Over the next couple weeks on WFNY, I will be breaking down the film on all seven draft picks of the Cleveland Browns. As fans, we often rely on mainstream draft analysts to give us certain traits and characteristics that we use to form our opinions. Rather than simply tell you positives and negatives, the goal of this series is to better inform you by showing evidence, in GIF form, of the skills each prospect possess and areas they each must improve upon.
From the moment that Johnny Manziel walked on stage at the 2014 NFL draft and delivered the fans his signature “money sign”, the entire national outlook on the Cleveland Browns’ brand changed. Within 12 hours of drafting Manziel, the Browns sold 1,500 season tickets and a picture of Lebron James wearing Manziel’s Cleveland Browns jersey circulated social media. Manziel’s Browns jersey immediately became the best-selling NFL rookie jersey. He has since appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, partied with Drake, gained 100,000 Twitter followers within 36 hours of being drafted, attended a UFC fight, and partied with Drake some more. Within the past week, the media produced more play-by-play accounts of Manziel’s trip to Las Vegas for Memorial Day than accounts of what he actually achieves on the football field.
Given the immense coverage and scrutiny of Manziel off the field, NFL fans would hope the same level of coverage is placed on how he performs on the field. But, in-depth information on how his Heisman Trophy-winning style translates to the NFL has been sparse. Because of this change in media coverage over the years, no longer will Johnny Manziel be separate from Johnny Football or Money Manziel. For better or worse, the age of the run-focused offense, I-formation, head-to-head collisions, and pocket-passing quarterbacks has been replaced by flashy passing offenses, the shotgun formation, rules limiting contact by defenders, running quarterbacks, and many other facets designed to increase the marketability and speed of the NFL and its players. From his personality to his unique play-style, Manziel embodies all the characteristics of a modern era quarterback that the NFL idealizes.
While reviewing the eleven games of Manziel that Draft Breakdown allowed me to watch, I let go of any preconceived views obtained from the years of watching him and listening to analysts debate his merits. Some of the popular critiques turned out to be found true, but a few turned out to be unfounded or overblown. In particular, the idea that Manziel only throws deep jump balls to Evans seemed to be inflated by those who dislike him. Although Evans certainly helped reel in passes in tight coverage, Manziel only threw a few passes that I would qualify as total jump ball. In other areas, I found both positives and negatives that I found completely interesting due to how they translate to the NFL level. In particular, viewing how teams were able to control Manziel in the the pocket was fascinating as each team tried a different tactic. But, in the end, the potential that Johnny Manziel has as a dual threat, playmaking quarterback on the Cleveland Browns fascinated me more than anything else.
When watching Manziel play quarterback, nothing stands out more than his uncanny ability to make a seemingly impossible play. While classic pocket passers throw the ball away or to their hot read when pressure comes, Manziel has the elite ability to keep a play alive and find either a running lane or an open receiver. Until the whistle is blown, Manziel should never be counted out. Although this skills is his signature attribute, he must adjust to the increased speed of the NFL for it to work at the next level. In particular, Manziel tends to use his ability to escape any tackle by running away from a defender in any direction that will create space.
In this play, Manziel somehow throws a touchdown on a play that should have been ended multiple times via a sack. However, Manziel manages to completely avoid the pass rushers circling him, proceeds to jump into the defense in front of him, and eventually roll out and find an open receiver due to the play breaking down. While in the pocket, he could not find anyone open and decided to run. But, when he jumped into a defender, the play for Manziel just began. Somehow, he avoids the tackle, rolls out, and puts the defender in a position where he must decide whether to come up and challenge Manziel or continue covering his assignment. When he releases his man to play the ball, Manziel makes the perfect decision to quickly dump the ball to the receiver who scores. This play simply does not happen with other quarterbacks. Manziel’s ability to improvise and create a touchdown on a play that any other quarterback would be sacked on helps to showcase his unique playmaking ability.
