Regardless of your opinion on EJ Manuel, there is no denying that he is one of the most intriguing QB's to enter the draft in the past decade. His rare combination of athleticism, size, arm strength, production, and leadership ability would usually warrant a spot in the top 5. In Manuel's case however, the simplicity of Jimbo Fishers passing offense has left many scouts wondering if Manuel is a true arm talent who can succeed in the NFL, or merely an athlete playing QB in a vanilla system. Personally, I saw a lot of positive signs from Manuel that suggest he is an NFL QB in the making. However, there are also some clear areas of weakness that will need to be adressed before he is capable of playing at a 1st round level. Before diving into those subjects though, I thought it might be helpful/interesting to explain the offense that Manuel ran at FSU and how it differs from NFL systems.
FSU Offensive Scheme
The FSU offense with Manuel under center was built on 3 concepts: short passing, option runs, and play action. I would assume most people understand the concept of the option offense, and since this has little application to the NFL I'm going to skip that portion of the offense. Let's start with the passing game, which is based on very simple route combinations. The basic principle behind this passing attack is not unlike the option run game- force a defender to choose which of two near by offensive players he will cover, then throw the ball to the opposite receiver. Here is an example of this concept in it's most simple form:
* I apologize for the picture quality. If it's helpful, nearly all picture sequences are pre-snap, 1-2 seconds into the play, the moment the QB releases the ball, and when the WR makes the catch. Also all pictures are from the Clemson game. I've studied his tape from 5 games this season, but this is just the one that I stole examples from.
One receiver runs a button hook, the other essentially runs a swing pattern to the outside. With the outside CB giving cushion to the point where they are not in the picture, the OLB/SS (orange star above his head in first frame) becomes the man who the QB will read. If he covers the hook zone, the QB will throw to the swing WR (as shown), and vice versa. The concepts of this passing attack, such as overloading a particular zone, are present to some degree in every passing attack in the NFL. However, FSU was unique in that it was the primary and only means off attacking the defense through the air. If neither of these targets are open, Manuel either attempts to improvise with his feet or gets rid of the ball.
It's important to note that there are also a TE and WR on the left side of the formation who will also be running a route combination. The QB must read the defense before the snap, and determine to which side of the formation they will look to and which defensive player they will key in on. Sometimes the decision of which side to attack is eliminated when the offense goes with trips to one side of the formation.
Here the OLB blitzes, leaving the MLB for the QB to read. The slot WR runs up the seam, drawing the attention of both the outside CB and the S. The FB/TE who came in motion prior to the snap runs a basic out pattern, which the MLB hurries over to defend. Unfortunately for him, he fails to identify that the outside WR stopped running deep and 'sat' in the deep hook zone. Manuel identifies that the MLB is on a full head of steam trying to catch up to the TE and will not be able to stop in time to cover the WR. The result is an easy 28 yards.
These simple concepts and a solid running attack allowed the Seminoles to put up some good numbers on offense, but perhaps their best weapon was the play action pass.
This simple bootleg sends a TE through a zone to clear it out, then sends two more receivers through that same zone an instant later. Here, the CB who was supposed to be the read in coverage gets sucked into the backfield on the play action, leaving both of the targets open. Manuel makes a simple dump off to get the first down, but one thing that was apparent on tape is that he is capable of much more difficult throws while on the move.
This offense didn't take a lot of shots down the field, but often times when they did attack the intermediate-deep zones they did so off the play-action.
Here the play action is accompanied by 2 outside WR's running streaks on the outside and a TE working up the seam. The PA draws the LB's forward, while the outside WR's keep the safeties on there heels. This creates a large zone over the middle where there is no coverage, and the TE is easily able to cut his route across the formation and catch a ball that Manuel put on a rope. It was a pretty play, but it looks to me like Manuel almost ruined it by staring down the TE long before his break. Bad play by the safety, who I am hoping wasn't Meeks.
Parts of Manuel's game that projects favorably to the NFL
First and foremost, Manuel generally made very good decisions last season and did a pretty good job taking care of the football and avoiding throwing into coverage. It's not a complicated system by any means, and you would expect any draft-able QB to make relatively smart choices in that situation, but you can't hold it against Manuel that he did exactly what was asked of him.
Secondly, Manuel's mobility and size will be a huge advantage at the next level. Forget the read option and designed runs (which Hackett will have plenty of up his sleeve), but his ability to take off from the pocket when nothing is there is what will really give defensive coordinators headaches. If the way teams played Kaepernick down the stretch last season is any indication of how they will try to stop Manuel it will open things up for the passing game a great deal. In addition, he seems to have that Roethlisberger esq feel for pressure in the pocket and he uses his athleticism well to avoid it.
