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Friday, Aug 29, 2014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Is Johnny Football future NFL star ... or a bust?

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— Blake Bortles is bigger. Teddy Bridgewater is more adept at reading defenses. Derek Carr has a smoother delivery. Zach Mettenberger boasts a stronger arm.

So, why is everybody so entranced with this Manziel guy?

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel looms over the upcoming NFL draft like few prospects in recent memory. And it’s not the 7,820 passing yards or 63 touchdown passes that stamp Manziel as the most talked-about player in this class.

It’s his style.

You’re not dubbed “Johnny Football” for tossing a pretty pass or patiently reading through your progressions.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is generating unique buzz because of his charisma and widespread fan appeal, even as some NFL executives and coaches might be troubled by his off-field issues.

“Manziel brings energy, brings leadership, brings competitiveness,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said. “He has the ‘it’ factor. He’s got that magic everybody talks about.”

Some draft pundits believe Manziel will be selected by the Texans with the No. 1 overall pick Thursday night. Other analysts predict he will tumble until the middle or late stages of the opening round.

He has been linked to the Bucs at No. 7 and the Cowboys at No. 16. He has been compared to Brett Favre and Fran Tarkenton, while others label Manziel a potential bust at the pro level.

When Manziel staged his Pro Day a month ago at College Station, Texas, 75 representatives from 30 of the NFL’s 32 teams attended, along with one former U.S. president.

George H. W. Bush showed up to see what all the fuss was about, and Manziel responded with a dazzling workout in shoulder pads and a helmet, as only two of his 65 throws hit the ground.

“I would have to say this is the biggest spectacle as far as pro days that I’ve ever seen,” said former All-Pro quarterback Kurt Warner, covering the event for NFL Network. “Unfortunately, good and bad, there’s been a lot made of Johnny Manziel. There’s been a lot surrounding him, a lot of questions about him, but he’s a guy that intrigues you.”

On the scale of polarizing quarterbacks, Manziel is right up there with Tim Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida who led the Gators to a pair of national championships. A first-round draft pick in 2010, Tebow led the 2011 Broncos to a playoff victory, only to find himself out of the NFL two years later.

“I think the kid loves competition,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said after Manziel’s Pro Day. “I think the kid lights up like a Christmas tree when all these GMs are here. Do you want a guy that lights up, or a guy that shrinks?”

Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice compares Manziel’s passing skills and mobility to former 49ers teammate Steve Young, who also has a bust in Canton.

“I think it’s a no-brainer for the Houston Texans to take this guy,” Rice said.

It’s not that simple, however.

Manziel’s commitment to the game has been questioned, along with his ability to hurt teams downfield from the pocket.

In a 34-10 loss to LSU last November in wet and windy Baton Rouge, La., Manziel completed only 16 of 41 pass attempts, suffering two sacks and two interceptions as A&M’s streak of 13 consecutive games with at least 40 points ended decisively.

The Tigers defense effectively prevented Manziel from buying time outside the pocket, negating his 4.7 speed by keeping him between the tackles.

Two months earlier, Manziel ripped Alabama’s proud defense for 464 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 49-42 setback as the Tide yielded 628 total yards — the most in school history. Manziel also ran for 98 yards that day but threw an interception that safety Vinnie Sunseri returned 73 yards for a score.

“He’s an unbelievable player,” Sunseri said after the Tide barely held on. “I don’t care what he does off the field.”

Manziel’s reputation as a party animal could hurt him with the NFL’s more conservative organizations, who would rather not deal with the media attention sure to follow Manziel to the pros.

At Jon Gruden’s quarterback camp for ESPN, he told the former Bucs coach that he got carried away with his celebrity status.

“During the spring, after the Heisman, when things happened so fast, I did too much,” Manziel said. “I put too much on my plate and didn’t say ‘no’ enough. I should have stayed in my realm, stayed in College Station and hung out.”

With Manziel’s height checking in at just under 6 feet, some NFL coaches might be wary of his ability to see over onrushing linemen.

“I feel like I play like I’m 10 feet tall,” said Manziel, who was picked off 13 times last year, compared to 13 for Bortles and Bridgewater combined.

“He’s a pass-fail quarterback in terms of how he’s graded,” Kiper said. “Either you really want him or you don’t. He doesn’t fit any system. You have to create plays for him and try to figure out ways to maximize his improvisational ability and his unique talents. … You either love him or you don’t.”

Gruden has clearly fallen for Manziel’s charms.

“I don’t have any concerns — I’m a Manziel advocate,” Gruden said. “I want Manziel. I realize he’s under 6 feet tall. Maybe he can’t see over the line. We blew that theory out of the water last year with (Russell) Wilson and (Drew) Brees. I know he can learn. I spent two days with him, and I know he wants to learn.”

Sitting at No. 4 and needing a dynamic face of the franchise to excite their fan base, the Browns continue to internally debate Manziel’s merits.

“He’s not the quintessential guy who everybody points to and says, ‘This is how you would draw it up,’ ” Cleveland GM Ray Farmer said. “That speaks to a lot of what Johnny has been his entire life.”

If you’re seeking the next Peyton Manning or Dan Marino in this draft, skip over Manziel and look for a traditional pocket passer.

The only thing traditional about Manziel? He throws with his right hand.

“He had four different offensive coordinators at Texas A&M, he had two different head coaches,” said Gruden. “It didn’t matter. He adapted and did extremely well. In two years at Texas A&M, he had the most productive back-to-back seasons in SEC history. I don’t know what you want him to do. He threw for eight thousand, ran for two thousand, he has 93 touchdowns. All I know is I want Manziel.”

That’s a chant you might hear quite a bit in NFL stadiums this fall.

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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