Against the vaunted Alabama defense, Manziel is able to quickly step up against the pass rush and then scramble out of the pocket when the rusher grabs his foot. The balance the Manziel plays with shines through on this play as he is able to change direction while keeping his eyes downfield. Once again, most quarterbacks would be sacked on this play, but a play is never dead with the ball in Manziel’s hands. In fact, he may have been able to run for a first down as well which is why the linebacker was forced to chase him, opening up an area for the receiver. The ability to extend the play like Manziel can help offenses with receivers who lack the ability to get open on their route due to his ability to scramble and give them a second chance when they break off their route.
The characteristic of improvisation by a quarterback is not only rare, but extraordinarily difficult to translate. Defensive coordinators will scheme against mobile quarterbacks to limit running lanes and force improvisational players to beat them straight up by playing certain gameplans including containing them in the pocket. Also, the increased speed of defensive ends and linebackers will be an extremely difficult adjustment at the NFL level. However, if Manziel is able to successfully translate his improvisational ability at quarterback to the next level, the Browns would have an extremely talented, unique option.
Johnny Manziel is an extremely talented runner when scrambling as well as in a designed run. The best way to explain Manziel’s running style on a designed run is to called it the “Anti-Trent Richardson”. Rather than jump around behind the line trying to find a hole, Manziel does a good job following the blockers and trying to squeeze through the widest possible space he is given. Once in the open field, he loves giving defenders a sidestep and is not afraid to either run around or try to run over defenders. When scrambling, Manziel tends to run outside much more than inside. If the edge rushers do not contain him, Manziel tends to take advantage, as he can outrun almost any linebackers when he takes off towards the sidelines. However, when a defender, usually a linebacker, is not in front of him, Manziel loves to take advantage and run straight upfield, which he managed to accomplish on multiple occasions for massive gains.
Manziel realizes the down is third and five and his none of his receiver are open for the quick first down. However, since they are all running quick routes to the right, the defense neglected the left side, except for the linebacker spying Manziel. Of course, Manziel is able to outrun the single defender in a footrace to the sidelines and picks up 15 easy yards. This is an example of Manziel recognizing the opportunity, not thinking twice, and making a play by himself to extend the drive. The play is made easier due to Auburn’s right defensive end getting way too far upfield and leaving a void where Manziel can run freely outside.
On this scramble for the first down, Manziel makes a 25 yard gain look easy. Once again, the offensive tackles push the two defensive ends upfield which creates a massive amount of open space both in front and beside Manziel. When he realizes that the only thing between him and a first down is a big linebacker and a defensive tackle, Manziel immediately takes off. He showcases the sidestep on the linebacker who is keying on the quarterback the whole play. When a single linebacker stands between Manziel and a 25-yard gain, good things will happen for the offense. At the end of the the play, Manziel also shows his sliding ability which he sometimes disregards.
Able to Throw Great Deep Ball:
Although Johnny Manziel does not have a Jay Cutler, or Russel Wilson-esque arm, he has the ability to make nearly every NFL throw. However, as I will cover in depth later, his biggest challenge is overcoming certain technical mechanics on his throws that result in whether or not he is able to throw the deep ball. Most importantly, when Manziel steps up in the pocket, he throws a deep ball on par with nearly every quarterback with elite arm strength in the NFL. In fact, I was most impressed that Manziel never underthrew receivers when he set his feet correctly and stepped up. He always put the ball right in the receivers hands, where the defenders cannot reach, or overthrew. This is important because it decreases the potential for jump ball interceptions or deflections by the defense.
A designed rollout to the right is called and Manziel executes the rollout and pass to perfection. When he rolls out, Manziel does a fantastic job of setting his feet when he sees an opening for the receiver. When he manages to set his feet, he delivers the ball perfectly, as seen on this play. His receiver does a great job using the sideline to his advantage to help create space between three defenders and Manziel lofts the pass perfectly so his receiver catches the ball in stride and no Alabama player can come close to knocking down the pass.
