EJ Manuel had just suffered through one of his worst days at Florida State, tossing three interceptions, losing a crucial fumble and overshooting receivers. The shaky performance in a loss to Florida last November sent his stock plummeting.
Now, nearly five months later, Manuel has rehabilitated his reputation. An MVP trophy at the Senior Bowl and a strong showing at the NFL scouting combine has taken Manuel from what some believed a mid- to late-round pick back into the late first or early second round.
Either way, Manuel rose enough to warrant an invitation to New York for Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft.
“I’ve always had him as a second-round choice,” said Tony Pauline, owner of DraftInsider.com. “He’s a guy who’s got great upside. If he had put it all together (his senior year), he would have been a top-15 pick. He didn’t put it all together, but he still has awesome tools.”
Manuel (6-5, 240) is ranked by many as the third-best quarterback in the draft behind West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley.
Few are higher on Manuel than former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who still would not be surprised if Manuel is taken in the first round.
“I like EJ a lot because you can call just about any scheme you want to call,” Gruden, an ESPN analyst, said on a conference call. “I’ve seen him run the direct quarterback runs. He’s a presence inside the 10-yard line, much like Cam Newton in Carolina. I’ve seen him run various option plays and we know that’s certainly a major point of emphasis in the NFL right now. He can bring a lot to the table from an athletic standpoint.”
Gruden, though, was blunt about Manuel’s weaknesses when the two met for Gruden’s QB Camp series.
“One thing I don’t like about your game,” Gruden told Manuel, “I think it’s careless, I think it’s dangerous.”
Manuel is big, strong and athletic, which has become an emphasis in the NFL, especially with the popularity of the read option offense. He has a strong arm and he has overcome adversity, playing through injuries and dealing with a family crisis for most of last season after learning in September that his mother had breast cancer.
But that ability to pick up yards on his own not only was a blessing in college, but maybe a curse.
“I don’t want to be known as a guy who only does option,” Manuel said. “I still want to be known as a passer.”
Manuel’s weaknesses, though, are glaring, at least to scouts.
Despite completing 68 percent of his passes last season and finishing his career as one of the most accurate passes in ACC history, Manuel’s downfield accuracy has been questioned.
“Just the way he delivers the ball,” Pauline said. “His throwing mechanics lead to balls being thrown all over the place. Statistical accuracy means nothing as opposed to pass placement.”
During their film session Gruden admonished Manuel for poor decision making, whether it was throwing into a crowd or taking off with the football or trying to do too much in a crowd.
Manuel had thrown just seven interceptions last season before throwing three against Florida.
But while Gruden recognized those flaws, he also said Manuel can get better.
“I think he can improve as a passer.” Gruden said. “I think he can improve his protection awareness and understanding.”
Manuel has met with nearly every NFL team. During FSU’s pro day last month, scouts wanted to see him make every conceivable throw.
Just like at the Senior Bowl and the combine, scouts liked what they saw in Tallahassee.
“I do think he has a big upside,” Gruden said. “He has a tremendous skill set that allows him to do a lot of different things.
“If you’re with a creative offensive coach, look out, he could be a good player.”
Correspondent Bob Ferrante contributed to this story.