Stock Tips: Week 3
There is a place in the NFL for both kinds of quarterback we saw at Kyle Field on Saturday, the Manager and the Magician.
Together, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel passed for 798 yards and nine touchdowns, threw two interceptions in 68 attempts (both by Manziel) and rushed for 98 yards (all by Manziel).
Talent evaluators feel strongly about both quarterbacks, the fervor split evenly between backers and detractors. After what we saw on Saturday, is there any way to project who the better NFL QB will be, the one with the Heisman or the one with the rings?
Let’s start with McCarron, and let’s start with where history will remember his time in Tuscaloosa. The kid’s a winner. The starting quarterback on back-to-back national champions, McCarron is 26-2, playing in the SEC at a time when the talent pool has never been deeper. Against A&M, he was down two touchdowns in a blink, and yet he never wavered. Instead of melting under the pressure of playing behind – for one of the few times in his career – McCarron heated up. He had his most prolific half of football under difficult road conditions (to be fair, the Aggies’ 12th man was more daunting than the 11 trying to defend against McCarron).
And when the Tide needed a touchdown late in the game to stave off what felt like another inevitable A&M scoring drive, McCarron not only called the play – a play-action naked bootleg pass to Jalston Fowler – but executed it perfectly. Game manager indeed.
What NFL scouts saw from McCarron had to encourage them. They’ve always seen him as a classic pocket quarterback, who made good decisions and could make most throws. But there always was the niggling question in the back of their minds, How much of McCarron’s success was a result of a charmed football existence? He’s played his entire college career with the best personnel around him, for the best coach in the country. He rarely had to come from behind. He rarely had to scramble or suffer a sack behind an offensive line stocked with future NFL blockers. He could hand off the ball to guys who all find starting jobs at the next level. Who’s ever had it better than McCarron?
On Saturday, we learned that McCarron isn’t just a beneficiary of Alabama dominance, he’s a cornerstone of it. There is no coach in the NFL who shouldn’t feel comfortable turning his offense over to McCarron, and he’d be an immediate upgrade at the position for no fewer than 10 NFL teams.
Is he a threat to throw for 4,000 yards at the next level? Probably not. Does he have the mobility that’s become a prerequisite for the position? No, no one will be designing runs for McCarron, though he’ll move around the pocket capably enough.
When you picture his upside, think Alex Smith, circa 2012-2013. He will be efficient, effective and win games at the NFL level. Especially if some team takes the Aaron Rodgers approach with him (I can see New England taking him in the second round and giving him time to learn the playbook from Tom Brady). McCarron will be one of the top quarterbacks picked in 2014, and it’s starting to seem like he’s a first-day prospect on a lot of draft boards.
And how about Manziel, then? What did another performance for the ages against the nation’s top team do for his draft prospects?
Let me begin by acknowledging that I have been critical of him for three primary reasons:
· His immaturity. What we saw from him in the offseason is a concern for NFL decision-makers. They’re looking for a leader, and they saw a me-first celebrity wannabe. Yes, he’s a college kid. But every day is a job interview for a potential NFL quarterback, and Manziel never seemed to grasp the ramifications of his behavior. That’s immaturity.
· His size. Manziel is listed on the Texas A&M website at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. That seems generous. But even if it is accurate, he’s shorter and slighter than all but four NFL starting quarterbacks (size isn’t a problem for McCarron, who’s 6-4, 214). When you look more like Chester the Terrier than Spike the Bulldog, you probably should steer clear of the Kaepernick Bicep Kiss we saw Manziel do Saturday and stick with the money fingers.
· His arm. I had questions about whether Manziel could make all the throws that will be required of him at the next level. He runs primarily a short passing game that asks little of him in terms of reading coverage post-snap and rarely asks him to challenge the defense vertically.
So, what did Saturday’s showing suggest about those three areas of concern?
Clearly, his immaturity off the field becomes a sort of bulletproof vest on it. The kid lives like he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, and he plays the same way. He doesn’t have the arm or build of Brett Favre, but he sure has the attitude. Favre never saw a throw he didn’t believe he couldn’t make, and Manziel has never seen a broken play he didn’t feel he could keep alive.
He may not be the classic definition of a leader – a Peyton Manning type who will demand commitment in the film room and precision on the field. But his teammates clearly buy into Johnny Magic. Whether that translates to an NFL huddle remains to be seen, but he plays with the kind of arrogance that is considered a plus.
How about his size? Short quarterbacks face an issue in the pocket, trying to find passing lanes between behemoth linemen. I don’t see that being Manziel’s problem, as his likely to be throwing on the move in the NFL more than in a fixed pocket.
But it’s his style of play that puts him at risk. Manziel is not built to sustain the kind of punishment he’ll take from NFL defenders. Ask Robert Griffin III. Or Michael Vick. You can’t help your team if you can’t stay on the field, and let’s face it – the trouble that Manziel avoids in college is going to be harder to escape in the NFL. Those plays he keeps alive, scrambling and spinning away and sidestepping, are sacks on Sunday. That horse collar he suffered against Alabama would snap him in half if it were committed by an NFL defender.
Lastly, what about his arm? This is where I think Manziel showed the most promise on Saturday. He took chances downfield that looked like additions to his repertoire. He looked confident in the vertical game, and that’s something, frankly, we hadn’t seen from him.
But the problem is his inconsistency, not as much with his arm as with his footwork. You watch him make a play – like the midfield Hail Mary completion to Edward Pope (is there anyone you’d rather have on the receiving end of a Hail Mary than a Pope?) – and you see how special Manziel can be. Four plays later, he throws a pick in the end zone which was entirely the fault of faulty mechanics. He flicked the ball, flat-footed, almost as if he didn’t feel like he needed to go through the throwing motions that mortal quarterbacks must. It was lazy and arrogant, and it showed him to be the unfinished project of a passer that he is.
To be fair, Manziel made big-time throws throughout the game. The 95-yard touchdown strike to Mike Evans in the fourth quarter? He sure stepped into that throw. And when he does, Manziel shows what looks to be an NFL arm.
He just doesn’t do it with the sort of consistency NFL scouts would like to see. And there’s a good reason for it. The kid’s a college sophomore.
Which brings us back to the original question: Who is the better NFL prospect, AJ McCarron or Johnny Manziel?
If you’re talking about the 2014 NFL Draft, the answer, without question, is McCarron. Despite his protests otherwise, Manziel really does need another year in college – to develop as a passer, maybe add a little bulk. If he stays, you’re looking quite possibly as the top quarterback prospect in the 2015 draft,
If he comes out this year, Manziel’s worth a mid-round pick.