E.J. Manuel takes skyrocketing NFL draft stock in stride

Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel throws against Northern Illinois during the Orange Bowl in...

Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel throws against Northern Illinois during the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla., Jan. 1, 2013. (JOE SKIPPER/Reuters)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:57 PM ET

Minutes after finding out he suddenly has become the fastest-rising quarterback in this year’s NFL draft class, E.J. Manuel wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with excitement.

“I’m happy to hear it,” Manuel told QMI Agency matter-of-factly by phone early Thursday night, minutes before boarding a jet out of central Florida after taking part in Jon Gruden’s quarterback camp for ESPN.

“I understand that there’s a lot more work to be done, so I’m not going to get complacent with it. I’ve never really paid that much attention to rankings, but it’s nice to finally start getting a little bit of respect.”

On Thursday afternoon, Mike Mayock of NFL Network issued the third incarnation of his top five position-by-position rankings for the April 25-27 draft. And there was a huge surprise.

After not even having Manuel ranked before the scouting combine in Indianapolis two weeks ago, Mayock raised the Florida State gunslinger to No. 2 behind West Virginia’s Geno Smith.

It’s the first time any of the top draft experts has dropped either Smith or USC’s Matt Barkley from their Top 2.

Mayock rounded out his latest top five quarterbacks with Barkley at No. 3, Mike Glennon of North Carolina State at No. 4 and a tie between Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones at No. 5.

“The first three tapes I saw of Manuel prior to the (late January) Senior Bowl included the Florida game,” Mayock told NFL Network’s Path to the Draft show on Thursday, “and that’s probably the worst game he ever played … so I had a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth heading into the Senior Bowl.

“Coming out of the combine, I felt like there was a quiet buzz among some of the teams. Not just his workout. More importantly to me, they like the kid, they think he’s smart, and in the meeting rooms at night he passed the test.”

Manuel said the latter was precisely his intention.

“The biggest thing I wanted to do at the combine was to interview well, and allow coaches and GMs the opportunity to understand my personality, and see how much football I really understand and know,” he said.

“I also wanted to (do well in the drills) – and throw the ball well.”

You get that? Manuel’s on-field performance was secondary to him. That’s pretty much the same thing he told me in late January. Believe me, most combine invitees instead focused their prep for the drills.

It says a lot about Manuel’s character, not to mention the supreme confidence the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder has in his top-end athletic skills.

And what skills.

Manuel was the fastest of the 13 quarterbacks who took part in on-field work at the combine, running the 40 in 4.65 seconds. He also was the top performer in four of the other six drills: broad jump (118.0 inches), vertical jump (34.0 inches), 3-cone drill (7.08 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds).

In their 15-minute interview sessions, teams grilled Manuel on the white board – as they do with most players – to gauge him on his football knowledge.

“That went really well,” Manuel said. “I think that’s probably one of my better attributes … I think that’s where the scouts, GMs, coaches and actual decision-makers in the league are starting to say, ‘Hey, this kid is actually really good,’ and I feel that’s why I’m starting to get a lot more attention.”

It’s also because he’s so tall, athletic, has a gun for an arm and, yes, also because he’s African-American. Manuel has long had to fight the “running quarterback” label.

In reality, he didn’t run much at all at Florida State. Manuel thinks of himself as a pocket passer – a true NFL-style quarterback.

Not that he’s opposed to running some read-option at the pro level.

“I think that’s just added value for whatever team drafts me.

“At the end of the day, no matter what kind of quarterback you are, (NFL talent evaluators) want to ask you about winning games. I’d say that was the biggest thing at the combine.”

So did he leave Indy with the sense that he’d impressed teams?

“I think so,” Manuel said. “My father really prepared me well, also my agent. They tell me what I need to hear, not necessarily always what I want to hear. They all offer great feedback.”

The fourth annual made-for-ESPN Gruden camp, airing April 4, features nine of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks.

Next for Manuel in the pre-draft process is prepping for Florida State’s pro day on March 19 – his 23rd birthday – when he’ll again throw for NFL scouts, some of whom probably remain unconvinced Manuel is anything but a mid-round pick.

“There are always going to be naysayers, but that motivates me,” Manuel said.

The number of naysayers, however, is dropping dramatically.

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

@JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/krykslants/


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