At first glance, E.J. Manuel looks the part. He stands at 6'4 5/8”, weighs 237 pounds and has spent many snaps under center in what many like to call a “pro-style” system. He's made NFL throws each game and shows the athleticism that personnel men are currently obsessing over. But he's been a very inconsistent passer throughout his college years, such as in 2011, which prevented him from becoming the top quarterback in this year's class despite his tools.
During the 2011 season, Manuel struggled to get the ball out of the pocket when under pressure. He frequently held the ball too long and took sacks. Other times, he tried to athletically avoid pass-rushers by running backwards and forwards multiple times despite having an outlet receiver wide open in the flats. He also made very frustrating throws, some of which resulted in mind-numbing interceptions. Despite those mistakes, many clung on to the hope that Manuel would start to realize his talent and figure out how to play the quarterback position.
Enter 2012, where he somewhat figured it out. It doesn't always look like it on tape but the Florida State quarterback improved as a passer. He did a better job of finding his outlet when there weren't options intermediate and deep. He also handled pressure better in the pocket, subtly side-stepping it as he kept his eyes up and (sometimes) reset his footwork. These areas of his game weren't there every week, as Manuel was still inconsistent, but they flashed more often than they did in the previous season, offering hope for the future.
One game which a flash stood out was against the University of South Florida. Manuel was under center and the play call was a play action fake. After faking the ball to the running back, he reached the top of his drop and scanned the field. Two receivers, one on each side, worked across the field to the opposite ends. They ran mirroring crossing routes against USF's three deep zone coverage.
While standing in the pocket, Manuel was abruptly faced with an interior rush. The defender threatened the middle of the pocket after he burst through the offensive line. With the running back to Manuel's left, the rusher had a clean look at the quarterback.
A year ago, in this same situation, Manuel would have likely dropped his eyes and taken multiple steps back to clear out of the pocket. He would have relied on his feet to pick up yards or perhaps made a questionable throw downfield. However, in this case, he didn't. He still relied on his feet but only to slide to the left and avoid the rusher, who chased into the running back's block.
Still in the pocket and now protected, Manuel reset his feet and fired a high-arching pass (as usual) to his crossing receiver, who worked in between the deep cornerback and safety, for a first down.
The throw was a possible glimpse into the future development of Manuel. Moving forward, he'll have to continue to clean up his footwork and make proper decisions with the football. The former was noticeable at the combine, where he did a better job of rotating his hips and stepping through throws during workouts. At the conclusion of them, he interviewed with NFL Network and made mention of his pre-combine preparation.
“We've [he and his coaches in Boca Raton] really been honing in on my footwork. Getting my hips and shoulders inline so I can be accurate. And even more pop in my ball and just extend my hands and throw to a spot.”
Despite his improvements this past season and leading up to the combine, there have been detractors of Manuel. Some say he's not going to cut it as a passer because of his lack of understanding of the game. Others say simply not a quarterback, as an anonymous scout told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn.
"No chance. He's just not a quarterback. No vision. No feel. Can't read defenses. Everything you need, he can't do it,” the scout said.
In today's NFL, the comment above is hard to take seriously. Teams have learned to adapt to a quarterback's strengths as they develop and that's what will likely happen with Manuel. He needs time to improve but he has a strong arm, mobility, is accurate short to intermediate and has shown improvement over the last year. He is the “wild card”, as NFL Network's Kurt Warner said, in this draft because of the above and where he could be selected.
Manuel could go very high in the draft, maybe even the first round, or in the third round. According to NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, no evaluator had the signal-caller above the third round in the fall, but now he might not even get to the third round.
Wherever he goes, Manuel has legitimate talent to work with and could be a quality starting quarterback. However, before he becomes that, he has to improve on the finer points of his game. Otherwise, he'll be another high selection bust like many other quarterbacks tend to be.