INDIANAPOLIS: After I listened to all or part of nine quarterback interviews Friday at the 2013 NFL Combine, a 22-year-old the Browns could build a team around arrived in the final wave.
Geno Smith and Matt Barkley had come and gone. So, too, had Ryan Nassib and Landry Jones.
When he stepped to the podium, EJ Manuel of Florida State commanded it. At 6-foot-4½ and 235 pounds, he’s an impressive physical specimen with the body of a tight end. But it was more than that. Manuel had the confidence, the presence, the aura of a star.
It was a moment like Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer and I had in 2002, when we listened to safety Ed Reed and said to each other, “The Browns need to pick this guy.” Only this time, there were five Browns media members raving about Manuel.
There’s only one problem. The Browns don’t have the second-round pick in this year’s draft that it might take to get him. They gave it up in last year’s supplemental draft to select wide receiver Josh Gordon.
I love Gordon. I love the potential he displayed, especially after not playing football the previous season after transferring to Baylor from Utah. I love the maturity he gained after showing up to training camp out of shape. I’m not sure he’s a No. 1 receiver, but he should be a vital part of the Browns’ future.
But there’s also a chance the decision on Gordon could cost the Browns a franchise quarterback.
Projections are all over the map for Manuel, Most Valuable Player of a less-than-stellar group at the Senior Bowl. Lindy’s Sports “Pro Football Draft” lists Manuel as a third- or fourth-round pick, saying he will be “one of the most debated prospects” because he has a hitch in his delivery, tends to run too soon and improved little as a senior.
Pro Football Weekly’s “2013 Draft Guide” projects Manuel as a first- or second-rounder. It divides the quarterback class into two categories — those fitting a precision, matchup offense it said is usually mislabeled as the West Coast, and the vertical, big-strike attack Browns coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner favor. Manuel is listed as the No. 1 prospect among the vertical passers, ahead of N.C. State’s Mike Glennon, Miami University’s Zac Dysert, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Oklahoma’s Jones.
“Has franchise quarterback potential if he can learn to settle down in the pocket, become more mechanically sound and start the game faster. Is at his best with confidence-building play-calling,” Pro Football Weekly wrote of Manuel. Turner surely could provide the latter.
Monday, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network touted Manuel on a conference call and said he couldn’t wait to see him throw at the combine.
“Sometimes his technique isn’t always consistent, his footwork … but that doesn’t matter. Get out there, let them see your arm talent,” Mayock said.
That’s Manuel’s plan, cemented Thursday when he heard Browns Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager, tell attendees “this is the best stage of this whole process to show them what you can do.”
“I definitely feel I’m the best quarterback in this class,” Manuel said Friday. “No disrespect to anybody else. I definitely feel I can be the best quarterback coming out of this week. That’s why I was excited about the combine. It’s another opportunity to present my skills to the world. I’m looking forward to Sunday.”
Should the Browns be similarly impressed, they could find themselves caught in a dilemma during the April 25-27 draft. They have little in the way of tradeable assets. To get a second-round pick this year, they might have to give up their first-round selection in 2014. As alarming as that sounds, in my mind it would be worth it if the player targeted turned out to be the quarterback of the future.
New Browns vice president of player personnel Mike Lombardi was critical of last year’s starter, Brandon Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in 2012, as an NFL Network analyst. In his introductory press conference on Jan. 23, Turner said one thing he looks for in a quarterback is “getting everyone else around him playing at a high level.”
That could be what sells the Browns on Manuel.
“My personality kind of fits the quarterback mold, the leadership, just having the persona to get your teammates to come up and play at a higher level,” Manuel said. “That was something [Florida State] coach [Jimbo] Fisher always complimented me on.”
Manuel said the Seminoles had a “unity council,” started by former coach Bobby Bowden, who retired after the 2009 season, Manuel’s redshirt freshman year.
“I was the only freshman chosen. I think there was like 15 guys,” Manuel said. “I really wasn’t expecting it. Coach Bowden saw that leadership skill in me. I [tried to] make sure guys were doing the right things off the field, away from the coaches.”
It might take a bold move for Browns CEO Joe Banner and Lombardi to find the right quarterback. If the glimpse of potential greatness I saw Friday was any indication, Manuel would be worth it.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.