Manziel showcases his arm strength on this deep out route across the field. To scouts, nothing is more impressive than completing a deep out route from the opposite hash marks, as Manziel does perfectly. As you watch Manziel’s head turn, you realize that this out route is at least his third option, as he looks off two routes across the middle of the field. Once he sees the receiver break open, Manziel does a great job of quickly setting his feet and releasing a perfect ball out of the reach of any defender.
Major Improvements from Freshman to Sophomore Year:
One of the most impressive things I noticed about Johnny Manziel was his improvement between his Freshman and Sophomore seasons. In his freshman season, Manziel had a tendency to scramble every time a defender came near him, often ruining any semblance of a pocket he once had. By his sophomore season, Manziel had this happen much less often, but he must continue to improve. He was also given more opportunities to pass rather than designed runs, which he took advantage of. Most importantly, though, Manziel began stepping up in the pocket into the defense during his Sophomore season. As a Freshman, when pressure was coming up the middle, he often threw off his back foot and across his body. This negatively affected his intermediate and deep passes, since he could not place them as well as he should. By his Sophomore season, he increasingly stepped up in the pocket and found much better results throwing the ball. Of course, Manziel still has a lot to improve, but I was extremely glad to see that he has had a previous stint of solid development.
Against LSU’s speedy defensive front in 2012, Manziel shows his lack of accuracy when throwing off the back foot. He notices the six pass rushers against his own six blockers and knows he must get the ball out of his hands quicker than normal. But, instead of stepping up in the pocket, taking the hit, and delivering a better pass, Manziel throws off his back foot and short arms the throw. When Manziel is at his worst, he is throwing terrible deep passes while falling backwards. In 2012, this occurred much too often.
In 2013, once again against LSU, Manziel steps into the deep throw and just barely overthrows his receiver. In the entire LSU game, Texas A&M had extreme difficulties getting their offense working, especially their deep balls. Therefore, although this falls incomplete, it is a good example of a throw Manziel may not have made correctly in the year prior. The improvement needs to continue, as Manziel continues to throw across his body or while throwing off his back foot, sometimes. I am encouraged, though, by his progress in this area in the past and view this as a major positive.
Great In-Play Instincts:
One of Johnny Manziel’s most translatable skills to the NFL is his in-play instincts. Although he needs to improve his pre-snap reads, Manziel has a better feel and understanding where defenders are hen he has the ball in his hands than most other quarterbacks. When scrambling, he keeps his eyes downfield and seems to find windows to throw passes through while rolling out. Since Manziel doesn’t like to stand in the pocket for too long, he uses these to perfection, especially when he can roll out pull receivers off their routes. He also has great instincts in avoiding sacks, although this has somewhat to do with the fact that he often scrambles too early.
As a freshman, against Alabama, Manziel somehow is able to escape the pocket and complete an improbable pass for a first down. Initially, he does a good job sticking in the pocket and when the defender nearly sacks him, Manziel manages to quickly step up and run outside. Even though he is escaping the pocket and has two Crimson Tide defenders right in front of him, Manziel somehow is able to keep his eyes downfield and notice his receiver coming back for the ball.
In the late fourth quarter, Manziel rolls out to the right and somehow notices that he will have room to scramble if he completely switches field and runs left. He does not even look to the left to see if it is clear to turn, but he has the instincts to understand where everyone is on the field and that there may be an opening. At such an important moment in the game, down a touchdown, he still trusts his instincts. If he can adjust to the speed of the game at the NFL level, Manziel will be able to succeed on improvisation such as this play. However, I expect him to need a healthy amount of trial and error before he is fully able to judge whether he can continue to play this style.
Improves on 3rd Down:
One of the most interesting observations I had while watching Manziel play was his innate ability to succeed in the clutch, including the red zone, third down, and end of game. In fact, the statistics strongly back up my observations. According to ESPN Stats and Info, since the 2012 season, Manziel’s 97.0 Total QBR and 53 percent first-down conversion rate on third down situations lead the nation. Although these numbers sometimes do not translate well to the NFL, I believe the success will continue simply due to the variation in style the Manziel plays with. He will take any opening he sees, whether a pass or run in order to make the first down and puts his head down to get it.
