Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Manziel made strong impressions against Alabama

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated: April 21, 2014 - 7:32 AM

In case you didn’t pick up Sunday’s newspaper or read it on some newfangled electronic device, we went all in on the quarterback position (something the Vikings could do in a couple of weeks).

Master Tesfatsion put his Kiper wig on and ranked his top 10 quarterback prospects. Mark Craig talked to one defensive coach who had to game-plan for Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater in back-to-back weeks. And I took a look at the draft’s most polarizing player, Johnny Football.

As I mentioned in the story, Manziel’s performance in Texas A&M’s upset victory at Alabama in 2012 was the game that made him a household name. But for some, it was his play the next time that Texas A&M played Alabama that solidified Manziel as a first-round prospect.

Someone I sought out for the story was Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. He also does color commentary on the Crimson Tide’s radio broadcasts, so he had a bird’s eye view for both of those games. During our phone conversation, Savage was surprised by how much Manziel grew from the first time he played Alabama to the second, a game that Texas A&M lost.

“I spent a good amount of time in advance of the rematch game studying him,” Savage said. “I would say that a year ago, I was very much a downer in terms of his future NFL prospects. But after watching the vast majority of his tape and seeing what he did against Alabama in the rematch game, it was actually one of the few times when a quarterback actually exceeded the first time around against a Nick Saban-coached defense.”

Savage said the last time he could remember that happening was Drew Brees, when he was the quarterback at Purdue and Saban was the head coach at Michigan State. In 1998, Brees tossed two fourth-quarter touchdowns as Purdue rallied to beat Michigan State by a point. A year later, Brees exploded for 509 passing yards and five touchdowns in another win.

Manziel's experience versus Saban’s defense was similar. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 92 yards while beating Bama in Tuscaloosa as a redshirt freshman. In the rematch, Manziel threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 98 yards. His 562 total yards were the second-most in SEC history.

That performance in College Station also wowed NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock.

“The first tape I put in was Alabama and I put the tape down about two hours later and I said, ‘Wow, that was awesome, that was really fun to watch,’” Mayock said on a recent conference call. “The kid makes throws, he allows his other players to make plays. He gives Mike Evans a chance to make plays, he extends plays. He was like a combination of Fran Tarkenton and Doug Flutie.”

After that game, Saban, who Greg Bedard of MMQB.com said looked “as if he had just spent 12 rounds chasing Floyd Mayweather around a boxing ring,” talked about Manziel’s pro prospects.

“I think Johnny’s a unique player,” he said. “Many people have said about these guys, like [Robert Griffin III], that they’re not really NFL-style quarterbacks. But yet they’re all doing pretty well in the NFL. … I think when somebody’s as instinctive as [Manziel] is, and as fast as he is, and as athletic as he is, and he’s developing into a pretty good passer -- I mean last year he really developed as a passer -- I do think he has an NFL future.”

Savage agreed with that assessment, but he cautioned that that Manziel won’t be for everyone.

“I do think there will be a team out there with an offensive coordinator that sees what he brings to the table and will try to shape an offense around him,” Savage said. “And I think he can have success at the pro level given the right circumstances.”

Do the Vikings view Manziel in that light? We might have to wait until May 8 to find out.

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