At this point in the preseason, the question doesn't seem to be if Johnny Manziel will be the starter of the Cleveland Browns, but rather when he will take over that role. When he'll start, of course, is the biggest question fantasy owners interested in selecting the player are asking at the moment.
Of course, you don't draft a lightning rod like Johnny Football in the first round with the intention of keeping him on the bench while Brian Hoyer is left constantly left looking over his shoulder. You don't put Hoyer in a position where every time he makes a mistake, he's faced with an entire city clamoring to see another man steal his job.
Manziel is going to be the starter at some point this season, and more and more it's feeling like that will come sooner rather than later. Albert Breer of the NFL Network certainly thinks so:
So, what type of fantasy impact will the rookie quarterback realistically have this season?
It's a tough one to project. But the template worth basing the answer upon is the rookie season of Robert Griffin III.
In 2012, RG3 threw for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions, and he completed 65.6 percent of his passes. More importantly for fantasy owners, he rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
Those are lofty numbers to replicate. But Manziel is the type of player who could potentially come close.
Let's start with the similarities between the players. Both are excellent athletes who can make big plays with their feet. Like Griffin, Manziel will be working with limited weapons. Both will have been on teams that want to emphasize the run game. RG3 had Pierre Garcon. Johnny Football will have Jordan Cameron (unless Josh Gordon isn't suspended for the year). And both will have worked with Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator.
That last part is an important factor. Consider the recent comments from Manziel's quarterback coach in Cleveland, Dowell Loggains, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com:
He's a pro. He comes to work every day. He's been phenomenal as far as being on top of the details. He understands he has a long way to go and work like every other rookie in this league does, including Connor (Shaw). He's been really good in the room, learning the playbook and studying.
He's an extremely talented guy. He can throw from the pocket. The thing that's going to help us is Kyle (Shanahan's) experiences with Robert (Griffin III) and things they did in Washington, and being able to move him around, do different things with him.
More importantly, the Browns seem willing to allow Manziel to be himself on the field, as Loggains added:
The fine line with coaching Johnny is, you can't take the best part of him away, and that's his ability to extend plays with his legs, and there's a fine line of going through your progressions and making plays with your legs and I thought he did an exceptional job in the [opening preseason game] of doing that.
Do you doubt that Manziel could rush for 800 yards and seven touchdowns this season? He averaged 1,084 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in his two college seasons. Yes, that was college. And yes, he focused far more on being a pocket passer last year, rushing the ball 57 fewer times than he did in 2012.
But in the NFL, when his first read isn't there or he's feeling the heat of a pass rush, Manziel's instinct is going to either be to extend plays with his legs or simply break the pocket and run for the first down. Add in the read-option the Browns are installing, and Manziel should be a major factor making plays with his feet.
And while you can make the argument that Manziel isn't quite as polished a passer coming into the NFL as Griffin was, there isn't a huge difference between the two.
|Johnny Football vs. RG3, Passing Stats in Final College Season|
|Robert Griffin III||4,293||37||72.4||10.7|
We can't make a like-for-like comparison between the two, of course, given that RG3 was always going to go into the season as the starter for Washington while we might not know for another two weeks if Manziel is going to start. And until Gordon's situation is resolved, we also don't know if Manziel will have his best weapon in the passing game or not.
With Gordon, Manziel's value is obviously higher.
Plus, RG3's injury history now serves as a cautionary tale for teams when it comes to running quarterbacks. Certain quarterbacks like Cam Newton—who is a large, powerful man—can handle a heavy rushing workload. Manziel is a smaller guy, however, so the Browns will want to protect him.
But you have to let Johnny Football be Johnny Football if you're going to play him. You have to let him extend plays. You have to utilize his legs in the running game. There's a little bit of the improvisational spirit that Brett Favre had and Tony Romo has in Manziel, and stifling that would be a mistake.
That spirit is a good thing for fantasy owners.
The best-case scenario for Manziel is that he starts the season as the No. 1 quarterback, Gordon isn't lost for the season and he never gets hurt. It certainly could happen, and his numbers could be astronomical in fantasy terms if the cosmos aligns for him.
More likely, he'll finish somewhere around 2,800 passing yards, 650 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns, and he'll turn the ball over about 17 times. For a rookie in the NFL and for fantasy owners, that's a darn good season.
That type of production would make him a mid- to low-end QB1. The problem is, will you be overpaying for him or getting him at a steal at your draft?
If you draft him now, you'll likely be getting him at a great value. In ESPN leagues, his current average draft position is 113.3, meaning you can snag him in the 12th round in 10-man leagues. He's currently the 16th quarterback coming off the board.
If, however, he's named the opening-day starter in the next two weeks, his ADP will quickly become far less appealing. Even so, at one of fantasy's deeper positions, you might still be able to get him later in drafts as other players look to safer options.
So your plan if you are going to draft Manziel is to wait on quarterbacks, pair him and another low-end QB1—think Romo, Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers—and hope that he blows up in his rookie season like RG3 did.
Given the factors at play, don't be surprised if he does just that.