On third and long, Manziel somehow scrambles around in the pocket, eventually runs, and runs over a defender at the end of the play for a first down. The amazing balance and change of direction when Manziel leaves the pocket then turns back again to run right is simply amazing. He is a special player to be able to shake the entire talented LSU defense and manage to run for a first down on third and 13. Simply put, Manziel may be the only quarterback in the country who has the skill and determination to make plays like this third down run.
Gets Ball Out of His Hand Quickly, Accurately on Short Routes:
When football fans watch quarterbacks, most marvel at the arm strength of those who can throw laser passes or launch deep balls. Although these passes are of utmost importance, the ability to deliver quick, accurate short passes cannot be overlooked. The quicker a wide receiver can get the ball in his hands in the open field, the earlier he will have a chance to break a play open after the catch. Manziel has an uncanny ability to quickly release the ball on a rope to receivers in stride on short routes. In fact, he often just uses his upper body to throw, so he can release the pass faster. Although he does not have the best mechanics on these throws, he does more than enough to succeed.
Manziel does a good job fielding the snap and quickly releasing the ball to the receiver on the quick curl. It is a very simple route, but needs to be thrown in a small area to be successful. As a third down play, this throw needs to be perfect in the NFL for Manziel to succeed, as I expect defenses to key on the deep passes against him early and make him throw short.
The main concern about Manziel is his inability to stand in the pocket to make throws, as I indicated above. Far too often, Manziel runs out of the pocket when pressure is nowhere near him. He gets into huge trouble doing this because he often runs straight at defensive ends. When he stays in the pocket, Manziel can feel where the pressure is coming from and better adjust to how the defense plays. But, when he preemptively runs out of the pocket without pressure, Manziel tends to run straight into what the defense wants him to do. His lack of pocket presence absolutely kills him when he has been shut down in the passing game because he feels he has to do too much.
Against LSU, Manziel had major issues with finding holes in the Tigers’ defense. During the 2012 LSU game, the defensive ends contained Manziel in the pocket, allowing him to step up in the pocket and daring him to try to run outside of them. On this play, Manziel has no pressure off the edges, as the defensive ends are keeping contain, and no pressure up the middle, since the interior offensive line held up well. However, Manziel rolls to the right for seemingly no reason, and runs straight into future teammate Barkevious Mingo. Although he somehow avoids being sacked, this type of boneheaded play will turn out terribly in the NFL.
On third down and six, Manziel steps back to pass, but when he feels the slightest bit of pressure, he runs backwards rather than sliding sideways to avoid it. This is definitely correctable, but something that Manziel does much too often. Understandably, he has full confidence that he will make some sort of epic third down conversion, as he has done so often, but he must operate better in the pocket to succeed in the NFL. If Manziel could stay closer to the line of scrimmage, he would have an easier opportunity to run for the first down, if necessary. Manziel must correct this because NFL defenses will eat up a quarterback who runs backwards rather than steps up or slides around in the pocket.
Takes Unnecessary and Stupid Risks:
Too often, Manziel believes in his ability to make the impossible throw rather than simply throw to an open receiver running a shorter route or even throw the ball away. This characteristic is one that Cleveland fans will likely have to live and die with, at least for a few seasons. For Manziel to play like Johnny Football, he needs to take a certain amount of risks because, as stated above, he thrives when improvising. However, all too often, Manziel attempts to extend plays that would work if he chose to throw to the player who is not 50 yards downfield and triple covered.
On this play, Manziel completely misreads the defense and decides to take the risk of throwing at a receiver just five yards further downfield who is completely draped by a defensive back. The receiver running the five yard out would have the first down and Manziel makes the terrible decision to throw to the slightly deeper receiver and is rightly intercepted. Although this is not egregious, he clearly made the wrong read and threw an effortless interception.
