Johnny Manziel: Superstar or Bust?
The NFL Draft is like the perfect TV show: it's got star value, it's got personal intrigue, it's got Mel Kiper's hair, and it's got words like "upside". What more could you want?
There's a lot of high-end prospects this year - perhaps more than any other year in recent memory - and none are as divisive as Johnny Manziel. Is he a petulant Ryan Leaf to be? Or just someone who is supremely confident in his ability, who enjoys the fruits of his success? Public sentiment, as you might guess, is mixed.
To help answer this question, and because we love math, we invented READ. And if READ is any indication, our boy Johnny Football has a pretty binary set of outcomes: he's going to break some hearts, either the team who drafts him or the team who passes on him.
Similar to how we already figured out that you shouldn't trust Montee Ball, READ starts with a a similarity scoring algorithm based off of the combine and pro day results, chosen simply because it ignores the variance inherent in different offensive schemes and the subsequent performance statistics. Because not everyone runs the same drills at the combine/pro day, we're choosing to compare them on the ones more commonly run and the ones most predictable of positional value.
From there, typically we would bake in the team analytics for their future NFL team from the season prior, and then do a sanity check by removing false positive comparables, mismatched depth chart positions, and so on. After all of this, we'd have an estimation of performance which is much more than just someone's anecdotal opinion, but rather a projection that is rooted in mathematical modeling. Whew.
Of course, since we don't know what team Manziel will land on, all we can do is look at the first part of the algorithm: comparing Manziel's raw tools to those drafted, and then looking at their rookie seasons and beyond.
The Top Comparables
Here's what we know about Johnny from the combine: 4.68 40-yard dash, 6.75 in the 3-cone, 4.03 shuttle, 31.5" vertical and a 113' broad jump. All are very good, but the shuttle is what really stands out; we'll get to that in a moment. For now, let's find the top comparables to him based on similar combine results.
|Alex Smith||94.91%||1st Rd., 2005|
|Josh McCown||94.09%||3rd Rd., 2002|
|Tarvaris Jackson||93.35%||2nd Rd., 2006|
|Christian Ponder||93.26%||1st Rd., 2011|
|Russell Wilson||92.84%||3rd Rd., 2012|
|Quinton Porter||92.73%||Undrafted, 2006|
|Jared Zabransky||92.16%||Undrafted, 2007|
|Matt Scott||91.17%||Undrafted, 2013|
|Donovan McNabb||91.95%||1st Rd., 1999|
|Randy Fasani||91.01%||5th Rd., 2002|
As you can see, it's quite a top-heavy list, and given the talk of Manziel possibly going number one to the Texans, it's interesting that the top comparable is Alex Smith, the top pick in 2005.
No one on this list looks like an absurd false positive; even undrafted athletes like Porter and Zabransky were effective and sensationally athletic in college, if not to the same degree as Manziel. Smith makes sense although his experience in Utah isn't quite the same game-worn experience as the type forged in the SEC, albeit more so than Jackson (Alabama State) and McCown (Sam Houston State).
The Sanity Check
Off the bat, it's probably fair to strike all of the undrafted guys, as well as Harnish/Fasani, simply due to a myriad of reasons that should be obvious enough as to not merit further explanation. Instead, let's hone in on the athletes who share the most similar demographic pedigree beyond the numbers. The most obvious one is Ponder; both are from power conferences via Texas high school football, both played at a high level and led their teams to significant success. Ponder was less of a runner than Manziel (and Smith), while Manziel is likely a better thrower than Wilson was and Jackson is.
Additionally, it's probably fair to assume that Manziel will be handed the reins rather quickly in his career; this invalidates McCown, as he wasn't starting significantly in Arizona until his third season. We'll leave Tarvaris in for now, with the footnote that his statistics are from his second season, which is to say the first season in which he was the presumptive starter in Minnesota. Ditto McNabb.
So now that we've thinned the herd, let's look at these guys in terms of their career efficiency metrics.
|Comparable||Similarity||Career NEP/P||Top Season (Rank)|
|Alex Smith||94.91%||-0.05||0.14, 2012 (#11)|
|Tarvaris Jackson||93.35%||-0.02||0.00, 2011 (#24)|
|Christian Ponder||93.26%||-0.04||0.02, 2012 (#21)|
|Russell Wilson||92.84%||0.18||0.20, 2013 (#5)|
|Donovan McNabb||91.95%||0.04||0.22, 2004 (#4)|
As you can see, only McNabb and Wilson ever had a season where they were in the top five active quarterbacks in the league, and only Wilson has won a championship.
Alex Smith is rounding into a very solid playmaker, but he started extremely slow and there's some serious questions about his ability to ever lead a team to a championship. Jackson is probably never going to rise above a backup from here on out, and while it's too early to really judge Ponder, the early results are not positive. And then when you factor in all of the guys we threw out, like Fasani and Harnish and so forth - the picture looks fairly murky.
So what does this say about Johnny? Admittedly, this metric is super early; we don't know the team he's going to, and it's very possible he's just one of these athletes who plays above what his raw measurables indicate. He's outplayed expectations at every level so far; does that continue in the NFL? Is he still a potential top overall pick if his realistic ceiling is that of Donovan McNabb?
We don't really have the answers. Yet. All we can really say is that based on his measurables, he compares out to McNabb on the top end, and the bottom end looks pretty rough. Factor that in with how you perceive his character to be and it might be enough to give you pause.