The Kaepernick Project: FSU QB E.J. Manuel

The attitude towards the term "project" is often a glass half-full/half-empty proposition. Which one is Manuel? See below. Photo by D Wilkinson.

The attitude towards the term “project” is often a glass half-full/half-empty proposition. Colin Kaepernick was the glass half-full. Terrelle Pryor was the glass half-empty. Which one is Manuel? In light of the Alex Smith deal, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kansas City Chiefs has an eye on Manuel as a project to develop behind Alex Smith ala Kaepernick.(Photo by D Wilkinson).

Read my pre-draft thoughts of Terrelle Pryor and the beer goggles effect and you know I’m not one who gets too enamored with athleticism. Some teams and fans see a big athlete with a strong arm and swift legs and they think they can mold him into a quarterback. Sometimes they are right.


The term “project” is a glass half-full/half-empty term depending on the perspective of those who use it to describe a player. The reality is that glass is neither halfway full or halfway empty. It’s just a half a glass of whatever is in it until enough time passes for some action takes place with the glass to describe what its previous state was. Even that has a subjective imprint.

I think most of us thought of Colin Kaepernick as a project where his glass was half-full whereas many consider Pryor as half-empty – at least until he does something to prove otherwise and then there will be folks who claim they saw it all along that Pyror was a half-full guy. This is a blog, so I guess I could edit my original take and claim I was on the bandwagon.

But what would be the fun in that?

Manuel: A Half-Glass of Teachable Talent

I see Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel as a half-glass of good talent. Where I think Manuel and Kapernick are similar when defining what a project is at quarterback is that like the 49ers quarterback, Manuel has lot of good quarterbacking fundamentals that don’t need to be broken down and built back up for him to eventually thrive in the NFL. The Florida State quarterback worked in an offense that used a lot of scheme variation that required sound fundamentals.

If you’ve watched the Seminoles the you know Manuel has worked under center, executed zone-read and spread concepts, ran the option, and worked from a true shotgun – often all in the same game. In comparison to Geno Smith and Mike Glennon, Manuel’s drops in all of these settings were better-defined and well timed: he gets good depth and has defined steps that help him set his feet at a width to throw the ball with accuracy and power.

Manuel’s drops aren’t perfect and his issues with deep accuracy is a testament to the fact that he’ll need to continue refining the techniques of the position. Drops are a part of the game that all quarterbacks continue to work on at every level. It’s like a musician always paying attention to his sound and how he can improve his overall tone. A good example of quarterback who improved once he made footwork development a ritual of his practice routine was Kerry Collins.

The Seminole’s quarterback’s release is another plus. He has a quick, over-the-top motion. The ball flies off his hand with a good snap and this complements Manuel’s quick decision-making. He reads defenses well enough to find the single coverage and make aggressive throws into tight windows in the short, intermediate, and deep zones of the field.

What I like most of all about Manuel is his pocket presence. His first instinct in the pocket isn’t to back away from pressure up the middle. He’ll climb the pocket and dip the shoulder, which is a big indication he’ll have the pocket presence you want from an NFL passer.

Pocket presence is a skill that I believe unlearning bad habits and learning new ones is almost too difficult to do. You need enough time under live fire to make that transition and young NFL quarterbacks don’t get that unless they are already deemed a first-year starter. Most first-year starters have this habit of climbing the pocket – or at least not backing away as the first reaction to pressure – ingrained.

There are other subtleties to his game that indicate a player who absorbs the intricacies of the game and has a good feel for integrating them into his overall game when the situation dictates. Manuel uses pump fakes to buy time or freeze a safety and he does a good job of looking off a defender on set plays before turning and throwing to the opposite side of the field.

Throw in the fact that he’s 6-5, 240, big, strong, and swift enough to either break tackles or get to the edge and there’s a lot to like. The light bulb came on for me at the Senior Bowl practices while having a conversation with Yahoo! Shutodown Corner blogger Doug Farrar, who made a simple, eloquent statement about Manuel being a clean slate much like Colin Kapernick.