This example of a questionable throw is much more risky and makes me question what Manziel was thinking. Once again, he jumps backwards with no pressure on him, whatsoever. Also, the Aggies are down just four points in the fourth quarter, so throwing a jump ball interception would be devastating. Manziel will never get away with this kind of throw at the next level and the fact that this happened in a clutch moment just last season worries me.
Questionable Throwing Mechanics:
As I have written previously, Manziel has many weird throwing mechanics that work for him sometimes, but he inevitably will rely on them too much and make an error he cannot retort. Beginning with the snap, Manziel stands straight up and down, barely moving his feet. When he needs to throw the ball, he often throws of the back foot, throws falling back, or otherwise, does not step into the throw at all. And, he consistently throws across his body like a pitcher. Manziel slowly improved his mechanics, especially his footwork, but he needs much more work to reach his potential.
In his Freshman season, Manziel had a lot of trouble with his mechanics. Although this pass was intercepted due to a miscommunication, you are able to get a good view of Manziel falling backwards as he throws and falling across his body. Manziel must avoid these mechanics at the next level to improve his passing ability. If he manages to continue to correct these this technique, Manziel will be much more likely to reach his ceiling.
Throws Contested Passes:
Often, complaints about Johnny Manziel’s passing ability stem from people’s belief that he completely relies on throwing jump balls to Mike Evans to succeed. Although Manziel takes full advantage of Evans and his height at some points, this is not as much of a concern as some people like to make it. However, I would be remiss to acknowledge the fact that Manziel sometimes throws jump balls for receivers as well as passes in areas that leave receivers susceptible to getting hit hard.
On this play, Manziel has a receiver open down the sidelines, but he delivers the ball at the exact time the safety lines up a terrific hit. Although this type of play is difficult to avoid sometimes, Manziel leaves his receivers out to dry on many plays in the medium to deep range.
This play showcases the typical jump ball throw to Mike Evans that critics often bring up. Certainly, Manziel must learn not to throw jump balls in the NFL in one on three situations, especially to the current members of the Browns’ receiving corps. However, I believe that Manziel used this type of throw when no one else was open and once he gained full trust that Evans would either knock the ball down or make a spectacular catch. I rarely see a jump ball thrown to anyone but Evans, furthering my idea that this throw is simply used due a lack of other open receivers and the matchup advantage.
Struggles Against Certain Defensive Schemes:
One of the most interesting parts of watching Johnny Manziel play against the SEC defenses was viewing the different schemes that teams used to stop him. In general, the worst defense against Manziel was a four man pass rush trying to sack Manziel with a QB spy. In this defense, the defensive ends would often run upfield, creating rushing lanes for Manziel who could outrun or juke the defensive spy locked in on him nearly every run.
In both 2012 and 2013, LSU shut down Johnny Manziel’s rushing, playmaking, and deep passing better than any other team. Their scheme was to hold their gaps on rushing downs while not falling for misdirection. Against passes, they had more talented defensive backs to guard receivers and their linemen would hold their gaps and not allow Manziel to scramble. On this rushing play, Manziel kept the ball and immediately ran into four defenders who did not bite on the ball fake. At the NFL level, Manziel must get better with both his ball fake on runs and his play action. Another way that LSU applied pressure on Manziel was up the middle with defensive tackles on both runs and passes. After watching the LSU games, I was extremely glad that the Browns managed to re-sign center Alex Mack.
In 2013, against the University of Missouri, Manziel once again had struggles making big plays. The Tigers’ defensive strategy consisted of defensive back playing ten yards off receivers and allowing short routes while focusing on shutting down all deep plays. Rather than contain Manziel, Missouri used NFL draftees Michael Sam and Kony Ealy to pressure Manziel, showing how NFL speed at the defensive end position could possibly impact him. On this play, Manziel unnecessarily rolls to the right, is blitzed, and throws a bad pass to a covered receiver. While rolling, he pointed to the receiver to go deep, but Missouri would not allow deep balls at all costs.
