Everything about Manziel's behavior this past season pointed to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner leaving college as soon as he possibly could. Now comes the more interesting part: Listening to all those skeptics who simply won't see how big a star this kid is going to become at the next level.
You have to imagine the haters began mounting their attacks the minute Manziel officially submitted his papers to the league office for early entry. We'll hear about how he's simply too small for the position. There will be plenty of people who will knock his video game college numbers (7,820 passing yards, 2,169 rushing yards and 93 total touchdowns) as a byproduct of the wide-open system coach Kevin Sumlin ran at A&M. There also will be the concerns about his off-field behavior, which already has the potential to fill a month's worth of content on TMZ.
What there won't be enough of, however, is a focus on all the things that have made Manziel great on the collegiate level. It's easy to write him off as a spoiled rich kid who had the good fortune of playing in an offense tailored to his skills. It's actually more sensible to consider all the ways Manziel made the most of the opportunities afforded him at A&M. The first thing to remember about Manziel: He earned everything he got at the college level.
Manziel had plenty of college football scholarships but he wasn't a big enough name for Texas, his home state school, to offer him a full ride. After he redshirted and prepared to enter a quarterback competition for the starting job in 2012, nobody was proclaiming him as the likely successor to current Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill. Manziel didn't even beat out two other teammates for the position until training camp began. He did that by putting in serious hours with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego for a good portion of his summer.
Whitfield saw the same things in Manziel that NFL decision-makers always want from their quarterbacks: passion, drive, competitiveness, hunger.
For all the highlights Manziel produced in his first season with the Aggies, it's those intangibles that got lost in all the adulation. His fans saw a gifted athlete with a flair for the dramatic and a thirst for victories. His haters saw a cocky kid with a hot temper and a big mouth, just the kind of quarterback you love to see rocked by a Jadeveon Clowney blindside hit.
Most people don't even give Manziel enough credit for what he did after that first year ended with him winning the Heisman Trophy. While he brought some problems on himself -- including an early departure from the Manning Passing Academy and a suspension for the first half of A&M's season opener against Rice for allegedly signing autographs for money (the NCAA never found evidence that Manziel actually did that) -- he also worked his butt off with Whitfield again. The Johnny Manziel who returned for his second season knew he couldn't rely on the same skills he displayed as a freshman. He had to improve, mainly because the best players are always asking more of themselves.
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.