Kaepernick was good raw material for the 49ers. Photo by Daily Sports Herald
Colin Kaepernick was good raw material for the 49ers. Photo by Daily Sports Herald

Farrar’s statement and comparison resonated and although the skill sets are different, I I looked back at my my pre-draft analysis of Kaepernick in 2011 (see below) and realized that the specifics of their games have differences, the overall tenor has a similar feel – two quarterbacks with clean slates that won’t have a lot of obstacles to tear down as they are building their skills to meet NFL expectations.

Kaepernick has good arm strength. Although not yet consistent enough, he flashes some nice touch and timing in traffic on intermediate routes on the perimeter. He demonstrates nice accuracy to his left, especially on the run. He can make the first defender miss in the pocket and he will use the occasional pump fake to create time as he scrambles. He wisely throws the ball away when no receiver is open and he flashes the ability to go through progressions or look off defenders before targeting his primary receiver.

His arm strength is good. The ball flies off his arm with a lot of velocity despite a release that he has improved from a side arm to a little higher than a 3/4 motion. He has good timing on deep passes and executes rollouts and passes on the run with consistent success. Although he demonstrates nice timing and accuracy on forward facing routes (hitches, comebacks, and curls) in the intermediate range of the field, his route selection is limited in this offensive game plan and he didn’t throw slants, dig routes, corner routes, deep crossers or much of anything in the middle of the field where he had to show great timing in tight coverage.

Kaepernick’s wind up is elongated and his release is far from compact. He frequently throws the ball with a three-quarter delivery, which invites more deflections than his 6-6 frame would suggest. He waits too long to check the ball down and he needs to learn how to climb the pocket and not just try to break free repeatedly. His footwork needs to improve. As it becomes more consistent, his accuracy should also get better. He tends to throw the ball high and away and his throws are frequently just a half-beat late. His anticipation should also improve with better footwork.I like that despite his speed and agility, he didn’t try to force the ball when under pressure and had the maturity to throw the ball away rather than rely too much on his athleticism. However, when he uses his athleticism it’s extremely productive. He has great acceleration to the outside and can make a big run from any play.

When moving around the pocket or breaking the pocket, he has a tendency to carry the ball loosely from his body and with his long limbs, it’s an inviting target for defenders to swipe the ball. He also needs to learn to carry the ball high and tight as a runner because of those long limbs. Even when he tucks the ball he tends to leave too much space for the ball to come loose when hit. As a runner he has some speed and change of direction, but he runs out of control, which will make him prone to big hits and turnovers.

As a runner he has some burst and change of direction to get nice gains or make defenders miss in the pocket. He’s a talented, but raw prospect that could develop into a solid starter if he demonstrates the work ethic and mental acumen to read defenses and execute.Kaepernick needs to constantly be more vigilant with how he carries the football in and out of traffic. He doesn’t have good recognition of blitzes prior to the snap.  If Kaepernick stays his senior year and Vince Young continues to improve, he could see his stock rise.He’ll likely be a raw QB prospect in the way Vince Young was, but his style reminds me a lot of Young and Randall Cunningham.

E.J. Manuel is not the next Colin Kaepernick. He doesn’t run like a deer or have an ICBM missile for a throwing arm. But he and Kaepernick are “high-priority projects,” and I believe Manuel is a physically talented rookie prospect with the highest upside of any quarterback in the 2013 NFL Draft.

The Tale of The Tape

The game highlights I’m sharing today are from Manuel’s performance against Virginia Tech, a speedy and aggressive defense that threw a lot of varied looks at the FSU quarterback that tested his decision-making. Manuel saw a lot of blitzes, including unusual zone blitzes by major college standards. Zone pressure was an issue for Manuel in the 2010 ACC Title game and he had some difficulties versus N.C. State’s zone pressures in a one-point loss earlier in the year – FSU’s only defeat at this point of the 2012 season.

Let’s start with an interception in the red zone. Not a pretty beginning, but an instructive view of the type of error’s Manuel makes that are teachable. This is a 3rd and goal from the Virginia Tech 10 with 6:09 in the first quarter.FSU used a 1×2 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun against Tech’s zero deep coverage.