Lack of Height/Weight:
One of the major concerns about Johnny Manziel succeeding in the NFL rests on his ability to stay healthy. Recently, on FiveThirtyEight.com, Benjamin Morris wrote an informative article about why the Browns should worry more about Manziel’s weight than his height. While watching Manziel play, he did not play much differently due to his lack of height in weight. In fact, rather than ending runs with slides, he tended to attempt to juke or run over a defender. Also, since Manziel is such a mobile player, he manages to move around in and out of the pocket to find good throwing lanes between linemen rather than over them. Just for fun, watch Manziel try to run over the entire Ole Miss defense on the first play of the game. I hope he can stay healthy, because that kind of running effort from a quarterback is unbelievable.
Best Throw is Back-Shoulder Fade:
Most of my favorite throws I watched Johnny Manziel throw were back-shoulder fades that he threw perfectly and completely outside of the reach of the defense. Manziel consistently hits the receiver with the ball at the perfect moment, showing the timing that they have clearly perfected with practice.
On this third down play, Manziel goes for the deep back-shoulder fade rather than take a shorter third down. As he does consistently, Manziel places the ball in the perfect area in which only the receiver is able to turn and grab the ball in time. He succeeds with this pass from all different distances and areas of the field. I am looking forwards to seeing the Browns feature this play whenever Manziel gets his hot in the lineup.
Holds Ball with One Hand:
Although Manziel measured at the NFL combine with some of the largest hands of any quarterback, the way he holds onto the ball with just one hand, in traffic, is worrisome. In the NFL, the physicality gets ratcheted up, so Manziel must make sure that his grip on the ball is strong enough or he may need to change how he holds onto it. In this play against Alabama, he somehow manages to hold onto the ball while being whipped out of bounds.
Goes Deep When Defense Commits Offsides Penalty:
Although this type of play may seem unimportant, it is an area that is never, ever talked about, which annoys me. Simply, when the defense goes offsides, and it is a very obvious infraction, the offense has a free play and should throw the ball deep. Manziel takes advantage of this situation and will throw deep every chance he gets. Double coverage? He’s throwing. And he should. If he throws an interception, the offense gets the ball back anyways, so it’s in his best interest to heave the ball deep. I can’t wait for this to happen in a game because it’s that weird and extremely minor sports moment that, for some reason, I absolutely adore.
Loves to Reverse Spin when Pressured:
When Manziel is being pressured, especially when it comes from his back, he loves to reverse spin and roll to the left. This move is his go-to escape from pressure and he uses it to perfection. It will open up a new line of sight to receivers, give him an opportunity to scramble, and pull linebackers up from coverage to follow him.
Good Job Throwing Ball When Defender’s Head is Turned:
When Manziel throws back-shoulder fades or any other route where the corner is not facing the quarterback, he does a great job throwing the football while the defender’s head is turned. Sometimes, Manziel will try to throw to a receiver in a tighter window due to the head of the defender focused on who they are covering. Unfortunately he does not have confidence in some of his intermediate throws where he must thread the needle. One thing to pay attention is whether Manziel can throw the medium-distanced routes, most of which he did not use at Texas A&M.
Every time Johnny Manziel touches the ball, something interesting on offense happens. It is not an accident that he is the most popular rookie in the NFL. His massive confidence both off and on the field is so intriguing to America and his talent and reckless playing style only increase his popularity. Manziel has much to improve upon and I fully believe that he will continue to do so and begin to make a name for himself in the NFL at some point this season. Due to the increase in speed between college and the NFL, I believe the Browns are making the correct move by sitting Manziel. At some point, he will get an opportunity to make the Johnny Football plays that he became famous for, but he needs to improve his technique, pocket presence, and adjust to NFL-style defenses. I am extremely excited to see what Johnny Manziel will be able to do at the NFL level, but I am glad Mike Pettine, Ray Farmer, and the Cleveland Browns are allowing him to adjust to the NFL in a way that benefits the Johnny Manziel and the Browns over the long-term.