Johnny Manziel isn’t a perfect NFL fit, but the right team might consider some tailoring

Sally Jenkins
Columnist May 7

NFL teams that use top draft picks on quarterbacks tend to prefer them to be statuesque, unflappable in times of violent pressure, solemn in public, and unfailingly purposeful. Also, if possible for the marketing department, yellow-haired. That’s not Johnny Manziel. He doesn’t play football as if he’s tasked with saving the whole human race.

Watching personnel experts torment themselves over whether to take the leap on Manziel has been the chief amusement of this fallow period waiting for the draft. There is a perplexity over Manziel that you don’t usually hear from NFL experts, who like to think they reduce the draft to information science. The unusually long wait for this draft has given them “more time to overthink and find busy work,” says former executive turned ESPN analyst Bill Polian.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The questioning and double-questioning of Manziel, the uncertainty over whether to take him early or late, has created a ripple effect until no one is quite sure what they’re looking at, even in appraising a more conventional talent such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.

“There is more diversity of opinion on the top quarterbacks than I’ve ever seen,” the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said.

The team that drafts Manziel will be letting itself in for a certain amount of uncontrolled madness. And NFLers like control. Manziel presents them with an agonizing choice: Do they go for his blazing dramatic energy, and risk that he could be a bust? Or do they pass him up, and risk that he will become the face of someone else’s franchise? With Manziel, you don’t get control. You get peril and potential astonishment.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Redskins should choose the best available player for their second round draft pick, or if they should try and fill holes in the team's roster instead. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“He’s almost in a separate category,” Polian says.

He runs like a doe, and he likes to go on heart-clutching adventures. There is the sense that Manziel literally likes to “play” the position. He’s the most fun ever, partly because he takes the whole enterprise more lightly than perhaps he should. After his pro-day workout he must have used the word “fun” a dozen times in an interview with the NFL Network.

“It’s the game we all love, let’s throw the pigskin around and have some fun,” he said. “Let’s make it as challenging as we possibly could, let’s get throws on the run, let’s get stuff in the pocket to reset, let’s go out and have fun more than anything.’’

With Manziel you get someone who’s going to visit the lowlier districts, both on and off the field. This delights his legions of fans, but it arms potential critics. Draft Manziel, and you could be hearing a chorus of them echoing what Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford tweeted this week, that Manziel plays “backyard ball” and has to “learn how to be a QB.”

With Manziel you don’t get the “ideal” quarterback, you get a fidgety slightly undersized playmaker whose main potency is his unpredictability, who will give your team vitality, and make the ball flip, dip, and soar. But will he adhere to the text? Will he follow instructions? Maybe not. He might outgun the game plan.

“Whatever it is, he has it,” Mayock says. “I know on Saturday, Sunday, whatever day you play on, he’s going to show up with an edge about him thinking he’s the best guy on the field and he’s going to elevate the play of those around him. I believe that. I also struggle with him in his off-the-field antics.”

The team that takes Manziel will need a strong belief in players who defy the “measurables.” That kind of team will understand why a player with only a 4.6 time in the 40 seems to have so much speed — it’s because of his quick lateral movement.

“If you’re gonna draft Johnny, what you want to do is tailor your offense to what he can do, and not put a square peg in a round hole,” Polian says. “You got a guy who without question can do wonderful, magical things.”

The sheer anomaly of Manziel’s talent has everyone in the league ruminating and puzzling over him, not just the scouts and GMs. How effective will those open-field jaunts be when the guys chasing him are bigger and stronger? And can he take the hits? These topics intrigue Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

“We’ve seen some of the scrambling-, jumping-, throwing-, flipping-type things he can do and it makes your jaw drop because it’s special stuff,” Roethlisberger said in a radio interview. “Does that translate to the NFL? I don’t know. . . . You better be really athletic, or get down, or be big. I think he definitely has a lot of upside, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Manziel is an outlier in a league that likes to cut men to certain sizes, and cram them into molds, templates and prototypes. He takes some of the science out of the draft and restores the human. He also exposes it as the chancy shell game that it really is.

“Look, we’re trying to project human beings into slots at a higher level of football, and that’s hard to do,” Polian says. “It’s no different than any other human resources operation. You’re gonna be wrong a fair amount. It’s not an exact science, and you can’t make it so.”

Maybe Manziel will be a boom for a team, maybe he will be a bust, or maybe he will become a more conforming player. But what’s certain is that watching it will be entertaining. You’d like to see his sense of fun not just survive, but thrive.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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