By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON — And now comes the great leap to the NFL for Johnny Football.
Johnny Manziel, a Heisman Trophy winner and one of college football’s most entertaining players, looks to translate his improvisational game to the next level. But questions abound about the quarterback’s skills and hard-partying habits.
That’s why opinions vary on where he’ll end up on draft night. Many believe he should be picked early in the first round. Others, like former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, don’t think he should be taken before the third round.
If teams are sold on him as a player, he may face obstacles from those reticent to deal with the circus-like atmosphere that seems to follow him everywhere.
It’s difficult at times to separate Manziel from his over-the-top Johnny Football persona and figure out exactly who this 21-year-old Texan is. Is he the beloved teammate who piled up almost 10,000 yards in just two seasons and put the Aggies back on the football map? Or the petulant, Drake-obsessed, swag-oozing figure who mocked Rice defenders by fake-signing autographs after he was suspended by the NCAA for an autograph offense?
The answer: probably a little of both.
But even some who question his character are still enamored of what he could bring to a team.
“As far as the face of the franchise, sometimes that’s not definable,” NFL Network lead draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I look at Johnny Manziel, whatever it is, he has it. I know on Sunday … 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. (But) I also struggle with him a little bit with his off-the-field antics.”
Manziel’s recent pro day was more like a Hollywood production than an NFL workout. There was a soundtrack featuring Drake songs; a customized wardrobe from Nike; and former President George H.W. Bush, his wife Barbara and their two dogs watching from the sidelines.
He attended this year’s Final Four with Drake, and the rapper dropped the track “Draft Day” last month in which he mentions the quarterback by name.
“When you’re dealing with a high-profile position like the quarterback, obviously there’s some well-documented things to cover and to consider,” said Jon Gruden, the “Monday Night Football” analyst and former NFL coach. “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.”
While this kind of spectacle might scare some away, from a marketing standpoint it could be a goldmine. Ken Ungar, president and founder of U/S Sports Advisors, a sports and entertainment marketing agency, says Manziel is a “marketer’s dream.” But he’s careful to point out that Manziel will have to produce in the NFL to fulfill his marketing potential.
“Even though he would inject a lot of excitement into teams like Cleveland and Jacksonville, if he’s not able to show the skills on the field, that won’t amount to much by the time October rolls around,” Ungar said.
Manziel could also fill what will soon be a void with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady inching closer to the end of their careers.
“If he shows the talent that we think he’s capable of, this will be a real boon to the entire NFL because it has to fill the pipeline of young talent as its most marketable stars near retirement age,” Ungar said. “That talent pipeline has to be fed in order to keep the NFL as the most popular sport property in the U.S.”
Questions about Manziel’s character stretch back to before he ever threw a pass for the Aggies. Before his Heisman-winning season he was arrested in College Station after police said he was involved in a fight and produced a fake ID, leading to misdemeanor charges.
He soon earned the starting job and set numerous school and Southeastern Conference records while leading Texas A&M to an 11-2 record and a victory over No. 1 Alabama in its first season in the SEC.
Manziel didn’t have any more legal problems, but there was plenty of behavior that raised eyebrows after Manziel took home the Heisman.
He tweeted that he couldn’t wait to leave College Station before his sophomore season; reportedly overslept at a football camp run by the Manning family; and was supposedly kicked out of a University of Texas fraternity party.
Then he was suspended for the first half of the Aggies’ season opener against Rice for what the school said was an “inadvertent” violation of NCAA rules involving signing autographs. He was investigated for allegedly accepting money for autographs from memorabilia brokers.
He went on to throw for 3,723 yards and 33 touchdowns and had 686 yards rushing with eight scores. Manziel finished fifth in Heisman voting and soon declared for the draft with two years of eligibility remaining.
Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, whose team picks third overall, said last week he believes Manziel is the most NFL-ready quarterback in this year’s draft. But some worry the smallish Manziel (he’s a shade under 6-foot) won’t succeed in a league where 6-5 quarterbacks are now the norm.
And will his excessive scrambling work in the NFL?
Gruden isn’t concerned about any of that.
“I’m a Manziel … advocate, proponent,” Gruden said. “I realize he’s under six feet tall. Maybe he can’t see over the line. We blew that theory in 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 … 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.”