Manuel takes a three-step drop, feels pressure up the middle and flushes right while looking to the end zone. Nothing wrong with this at all. He throws a crossing route to his tight end at the six where there is tight trail coverage – doing this while on the move. The tight end gets his hands on the ball, but he was late getting his hands up to attack the pass, tipping the ball skyward and giving the underneath zone defender at the two any easy interception.

However, the onus of this turnover is not completely on the tight end. Manuel’s throw was a little high and hard for the situation. The placement should have been lower in this style of tight coverage. I don’t think this was an issue of technique and footwork as much as it was a fine point of emphasis with placement. I believe this is correctable.

As I mentioned earlier, pocket presence and maneuverability under pressure is more difficult to fix. Although I don’t have a video highlight of this play, this 1st-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 42 with 12:37 in the first quarter is a good one to mention. Florida State uses a 2×2 receiver, 10 personnel set versus a 4-3 with 1 deep.

The Seminoles execute a play-action pass and ask Manuel to execute a half-roll to the right. He does a good job executing the play fake with a full extension of the ball towards the runner and turns his back to the defense and looks to the RB through the exchange point.

Manuel finishes this five-step drop up the left hash while looking to his right. The safety blitzes off the right side on this play and as Manuel finishes his drop, he has to reduce the his right shoulder and climb the pocket through the safety’s wrap. This play below is from a different game, but the climbing of the pocket is similar here.

If you want an even better idea of what Manuel does, see this Ryan Tannehill analysis from last year. Manuel climbs well and snaps into position to throw the ball deep with the defender loosely at his legs. He releases the ball at the 50 up the left flat to the Tech seven with a high-arcing pass to the inside of the receiver Rodney Smith, who works inside as the defensive back overruns the ball. Smith gets his hands on the ball and should have made the catch, but the defensive back is called for pass interference. The pass was under thrown and not great placement but to Manuel’s credit, not a bad chance to take, either.  He knew where his receiver had single coverage and despite not setting his feet due to the pressure gets the ball in the area to generate a play.

I like Manuel’s quick decisions versus the blitz and there were several decisions on this night where his receivers failed him on throws just like this 1st-and-10 with 14:54 in the first quarter. In fact, there were four drops in the first half on slants or crosses with tight coverage but should have been caught. This play begins with a 2×2 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun set from their 18. They face a 4-3 with the Tech ends playing wide and one safety in the box just inside the left slot receiver.

The defensive back slot right blitzes the edge and Manuel hits the slot right receiver on a slant eight yards down field, leading the receiver to the middle and forcing his man to dive for the ball for a nine-yard gain. Manuel’s drop was a three-step with a scissors step included that finishes so the quarterback’s feet at shoulder width. He drives off his front foot during his release, which has an over the top delivery that is compact, and the ball snaps off his shoulder. I liked the location of the throw even if it was a little wide.

Manuel often stands tall or climbs the pocket. On a 3rd-and-19 at the FSU 9 with 7:50 in the half from a weak side trips, 11 personnel shotgun versus a safety deep with a linebacker coming unblocked outside right guard, Manuel drops five steps and as he reached that fourth step, he sees the linebacker flash in the pocket. He cuts short his drop, reduces the shoulder, and climbs the pocket from the pressure.

He dips inside a defensive tackle to squeeze through a small crease to  the line of scrimmage and pump fakes down field to freeze the second level. This allows him to work to the right hash and outside the defensive back for nine yards until the defensive back drops him.  Manuel could have easily backed away from the pressure or thrown the ball off his back foot. Hard to teach – see Tim Tebow.

One of my favorite scenarios to watch a quarterback operate is against double A-Gap pressure. Here is a 1st-and-10 at the Tech 47 with 1:14 in the half from a 2×1 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun. Tech has one safety deep.

When the double A-Gap pressure comes during Manuel’s three-step drop, the quarterback looks over the middle and delivers the ball from the FSU 45 to his receiver on a streak up the numbers of the right flat. He hits the receiver over the back shoulder at the Tech 29.

