The NFL made a mistake with Drew Brees in 2001.
The league made another mistake with Russell Wilson in 2012.
The NFL will not repeat those mistakes with Johnny Manziel.
Manziel is finishing up his second season at Texas A&M, but it’s his third year on campus, having redshirted in 2011. That makes him eligible for the 2014 NFL draft if he elects to leave school early.
And the NFL is operating under the assumption that Manziel will apply for early admission to that draft. I spent the last few weeks visiting with NFL talent evaluators about how they are studying Manziel through a different prism.
Texas A&M lists Manziel at 6-1, 210 pounds. Colleges tend to pump up the sizes of their players, making them bigger than they really are. So Manziel is probably a shade over both 6-0 and 200.
That doesn’t fit the NFL prototype. But it’s an old prototype.
For decades, the NFL culled the college ranks for quarterbacks with the height and bulk to stand strong in the pocket — passers in the 6-4, 230-pound range. Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Troy Aikman all fit the prototype. All became the first overall pick of drafts, all won Super Bowls and all have busts in Canton.
Brees didn’t fit the prototype. Not at 6-0, 213 pounds. That’s why the Big Ten’s all-time leading passer slid out of the first round into the top of the second of his draft. Size was more important to NFL talent evaluators than college productivity.
The NFL should have placed a greater premium on his productivity. Brees has since gone to seven Pro Bowls and been a Super Bowl MVP. He passed for an NFL-record 5,476 yards in 2009 — one of his record three 5,000-yard seasons. No one else has done it more than once.
Wilson also didn’t fit the prototype. Not at 5-101/2, 204 pounds. That’s why he slid all the way to the third round of his draft, the sixth quarterback and 75th overall player selected. Disregard the fact his charisma and leadership skills were off the charts.
Wilson became a walk-in starter at Seattle in his rookie season and led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and wild-card playoff berth. This season, Wilson has the Seahawks perched atop the NFL with a league-best 10-1 record.
Johnny Football - Which brings us back to Manziel.
“If Russell Wilson can take a team to the Super Bowl,” said one NFL talent evaluator, “Manziel can do all that and more.”
That’s why the NFL is taking a longer look at the game tape of Manziel than what a tape measure or scale may say. The game is changing. The pocket passers are giving way to the more mobile quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Terrelle Pryor and Wilson are forcing the NFL to change its thinking about quarterbacks.
Size is no longer the issue that it once was in April.
“Ask Nick Saban how big Manziel is,” another NFL talent evaluator said.
Manziel has played against Alabama twice. Saban’s Crimson Tide has a defense that is as close to NFL-caliber as you’ll find in the college game. Manziel generated 907 yards and seven touchdowns in those two games with his arm and legs. Manziel handed Alabama its only loss in a national championship season in 2012 and pushed them to the brink in a 49-42 loss this season.
“He’s the reason they win — and you can’t say anything better about a player,” an NFL talent evaluator said. “If you are the reason, that’s a big statement.”
Manziel led the NCAA in total offense last season with an average of 393 yards per game. He ranks second this season at 392 yards per game. In his 23-game career, Manziel has nine 100-yard rushing games and 10 300-yard passing games. In my five decades watching pro football, the quarterback to whom I most liken Manziel is Fran Tarkenton, who was undersized for his era (1960-70s) at 6-0, 185 pounds. He was the original NFL scrambler who ran without a conscience. He’d ramble 15, 20, 25 yards deep in his own backfield escaping pass rushers but was always looking to throw.
Tarkenton took his team to three Super Bowls and became a nine-time Pro Bowler and league MVP. He still ranks fourth all time among quarterbacks in rushing (3,674 yards) and sixth all time in passing yards (47,003). Tarkenton also has a bust in the Hall of Fame.
The measurables - Manziel has a big man’s feet and hands in a small man’s body. He has the arm to make all the throws from the pocket, and another scout raved about his “Larry Bird instinct” — the ability to see everyone and everything on the field.
“Cam Newton is the only other college quarterback I’ve seen dominate like that,” an NFL talent evaluator said. Like Manziel, Newton won a Heisman. Newton then became the first overall pick in 2011 and won NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
There’s a premium on the quarterback position in the NFL. That’s why Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Ryan Tannehill all became top-12 picks in recent drafts. Manziel is more accomplished and more polished as a quarterbacking prospect than any of those players.
Manziel may not be the first overall pick of the 2014 draft if he comes out. But don’t look for him to slide too far. The more the NFL studies Manziel, the less it will worry about his size. He plays, he wins — and so will the team that drafts him.
Johnny Manziel scouting report
MANZIEL STRENGTHS - Competitiveness: Manziel plays his best against the best. He passed for 464 yards and five TDs against No. 1 Alabama this season. He passed for 454 yards and four touchdowns against No. 6 Auburn. He also slapped 345 yards of total offense on Alabama in 2012, handing the national champions their only loss. The NFL likes players who can rise to the occasion.
Mobility: Manziel isn’t a locomotive like Cam Newton nor is he a blur like Michael Vick. But Manziel has a feel for pressure in the pocket and a natural escape instinct. He’s performs like a basketball point guard — always looking to distribute the ball, but if you give him the lane, he’ll take it. Oklahoma gave him the lane in the 2013 Cotton Bowl, and he took it to the tune of a career-best 229 yards rushing. He rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns last season and leads the Aggies in rushing this season with 611 yards and eight TDs.
Focus: Manziel is 1-1 against Alabama and 1-0 against the NCAA. “People aren’t giving him enough credit,” said an NFL talent evaluator. “This guy has had every distraction in the world bubbling around him, and it hasn’t impacted his play. And they have absolutely zero defense. So every time he goes on the field, they have to score. And he’s absolutely delivered on that.” The Aggies rank third in the NCAA in offense and fifth in scoring.
NFL CONCERNS - Size: Manziel probably will be drafted higher than Drew Brees and Russell Wilson but still must prove he is an exception to the size rule like those two have. At 6-0, Manziel remains a small man playing a big man’s game. The offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers are all bigger at the next level. Manziel will have to find receivers through windows in the passing lanes like other short quarterbacks. He’ll have his share of passes batted down and, at 200-plus pounds, he’s one NFL sack away from the injured reserve list.
Maturity: The NFL scouting combine in February will be critical for Manziel. It will give all 32 teams a chance to sit down in a one-on-one setting with the Heisman Trophy winner and explore his off-the-field shenanigans. If and when he submits for early entry into the 2014 NFL draft, Manziel will leave his college campus behind. NFL teams must then determine if he has the maturity level to be the face of a franchise and a football millionaire.
Accuracy: Manziel has so much swagger in his game, he plays as if he’s invincible. That may fly on Saturdays but not on Sundays. “Some of the things he does are going to get him in trouble because of the (NFL) speed,” an NFL talent evaluator said. “If he throws balls up in the air like that, everyone here is going to get it.” But scouts do like Manziel’s game accuracy. He throws the ball better on Saturdays than he does on Wednesdays at practice.
Rick Gosselin Sizing up Manziel:
STRENGTHS - Plays big against tough competition.
Uncanny ability to escape pressure.
Great focus; doesn’t let distractions affect his game.
WEAKNESSES - Size. At 6-0, it may be difficult to find passing lanes to get the ball to receivers.
Is he mature enough to handle being the face of a franchise?
He will have to work on accuracy and decision-making.