Just like the Cleveland Browns are clearly underplaying their desire for Johnny Manziel to take over as the team’s starting quarterback position, everyone in fantasy football seems to be underestimating the sheer upside that goes along with Johnny Football.
Sure, he’s brash, talks on money phones, probably won’t have Josh Gordon and doesn’t even have the starting gig locked up yet. But this isn’t your usual rookie passer and there’s a lot to like about him in the fantasy realm.
Taking one look at his weapons doesn’t really excite the casual observer. It’s true, no Gordon is a hit, while seemingly regressing veterans like Nate Burleson and Miles Austin don’t offer a ton of promise as Manziel’s top two wide receivers at the moment.
But that’s just a quick glance. In reality, losing Gordon aside, Manziel could have it a lot worse in the weapons department. In fact, Burleson and Austin aren’t the worst weapons in the world. Both have still shown to be effective, with their main knock being the ability to stay healthy.
Add in stud tight end Jordan Cameron (who is fresh off of a breakout season) and explosive slot man Andrew Hawkins, and there might be a lot more life to Manziel’s passing attack than many initially thought.
It could be a slight reach, but having a big, athletic target like Cameron (who isn’t unlike the big target Manziel had in Mike Evans in college) alone could be enough to brush off losing Gordon. However, adding in the elusive Hawkins, who has shown to be quite the open field weapon, could potentially really open things up. That could make Burleson and Austin merely secondary options that wouldn’t be leaned on heavily enough to warrant being risks in the offense.
But these are a lot of hypotheticals, either way you look at it. The plain truth is Manziel is probably losing one elite target, but he still has one left over in Cameron. At the very worst, Cameron is an elite red-zone presence and an athlete who can stretch the defense, as well as win jump balls in just about any matchup. That bodes extremely well for Manziel.
That’s just Manziel’s weapons in the passing game, however. His rushing attack should be a big asset to him as he develops in the tough AFC North, as Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell all pack a ton of talent and upside into a deep, balanced stable of running backs. If one gets hurt or doesn’t work out, another talented back is just waiting for his chance to shine.
Naturally, a hopefully effective ground game will help take the pressure off of Manziel, which should help any read option packages be more effective, while also make the play action more successful, as well as the passing game in general.
And here comes the icing on the cake: that Manziel kid, he can run a bit.
Throw in offense coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has experience succeeding in Washington with that type of offense and made Robert Griffin III into a star as a rookie, and you have to feel good about Manziel’s prospects.
The rub? Whether or not Manziel’s slight frame can handle the rigors of the NFL if he’s called upon to take off a ton on his feet. The catch is he’s going to have to be effective on the run to be a good quarterback early in his career – and especially so if he’s going to be a good fantasy quarterback.
We can’t predict that, though. As much as some expect it and as much as others might even hope for it, we have no clue if Manziel will be broken in half in his first NFL start, or if he’ll be the next iron man of the league. Considering he did make it through two years in the tough SEC without missing a game, he at least has a shot at landing somewhere in the middle.
The reality is, Manziel dominated a pretty good conference in college football, and like him or not, his actual skill-set does translate fairly well to the next level. He’ll surely give Browns fans their fair share of headaches with interceptions and crazy plays, but he’s also going to come through and deliver some big moments. Along the way, he’s also going to put his solid speed and agility on full display.
I’m in the boat of very few that think Manziel is going to be a big hit at the next level. In turn, I feel that means he’s going to be a big factor as a fantasy quarterback as a rookie, as well. The big reason why is because he won’t even need to be a monster in the pocket to do so. Even if the Browns don’t win games, he’s still going to put up numbers in the process.
I think matching Manziel up with RG3 makes a lot of sense, partially because they’re similar players with somewhat similar builds. They also both had one legit weapon going into their first season and also worked out of the same offensive system.
When looking closely at the both of them, I see RG3 as the better straight line runner. He’s more explosive and has better top end speed. Manziel is without a doubt the more gifted runner, however, and has displayed superior natural mobility, better elusiveness and better agility. I think that gives him the edge at evading the rush, minimizing big hits and gaining extra yardage or creating extra plays simply be keeping plays alive with his legs.
Manziel is shorter and smaller than RG3, but he’s the better pure passer, too. I think Manziel has always done a better job at keeping his eyes down the field and actually is a much better pocket passer than he’s ever been given credit for. We saw RG3 wasn’t as good as advertised in the pocket last year. Manziel also still has work to do, as he needs to clean up his footwork and become more disciplined with his decision-making. However, I think this all puts him slightly ahead of RG3.
With that said, I think their numbers are going to be similarly aligned, albeit with Manziel taking a minor hit in the passing game given the tougher division schedule and lesser supporting cast. RG3 finished remarkably high as a rookie, and I had the same instincts about his fantasy prospects going into 2012 as I do about Manziel this year. RG3 ended up finishing fifth overall, and while I don’t think Manziel will be quite that good in his first season, I don’t think he’ll be that far off. I currently have him ranked as my 1oth best fantasy passer for 2014.
If he can average a mere 50 rushing yards per game, that’s 800 rushing yards (80 fantasy points). A conservative approach on his passing yards would be about 3,200 (similar to RG3). That would give him 128 fantasy points based off of passing yardage. Again, just sticking with a conservative approach, let’s say he averages one passing score per game (16 touchdowns) and puts up 64 fantasy points with scores through the air. Another conservative estimate for rushing scores would be four rushing touchdowns. That gives him another 24 fantasy points. In total, that’s a quality 296 fantasy points before we factor in potential interceptions and lost fumbles.
That’s being ultra conservative overall, yet Manziel would have slid in nicely into fifth pace in the fantasy ranks in 2013 with those numbers. Even if you want to add in a crazy 20 total turnovers (which is both high and possibly unfair), Manziel would still put up about 256 fantasy points – good for 16th place in 2013.
Obviously, I’m looking at more of a middle ground between those two extremes. I’m not pegging Manziel as a top-five fantasy quarterback, but I think he’s going to be better than my personal low-end projection, which is just barely outside of the top-15 still.
Manziel’s stot at 10th overall could change over time, but I have Manziel fairly locked into my top-15 as long as he’s the starter. I understand the risk, but with the fluctuation of value at quarterback (Andy Dalton and Philip Rivers were top 6 passers in 2013), I think upside is key. Manziel has it in spades.
With that said, I’m not necessarily condoning drafting him as your flat-out QB1. Despite being high on RG3 as a rookie in 2012, I wasn’t suggesting it then, either. I do think you will ultimately be using Manziel more than you thought you would, but it’s much safer to grab a more proven quarterback and then take on Manziel as a high upside QB2. Then again, the value at quarterback is so insanely deep, that I’m not totally against waiting until Manziel’s ADP (Average Draft Position) of about round 12. That’s in standard 12-team leagues, too, so you can clearly wait quite a while and get a potential stud in Manziel.
It depends on which side of the fence you sit on, but Manziel has the makings of a fantasy star. Dare to think outside the box.
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