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Comparing current players to former greats is a common way to describe NFL Draft prospects. Every team wants to draft the next John Elway, Jerry Rice, or Reggie White with their first-round pick. Nobody wants the next Ryan Leaf, hence why television commentators don’t evoke the former No. 2 overall pick’s name very often while comparing prospects to former players.
For every draft, there’s always a trendy comparison, especially among quarterbacks. Many compared Jay Cutler to Brett Favre. A few years later, Matthew Stafford was the next Elway. This year’s trendy quarterback comparison is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel to Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
Coming off a Super Bowl championship, Wilson is now one of the NFL’s most recognizable names. He’s also one of the best draft underdogs of the last two years. Wilson went in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, despite having a great senior season at Wisconsin. By no means was he a poor prospect, but at 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds, he lacked the prototype size NFL scouts prefer their quarterback to have. Had Wilson been three (even two inches taller), he’d have gone in round one. Despite his success, some teams remain leery of undersized quarterbacks.
Manziel measures in at just under 6-feet and weighs 207 pounds. Along with potential off-field concerns, his size makes him arguably the most polarizing quarterback prospect of this class. He’s the first freshman in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy. Over the last two seasons, because of his magnificent impromptu skills, he was the most exciting player to watch in all of football. Some (myself included) would argue he was must-see television for any football fan. Because of his college success, football fans are looking forward to watching him adapt to playing in the NFL. With Wilson seemingly leaving a blueprint for Manziel to follow, there’s a popular belief that Manziel’s transition to the NFL will go well. Therefore, conventional wisdom is he’s a top 10 pick.
My recommendation is to tone down the expectations. If I had to bet that one of the big three quarterbacks (Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Manziel) fall out of the first round in this draft, my money is on Manziel.
Being an exciting player doesn’t translate into NFL success. Ask Tim Tebow and Vince Young, who were exciting college players. Young won back-to-back Rose Bowl MVPs and led Texas to the 2006 BCS title. Tebow became the first sophomore in history to win the Heisman Trophy and led Florida to the 2008 BCS title. Both players wowed us with their running ability. Young did it with his elusiveness in the pocket, while Tebow was as powerful a runner as we’ve seen at quarterback in recent memory. Neither Tebow nor Young, however, had the cat-like quickness that Manziel brings to the table. They also didn’t have questions regarding their size, which is why nobody compares Manziel to either player. Instead, we get the Wilson comparisons.
It’s a lazy comparison.
It works on paper because of their similar measurables, but two players of a similar size don’t necessary play the game in a similar manner.
Wilson relies on his arm and decision-making to make plays. His legs are a luxury. When he faces pressure or a broken play, he uses his legs to extend the play. However, his eyes are always downfield searching for the open receiver. Running is his last resort. In many ways, Wilson’s pocket presence mirrors Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who uses his legs to extend plays, but his arm to make them. These were tendencies exhibited by Wilson while he played for Wisconsin. Manziel hasn’t yet displayed these qualities. Granted, he's coming out earlier than Wilson did, but that’s a decision he made. At his current level, Manziel’s instinct is to run the ball (instead of throw it) when a play breaks down. It makes him fun to watch, but it also pokes a hole the Wilson comparisons.
In fact, there’s another active player with similar instincts. Like Manziel, he relies on his legs to make plays. He also plays the game rather recklessly, which makes him one of the league’s most exciting players since the turn of the century. That player is Michael Vick.
Vick’s had moments of greatness in the NFL. In 2002, he helped Atlanta become the first road team to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field. He also led the Falcons to the 2004 NFC championship game and revived his career in 2010 by leading Philadelphia to the NFC East title. It’s also worth nothing that he missed two seasons because he served prison time for his role in a Georgia dog-fighting operation. The Eagles signed him as a backup in 2009, so he could spend a season readjusting to the NFL. He rightfully lost three valuable seasons as a pro quarterback. There’s no telling what he would’ve done in that time. His body of work suggests entertaining but inconsistent play.
The latter comes into play because Vick didn’t change his style. Like Vick, Manziel brings the wow factor every time he steps onto the field. People will watch him play. He’ll sell jerseys and make a lot of money. As we saw with Vick, though, he’ll never sustain success in the NFL if he doesn’t adjust his game. This is the case for most run-first quarterback. They tease you with a couple of quality seasons, but they seldom prolong high-level play. This happened to Vick and Young. It also happened to Randall Cunningham.
One thing working in Manziel’s favor that Vick, Young, and Cunningham didn’t have is the changing dynamic of the NFL. It’s a quarterback-driven league. The rules are tailor made for offenses to score 30-40 points per game, inflating a quarterback’s statistics.
This‘ll help Manziel. It helps every quarterback, old and young. It’ll allow him to remain himself, while he tweaks his style. It could even allow him to sustain success. He could become a more efficient passer, as he improves his decision-making. A good NFL coach could work on his eye discipline, teaching him to make plays with his arm rather than his legs
The last thing some want to see is Manziel changing his style. His reckless abandonment on the field is what makes him fascinating, but for the Wilson comparisons to stand the test of time, he’ll need to make the above tweaks to his game.
If he doesn’t, you’re looking at the next Vick instead of Wilson.