Third, the fact that he throws a good deep ball, in combination with both he and his teammates speed, will open things up on offense in ways the Bills fans could never have even imagined possible with Fitzpatrick under center. Just as a single example, check out this bomb in this same game against Clemson:
And finally, there is one thing that I ocasionally saw in Manuel's game that I find very promising.
The following is a simple 2 WR route combination with both WR's are single covered. The CB is running step for step with the WR, while the OLB is closing down on the RB swinging into the flats. Many QB's at the collegiate level who are only used to running this simple scheme would respond to this situation by dumping it off quickly and trying to give the back time to make the OLB miss a tackle. Manuel, however, recognizes that his WR has inside position and will be breaking back on a hook. Not only is it a perfectly placed ball where only his man can make a play, but it's especially encouraging because when we released the ball (3rd frame) the WR had not yet finished his route and was still facing the other direction. For a QB that was generally only asked to make simple reads and hit a lot of wide open WR's I find it very impressive that he shows signs of people able to anticipate and throw WR's open this early in his career.
What areas he will need to improve before he is ready to be a starting QB in the NFL
When a passing attack is based on one read, followed by the decision to pass or hold on to the ball, the most difficult thing to project to the NFL is how that QB will handle complex defenses and go through their progressions in the pocket. Say what you will about Geno and Nassib, but they both showed the ability to scan a defense and go through their progressions all the way down to the 3rd and 4th options. For example:
Geno (left) starts at one side of the field with his primary target, then shifts to the middle to check out his second and third options before looking all the way to the far sidelines to hit his 4th option for a first down. Nassib also works his way across the field, and then works back in the other direction before finding an open man who was able to draw a crucial pass interference call. They had all day to throw, and had a clean pocket, but in similar situations I see Manuel look at his first and second options then try to take off running rather than stay put an find an open man. In fact, I think that is one of the biggest areas Manuel needs to improve on moving forward- relying on his arm rather than his legs. Here is one example on a 3rd and 15 play against Clemson.
I put yellow dots on the DL head to show where they are and the blue box represents an area with a clean pocket. Manuel seems to be looking left to his two WR's, but they seem to get in each others way and get slowed down and bumped off their routes while simultaneously a DT starts to drive through the OG and falls near Manuels legs. He calmly steps to the side and finds a clean area, which would show great poise if he reset his feet and kept his eyes down the field. Instead, he got nervous that his primary WR's weren't there and he panicked and took off running. The DE was able to slow him down once he ran past his OL and he got tackled after a 5 yards gain, bringing the punt team out. Here's the thing though: if you look at the 3rd and 4th frames closely, it looks like he would have had his inside WR on his right open across the middle or even his primary WR with a little window up the seam had he stayed in the pocket and reset his feet. He will have to learn to trust his arm more than he does his legs to make it in the NFL.
Another issue that I saw is he has a bad habit of telegraphing his passes.
When you only have two targets and they are close to each other it can be tough to look off the coverage, but in the NFL he won't get away with completely staring down the WR like de does here. NFL safeties and the coverage savvy LB's won't take the bad angles these defenders did and they would take that ball a long way in the other direction.
Ideally, you want to have the ball out in front of the red line in the black box (strike zone) to allow the WR to catch it without breaking stride. Anything between the red and grey lines will cause the WR to lose half a step and, when there is tighter coverage like there will be in the NFL, it will have a higher likelihood of being knocked away. Spread QB's in college don't usually have to make a lot of throws into tight windows, so evaluating there ability to make "NFL throws" is difficult because there is only a limited sample size. EJ Manuel does not have an "accuracy issue" like some suggest. He isn't an erratic thrower. He has a ball placement issue, and it's only an issue in that he has been hit or miss in his limited opportunities to make difficult throws. I think part of the inconsistencies boil down to footwork as he has a tendency to throw from an open stance and rely heavily on his arm and shoulder rather than using his legs. He's strong enough to make it work when his guy is very open, but he needs to get in the habit of throwing his good mechanics at all times. He will quickly learn, 'open' in the NFL is what you call 'covered' in college, and he will be thankful for the extra zip from the lower body when fitting it into tight windows.
Overall, I think this guy is oozing with talent and the sky is the limit for him, but he absolutely should not start until, at the very earliest, half way through the season. Even then I would rather see him just take the entire year on the bench. I think he is more physically talented than Kaepernick by a lot, and he is probably a bit more refined in certain areas. If he can have a year of practice and focusing on reading defenses, going through progressions, and cleaning up his mechanics I see no reason to believe he won't be, at absolute minimum, an above average QB in this league.