The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 16, 2014

Manziel's draft potential rises as he proves his NFL worth

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was the most exciting player in the 2013 college football season. You never knew what he was going to do, but Aggie fans and viewers across the country could be certain that it would be special.

Manziel could hunker down in the pocket and wing a pass to a receiver far down the field. Or he could scramble away and find running room where none appeared available.

That will be the frozen image of Manziel as a college player – elusive, carefree, dynamic, spur of the moment.

So how will his style translate to the National Football League – the same game but played a different way? It depends upon whom you ask.

Those who like Manziel – they seem to be the majority – point to his improved play at Texas A&M during his sophomore season and his dedication to improving as a quarterback.

Manziel increased his touchdown passes from his freshman to his sophomore years, from 26 to 37. He threw for a higher percentage of completions (68 to 70 percent), and took fewer sacks (22 to 19). He didn’t beat Alabama last year, as he did during his Heisman Trophy-winning freshman season, but he did riddle the Crimson Tide defense with five touchdown passes.

Manziel's two-year statistics at A&M should be enough to silence any doubters: 7,820 passing yards, 2,169 rushing yards and 93 total touchdowns.

But some observers raise other questions. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, is Manziel big and strong enough to survive a brutal 16-game schedule, plus exhibition and possible post-season play? Manziel thrived in A&M’s wide-open system, but will his style adapt to a more conventional offense?

Then there's the matter of maturity. "Johnny Football" liked the carefree lifestyle most college students enjoy. But a pro quarterback is the face of the franchise, and that carries responsibility and scrutiny. Good times are limited to watching film about the other team’s defense, especially for someone new to the league.

Manziel’s next big test comes at the NFL's Scouting Combine, Feb. 22-25, in Indianapolis. That’s where NFL executives get to poke and prod the next group of talented, young players set to come into the game.

Size and speed will be documented, and on-the-field intelligence will be measured. Manziel should pass those tests in good fashion.

Yet, he'll need to sell himself as a trusted NFL commodity.

It's interesting to note how Manziel has tempered his critics and quietly moved up the list of potential top picks in May's NFL Draft. After winning the Heisman, Manziel drew attention, but his off-the-field antics raised concerns. Were they just actions of a silly kid who could toss a ball or something more serious?

As the season progressed, the debate changed. Questions followed Manziel as to whether he was more likely to emulate the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, who developed a winning style often compared to former All-Pro Fran Tarkenton. Or would he follow the career path of Tim Tebow, another Heisman Trophy-winning collegiate star whose game didn’t translate to the pros?

Manziel’s rise in mock draft lists has been nothing short of amazing. A year ago, he was slate as a late first round pick at best. Now he’s projected to go in the top five.

The Cleveland Browns seem to be clamoring for him the most, which might not be good news for Manziel. The lowly Browns have gone through a laundry list of quarterbacks over the years – where are you, Bernie Kosar? - and failed to return to relevance.

Most interesting is recent talk of the Houston Texans taking Manziel with the first pick. Until now, more likely choices appeared to have been South Carolina’s  Jadeveon Clowney, the top talent, or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, the best quarterback.

If Houston wants a gunslinger, Manziel could be the guy. He is a maverick who likes the big stage.

The question remains: Is he a risk?

Answer that one, Houston.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.