all time. He'll just be remembered as one of the biggest mistakes.