Johnny Manziel was the proverbial ‘black box’ of this year’s NFL Draft: even seasoned analysts and coaches were compelled to shrug with uncertainty when asked how his seat-of-the-pants style would translate to the NFL. Yes, the chicken-legged gunslinger made SEC defenders look silly for two seasons. But on Sundays? No one was quite sure how to peg Manziel’s projection to the next level.
Watching Manziel execute against professionals for the first time on Saturday, the contents of the black box were revealed. Manziel’s pro game compares to a current NFL quarterback, with some physical limitations built in.
Manziel is a six-foot Colin Kaepernick.
Lets get the obvious differences out of the way. Kaepernick has a much stronger arm, effortlessly zipping the ball downfield on a line. Manziel, by contrast, really needs his legs to do the work on his throws. If Saturday is any reflection, Manziel seems unlikely to gallop gazelle-like through NFL defenses in quite the same way Kaepernick has for nearly two seasons. (Manziel saw less daylight than we’re accustomed to on his scrambles in part because the Browns offense draws more defenders into the box than the Texas A&M spread.)
But Manziel and Kaepernick have more in common than you think. Both players can make defenders miss with the ball in their hands. Both players are transitioning from a spread offense in college to a pro-style approach, and consequently struggle to progress through their reads. And both players show less accuracy than you would like. Manziel will make some of the same jaw-dropping plays that Kaepernick has made routine; Kaepernick’s struggles will be Manziel’s.
Was “Colin Kaepernick Light” worth the 22nd pick in the NFL Draft? Tough call. Even with their quarterback a regular feature on Sportscenter, the 49ers generally go as far as their defense and smashmouth running game take them. When Josh Gordon gives way to the likes of Miles Austin at the end of training camp, this Browns team may well wish that Brian Hoyer had Kelvin Benjamin to throw to. Or another piece in the secondary. Or help along the offensive line.
But Manziel, for all his limitations, will probably give this team an offensive dimension that it has lacked for so long. He will frustrate with his penchant for bailing from the pocket, and errant balls that fall harmlessly to the turf in August may land in the arms of the first-team defenders Manziel will face during the regular season. But he will also get this team first downs with his legs; he’ll keep plays alive when less athletic QBs might have gone down; and he may eventually command enough attention that his receivers will find a bit more running room across the middle of defenses.
It will be fun to watch Manziel grow as an NFL quarterback. And while his future is unwritten, we do have a bit of a roadmap: a raw, lanky, exceptionally athletic gunslinger that emerged from a spread offense a few years ago. Browns fans can only hope that their team’s fortunes turn the way the 49ers’ did.