Unlike other throws in this game where he has difficulty matching the arc and velocity into an accurate down field throw, Manuel mixes the combination well enough to get the ball behind the CB. To nitpick, Manuel still could have thrown the ball with less arc so the receiver doesn’t have to turn his shoulders back to the ball and then leap for it.  Still, the receiver catches the ball ahead of the corner at the 29 and is dropped at the 25 for a 22-yard catch of a 26-yard throw. Overall, good velocity on this throw with lot of arc.

Manuel throws a touchdown on the next play, a 25-yarder to the same receiver with 0:58 in the half on 1st-and-10 from the Tech 25.

Manuel throws from a  2×1 receiver 11 personnel shotgun set versus a single safety deep off the left hash over the slot receiver on the twin side. Manuel drops three steps looking left, pump faks to the slot man to hold the safety and then turns right and delivers a perfect pass from the right hash of the TEch 33 to the receiver up the right sideline. Manuel’s pass reaches the receiver over his inside shoulder in stride and in tight coverage for the score. Make sure to check out the All-22 view on the replay.

Here’s a play against a seven-man rush on 3rd and 9 with 1:42 in the game from a 2×2 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun. Tech is only dropping four into coverage.

Manuel drops five steps from this seven-man blitz and delivers the ball off his back foot with a edge defender in his face. A nice high release point gets the ball to the left sideline and to the receiver working five yards down field. Good anticipation on an off-balanced throw. The receiver turns up field and is just shy of the first down marker. Good decision under pressure to find the single coverage.

The final play comes versus on the game-winning drive – a 2nd-and-10 at the FSU 48 with 1:13 left. FSU is in a 2×1 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun versus eight defenders at the line.

Tech sends five as Manual drops three steps, climbs the pocket away from the pressure coming from his left. He’s quick with his decision and hits the receiver on the pivot route outside the left hash at the back shoulder. Very good, quick decision and move away from the Tech defensive end to get the ball to the open receiver five yards down field and giving his man room to run for another eight and a first down.

Overall, I thought Manuel had an impressive performance in this game. What these highlights didn’t show is that Manuel was down by two on the road with 2:19 left in a game where he faced a number of varied defensive looks that got the best of the offense. Manuel was sacked five times against schemes that would both most of the quarterbacks in this draft class. His teammates also dropped eight passes – all catchable by NFL standards and at least half of them easy receptions even by college standards.

I imagine Manuel will be considered as a player available somewhere in the late-second to fourth round. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kansas City Chiefs have an eye on Manuel as a project to develop behind Alex Smith. The former 49ers starter is pro’s pro who has been to the circus and understands how to persist through ups and downs and eventually experience some success despite a ton of changes to coaches, scheme, and on-field personnel.  That’s a good mentor for a locker room and a young quarterback.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

5 responses to “The Kaepernick Project: FSU QB E.J. Manuel”

  1. […] .@MattWaldman (RSP) looks at E. J. Manuel as a project similar to Colin Kaepernick.  Has lots of tool, traits, technique that’s a solid foundation (size, speed, strong arm, footwork, defined drops, pocket presence, release).  Ran multiple offenses.  Absorbs intricacies, adjusts accordingly.  Won’t have to strip him down, just build up by working on a few flaws that are teachable (deep accuracy as opposed to pocket presence which is more innate).  Link […]

  2. […] The Kaepernick Project: FSU QB E.J. Manuel | The Rookie Scouting PortfolioRead my pre-draft thoughts of Terrelle Pryor and the beer goggles effect and you know I’m not one who gets too enamored with athleticism. Some teams and fans see a big athlete with a strong arm and swift legs and they think they can mold him into a quarterback. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes. […]

  3. I am an FSU fan & am amazed Manuel is so highly regarded. He tended to stare down receivers & wait till they came out of their breaks. Watch the Gator game in 2012 to keep E.J. in perspective.

  4. Thanks for this post, Matt. The most interesting bit for me is where you discuss what a QB can reasonably be expected to develop at the pro level. Since so few QBs are pro-ready, I have always wondered what to look for by way of upside in a prospect.

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