TAMPA — Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel plays an instinctive, playground style of football. Raw, passionate, improvisational. But his chance for success in the NFL is just as unpredictable.
No player has elicited as many varying judgments as Manziel, the 5-foot-113/4 gunslinger and risk-taker who has team executives from Oakland to Tampa Bay pouring over his video to determine how his game will translate to the next level.
His mechanics can be awful, but his arm is strong and accurate. He is too quick to flee the pocket, but his vision downfield is uncanny. He shines under the brightest lights, but his maddening off-field decisions are those of an impetuous kid.
"I look at Johnny Manziel. Whatever 'it' is, he has it," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I know on Saturday, Sunday, whatever day you play on, he's going to show up with an edge about him thinking he's the best guy on the field and he's going to elevate the play of those around him. I believe that. I also struggle with him a little bit with his off-the-field antics."
Some watch Manziel scramble, keeping his eyes downfield, and see Russell Wilson. Others worry his forays from the pocket and slight frame will result in certain injury.
"I don't have any concerns," said former Bucs and Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "I'm a Manziel — I don't know what the word I should use is — advocate. Proponent. I want Manziel. I realize he's under 6 feet tall. Maybe he can't see over the line. We blew that theory in the water last year with Wilson and (Drew) Brees. I know he can learn. I spent two days with him, and 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 8,000 (yards), ran for 2,000, he has 93 touchdowns. All I know is I want Manziel."
Manziel may be the most scrutinized passing prospect in the draft, but every quarterback in this class has flaws. Central Florida's Blake Bortles, 6 feet 5, 232 pounds, has all the physical components to become a prototypical signalcaller. But his arm strength isn't elite, and he played a lower level of competition.
Lousiville's Teddy Bridgewater was thought to be the highest-rated quarterback entering the college football season, but his disappointing pro day workout and limited arm strength have him "taking on more water than the Titanic,'' says ESPN's Adam Caplan. Bridgewater is encouraging evaluators to focus on his game tape.
"I've done a lot of individual workouts in my past as a receiver coach, as a quarterback coach, even as a head coach. If the player didn't work that well for me, I didn't move them down, I took them off our board," Gruden said.
Fresno State's Derek Carr started for four seasons, and he might be the most NFL-ready. But he struggled in his final test against Southern Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl, averaging only 3.9 yards per completion. There's also his last name. Older brother David was the first overall pick of the Texans in 2002 and never lived up to expectations.
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Slipping into the second round could be former Plant and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger — both recovering from torn ACLs —- as well as Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
"The only two quarterbacks that could potentially step in and play Day 1, and I wouldn't want either one of them to, is Johnny Manziel because his style is so different, and maybe Murray from Georgia, even though I'd be worried about his knee, because he understands the game so much," Mayock said.
As usual, there is no shortage of QB-needy teams. Four — the Texans, Jaguars, Raiders and Browns — pick ahead of the Bucs' No. 7 overall selection.
The Bucs signed Bears free agent Josh McCown to a two-year, $10 million contract, immediately naming him the starter. But McCown is 34 and not a long-term solution. Backup Mike Glennon may not be the best fit for the offense under new coordinator Jeff Tedford and there are reports the Bucs may attempt to trade him if they draft a quarterback.
Manziel would seem to be the only quarterback the Bucs might be willing to take at No. 7. Coach Lovie Smith was impressed with his workout, which he attended. There's another side of Manziel, who wears his celebrity like a second skin.
It's what happens after you become the first to win the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. He hung with rapper Drake, met LeBron James, attended the Super Bowl and threw out the first pitch at a Rangers game. He also overslept at the Manning passing camp and was sent home, and got into hot water with the NCAA for allegedly selling autographs.
"We enjoyed every minute was here," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. "Sharp guy."
In the end, when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks, you have to be a little like Manziel and use your instincts.
"Everything is evaluated on and off the field," Gruden said. "When you're dealing with a high profile position like the quarterback, obviously there's some well documented things to cover and to consider. Johnny Manziel had George Bush at his pro date. Manziel brings a lot of excitement and interest to your organization. Maybe some people don't want to be part of it. That will be up to them. But everything will be carefully scrutinized."