Even NFL scouts who question Manziel's maturity acknowledge that he became a more polished quarterback this season. His pocket presence, decision-making and accuracy were all better than they were a year ago. This wasn't merely a unique talent playing sandlot football every time he dropped back. Manziel was seeing the game at a higher level, which is something that speaks to his ability to be a real student of the game.
It's these qualities that will keep Manziel on a path to produce more big plays at the NFL level. For all the questions about his size, we can safely say that such concerns aren't nearly what they used to be. Drew Brees has produced a Hall of Fame career in New Orleans despite being no bigger than Manziel. Russell Wilson has become a star in Seattle despite being smaller than Manziel. A smart coach will find a way to create similar opportunities for Manziel to thrive once he eventually enters the league.
Manziel also has the advantage of timing. This isn't the NFL that didn't know what to do with Doug Flutie 25 years ago. More teams are willing to be more creative and wide open with their systems, from Chip Kelly bringing his fast-breaking attack to Philadelphia to the read-option finding a home all over the league. When pass plays break down, offensive coordinators want their quarterbacks to improvise and make something happen in ways Manziel did all too often at A&M.
That doesn't mean that Manziel won't have to make some major adjustments at the next level. He obviously has to manage his emotions better and he'll have to realize that his social life -- and it says here that too big a deal is made of some things he's done in his spare time -- doesn't need to be a distraction. It's hard enough playing quarterback in the NFL when you're trying to do the right things every day. The last thing any young signal-caller needs is constant questions about matters that have nothing to do with that week's opponent.
It's a safe bet that Manziel will understand these things by the time his name is called in May. Whitfield has been a masterful mentor to several of today's young quarterbacks (he is best known for preparing Carolina's Cam Newton to be the top pick in the 2011 draft), so that's at least one sensible voice in his corner. Manziel also has to know what's coming in the next few months. Given his reputation on and off the field, he's constantly going to be reassuring people that he's capable of being the face of an NFL franchise for the next 10-15 years.
Like Newton and Tim Tebow, Manziel had better prepare for the circus that will be his pre-draft evaluation period. Those players were lightning rods who sparked endless debates about how their skills would transfer into the NFL. Tebow learned that his game was better suited for college, where he could bull over linebackers and get by with limited passing skills. Newton became the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and the leader of a Carolina Panthers team that won the NFC South this season.
Manziel at least has the advantage of already understanding life in a fishbowl, and that will help him as he builds his own NFL legacy. He's gone from a nobody who was hoping to win a job in college to a legend who has earned the right to be considered among the top picks in this year's draft class. Manziel did all that because he spent the past two years believing in the power of hard work and serious focus. That same formula will create even more success for him once he takes his game to the next level.