It was a busted play or a thing of beauty depending on one’s perspective — and there are plenty of them.
Staring down the fearsome Alabama defense in Tuscaloosa as a redshirt freshman, Johnny Manziel caught a shotgun snap, ran into his right tackle, bobbled the ball as he stumbled back into the pocket, then rolled to his left to casually toss a touchdown pass.
It wasn’t how the Texas A&M coaching staff drew it up, but that was the signature play in an upset win that transformed “Johnny Football” from a cult hero into a household name.
Seventeen months, one Heisman Trophy, several school records and countless web clicks later, Manziel is the most polarizing prospect entering the NFL draft. Some analysts project the scrambler as a top-five talent, while others knock him for his lack of size, improvisational playing style or perpetual presence in the spotlight off the field.
If Manziel still is fidgeting in the green room when the Vikings are on the clock at No. 8 overall the night of May 8, the organization faces a quandary: Is Manziel a transformative player who is entering the NFL at the perfect time or is he an overhyped, overexposed celebrity quarterback whose unusual skill set won’t transfer to the pros?
“You’re going to hear from a lot of people that the game is changing,” said Greg Cosell, longtime senior producer for NFL Films. “Are we saying now that pocket play is down the list of attributes that you’re looking for? Is that no longer a strong requirement to play the position in the NFL? These are just questions, and smart, reasonable people will have different answers.”
Manziel breaks the mold of top quarterback prospects, and it’s not only because he likely will become the first quarterback shorter than 6 feet to be drafted in the first round since 1953.
For decades, teams coveted pocket passers such as Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe, players who stood tall and strong-armed the football to open receivers. But thanks to Michael Vick and a wave of mobile quarterbacks who have come in his wake — along with the infiltration of spread offenses and read-option concepts in the NFL in recent years — general managers such as Rick Spielman of the Vikings are forced to reconsider the future of the position.
Manziel, who has a slight build and is an eighth of an inch under 6 feet, has a more-than-competent arm and was able to threaten the whole field with both it and his legs at Texas A&M. Not only did he scramble for 2,169 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter, he also displayed uncanny body control while throwing accurately on the move, whether he was running right or throwing against the grain to his left.
“A defensive coach is going to be more apt to be interested in Manziel because they’re going to have an appreciation for what he brings to the table with those ad-lib type of plays,” said Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns GM who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Some argue he often left easy completions on the field so Manziel, who had the NCAA’s third-best passer rating in 2013, wants to prove he can play in a structured system in the NFL.
“There’s times where plays aren’t going to go as scripted as people draw them up on the white board. … There’s going to be times where you need to take off and get outside the pocket and extend plays,” Manziel said at the scouting combine in February. “But at the same time I want to be a guy who can drop back and go through my progressions, go through my reads and really take what’s given to me by the defense.”
Despite piling up 7,820 career passing yards with 63 TD passes, Manziel sometimes struggled when opponents purposefully pinned him in the pocket, and the pounding he took after taking off affected his play late last season. And although he never missed a game in college, evaluators are concerned about his longevity in the NFL.
Like Manziel on those Saturday afternoons, opinions on him are all over the place.
Todd McShay called him the draft’s most intriguing player, while fellow ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes Manziel is the biggest risk among quarterback prospects. The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock feels he is different from all the other quarterbacks he has scouted over the years. Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles QB who works for ESPN, said if he was a GM and not another one of these highly regarded talking heads he wouldn’t touch Manziel in the first two rounds.