The State of Manziel
So the long awaited pro day workout for Johnny Manziel will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. in College Station, on the Texas A&M campus. It will be a scripted 50- to 60-pass workout designed and run by Manziel’s personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield. Manziel will have four familiar receivers: college mates Mike Evans (himself a likely first-round pick), Travis Labhart, Ben Malena and Derel Walker. Because of the wide disparity of opinions around the NFL (including those among opinion-swayers in the media) about Manziel, this is probably the single most important workout any player will have before the May draft.
Manziel returned to Texas on Thursday. He’ll gather with Whitfield and the receivers and go through two or three dry runs of the script between now and late Wednesday, so when Thursday comes Manziel will know exactly what’s coming—as if he doesn’t already.
“It’s going to come down a cold, isolated execution of a workout the NFL wants to see,” said Whitfield.
Whitfield’s goal for Manziel’s pro day is to have him take a snap from center and drop back as though he’s been doing it for years, even though he was mostly a shotgun quarterback for his seven high school and college seasons. Usually, a workout shows NFL scouts and coaches what a player is going to have to do in the NFL, but it isn’t always that way.
Two years ago, Andrew Luck went to great pains to show teams at his pro day that he was more mobile than he was perceived to be. Similarly, Manziel will throw more than half of his attempts from the pocket, because anyone who’s watched tape of him understands how good he is at improvising and throwing on the run.
But no matter how good a day Manziel has on Thursday, with no defenders on the field, there still will be questions about his ability to operate in an NFL pocket until he proves himself against a pass rush. Most often in college, Manziel took off instead of taking a quick read of the defense and firing an accurate throw from the pocket when faced with pressure. “For better or worse,” said the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock on Friday, “what he needs to show the NFL, he can’t show in shorts and a T-shirt, and he won’t be able to show until training camp. I’m guessing the throws he needs to make from the pocket he’ll make on Thursday. People will want to see his arm strength and his accuracy from the pocket.”
We’re really in a fascinating time, 45 days out from the first day of the draft. We’ve gone from feeling it’s a sure thing that the top three quarterbacks—Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Manziel—are locks to be picked in the top eight to wondering if one or more of them could plummet to late in the first round, or out of it. Bridgewater’s workout was surprising last week because the ball didn’t come out of his hand with the kind of velocity NFL teams hoped to see. Bortles did well in his workout, but his deep balls weren’t accurate. Manziel goes third, in front of some skeptical NFL coaches and scouts, with a drumbeat of negativity growing louder in the backdrop. Last week, respected ESPN tapehead Merril Hoge said Manziel “has absolutely no instinct or feel for pocket awareness. When traffic comes around him, he runs, and that’s dangerous in the NFL.”
Mayock seems wary as well, but he’s also open to the seductive powers of Manziel’s playmaking ability, a trait that few quarterbacks on any level can match. “I’m a big believer in playmakers,” Mayock said. “Last year, I didn’t know how good Russell Wilson would be—and [in 2012] I didn’t know where he’d be drafted. But I did know he was like a basketball player in the gym, and when you’re picking teams, you want him on your team because you know your team will be winning all day and never have to leave the floor. It’s the same with Johnny.”
So now it’s up to Manziel to see where he fits in this draft, with so many teams at the top of the draft needing a passer, and so many that are unsure if they can trust the confident 5-11 7/8 kid with the keys to their franchise. And it’s up to Whitfield to orchestrate the show on Thursday.
“We are where we set out to be,” Whitfield told me over the weekend. “For a quarterback who took the majority of his snaps in high school from the shotgun and the majority of his snaps in college from the shotgun, he had a lot of work to do. But now five- and seven-step drops are routine for him. He can drop with his eyes closed, on grass, on turf, at full speed, at slow speed. He’s got it down. I feel the responsibility is owed to those evaluating you, to answer the perceptions people have for him. That is job one Thursday.
“This day is very important for Johnny. With him, you’ve got people saying he’s purely an improviser and has no business playing on Sundays. In this workout, he can go verify or validate a skill set he’ll need in the NFL. That’s important. I think he’s done a good job of increasing his power throwing the football. He knows at the next level he has to be able to contest the game’s best corner on the perimeter. And he is going to have throw competitive balls in the middle of the field.”
It’ll be must-see TV on Thursday, Manziel from the pocket.
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Someone Smarter Than Me Must Explain This
Blaine Gabbert was traded on March 11 from the Jags to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick.
Matt Schaub was traded on Friday from Houston to Oakland for a sixth-round pick.
Their career stat lines:
|Age||W-L||Comp. %||TD-Int.||Rating||Approx. Pick*|
I’d be worried about Schaub, a lot, because last season it looked like he had Steve Sax disease—it appeared he was aiming many of his throws, and his decision-making was way off compared to his history. But the stunner in this comparison is not really the sixth-round pick the Texans got for a quarterback who hit a wall so smashingly in 2013. It’s that Jacksonville GM David Caldwell got anything at all for Gabbert. Lucky for him, San Francisco sees something in Gabbert that GM Trent Baalke thinks his coaching staff can salvage.
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Jim Kelly Has a Lot of Friends in Buffalo
That might be the most understated line of the year. “I’ve never met anyone in life who cuts a wider swath across racial, social, age and gender lines than Jim,” Kelly’s friend and former Bills teammate Steve Tasker said over the weekend. “The support group he has right now, including people who weren’t born until 10 years after Jim retired, is absolutely unbelievable. He’s beloved in Buffalo.”
Kelly, 54, is fighting a recurrence of the cancer that struck his jaw in 2013, a cancer he thought he’d beaten after part of his upper jaw was removed. His wife and two daughters have been blogging and posting photos to Instagram and Twitter and urging friends and strangers alike to pray for Jim. “The cancer’s back, aggressive, and starting to spread,” his wife, Jill, blogged. On Friday, the student body of a Buffalo elementary school lined up in the shape of a heart to send its love to Kelly. Also on Friday, three Bills’ Hall of Famers—Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas—gathered at Kelly’s house to lift his spirits.
Tasker has also visited Kelly. They worked together doing a weekly football talk show last fall, and Kelly told Tasker he was cancer-free. But earlier this month, Kelly acknowledged it was back, and apparently it’s taking a heavier toll than the first fight last year.
“This is not a common cold,” Tasker said. “He is loaded for another fight, and he is going to fight it hard. I don’t want to give the impression that this is catastrophic because it’s not. But it’s going to be a tough fight. Jim knows that.”
On Sunday night, older daughter Erin Kelly Instagrammed a photo of her and her dad walking down the hall at the Buffalo hospital where he’s being treated for the cancer. She wrote: “So thankful that he was up for a little walk today!!! God is good!!!! And He HEALS!!! #prayersforjk”
“Everybody in the area grows up a Bills fan,” Tasker said. “The Bills become a part of your clan. Right now, Jim’s got the prayers of an entire region being said for him.”