Seeing your team use the first overall pick is supposed to be a rare opportunity for a fan base. Unfortunately Texans fans have had that bittersweet occasion three times in thirteen years now. Thankfully the hard part, watching your team turn in the worst performance in the league, is over with. So now begins the fun of prognosticating who will be the cornerstone of the newly hired coaching regime.
As I see it, there are three viable prospects for the Texans to take--Louisville Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, South Carolina Defensive End Jadeveon Clowney, and the dark horse, Central Florida Quarterback Blake Bortles. Some Texans fans, likely with an agricultural or mechanical background, probably throw Texas A&M Quarterback Johnny Manziel in that mix. I do not.
I am not a fan of Manziel as a person, but this has nothing to do with why I wouldn’t consider him for the first overall pick. I’d like to see the Texans win the Super Bowl, so while it is easier to cheer for players like J.J. Watt, I wouldn’t care what type of personality the starting quarterback had. My issues with Manziel are rooted in his play.
I don’t care about Manziel’s size either. NFL coaches and scouts are more open minded about height at the quarterback position thanks to the success of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. Don’t kid yourself, though; if given the choice between two equally talented signal callers, but one is 6’0" and the other is 6’4", there wouldn’t be a lot of consternation about the decision.
The most significant issue with Manziel isn’t his size. It is his freelance nature. The same style that produces highlight reel plays, such as the now famous escaping act against Duke, drives controlling, offensive-minded head coaches crazy. We don’t know much about Bill O’Brien as an NFL head coach yet, but he doesn’t strike me as the type of guy that enjoys improvisation.
For years I have listened to and read everything generated by Greg Cosell, who I consider to be the best NFL and draft talent evaluator based on film study. Cosell believes that to succeed in the NFL, a quarterback must play within structure. To paraphrase his definition of structure, it is the intent of the offensive concepts designed by the head coach. The ball needs to come out when designed, the drop needs to involve specific footwork and number of steps, etc. This allows the blocking scheme and receiving routes to work in sync with the quarterback in the chaotic few seconds before the pass rush inevitably collapses the pocket.
In 2010, Cosell was one of the few analysts with anything negative to say about then Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting QB Josh Freeman. In his sophomore season, Freeman had an impressive 25/6 TD to INT ratio. Despite this statistical success, Cosell noted that most of these positive plays were coming when Freeman was playing outside of structure, i.e., when the play broke down and Freeman was forced to improvise and make something happen. Cosell contended this success was an anomaly and could not be sustained as it came outside of structure. The next year Freeman’s TD to INT ratio fell to 16/22.
Playing within structure is the only way to achieve consistency in the NFL, and consistent play from your quarterback is easiest and likeliest way to win in the NFL. Coaches do not like relying on plays outside of structure because while they might carry the wow factor, there is no way to ensure sustained success. Certainly there is a place for extending the play in the NFL, but you cannot rely on these plays for the predominance of your success. Any time the quarterback leaves the pocket, offensive concepts break down and a scramble drill is all that is left. Nothing is by design.
Some might contend that it is unfair to say most of Manziel’s success came outside of the structure of Kevin Sumlin’s offense. In his two year career, Manziel’s two worst statistical games were both against LSU. Last year, I noticed while watching film of Barkevious Mingo that LSU employed a "mush rush" against Manziel, meaning that the line all held their respective points of attack and made Manziel pass from within the pocket.
This season LSU employed the same defensive strategy. In two games against LSU, Manziel was 45 of 97 (46%) for 500 total yards. 250 yards per game doesn’t sound terrible until you dive deeper and realize that’s 5.2 yards per attempt. The most damning statistic is his 1/5 TD to INT ratio. Manziel simply couldn’t exploit LSU’s secondary despite facing little pressure, which was by design.
All this isn’t to say Manziel will fail in the NFL. A coach could harness his athletic ability while simultaneously convincing him of the merits of the offensive concepts. Why take that gamble with the first overall pick? What does Manziel have over Bridgewater or Bortles that warrants the project of making Manziel a timing and rythym quarterback? His arm isn’t stronger than Bortles' in my opinion. His command of the offense, accuracy or anticipation doesn’t even come close to Bridgewater’s. And we all know he doesn’t have the size.
If your reason is the excitement he brings, I would contend that nothing is more exciting than winning, even if it is with a ho-hum, non-flashy quarterback. The Texans have never had a problem selling tickets. If all you’re left with as a reason to draft him is where he played college football, I can tell you I would not care if he played ball in my front yard. All I care about is winning, and I see no reason why Manziel should be considered the best option to obtain that result.