NEW YORK -- E.J. Manuel appeared on a makeshift practice football field Wednesday with several of America’s best future NFL prospects in midtown Manhattan for the NFL’s annual Play60 charity event on the eve of the NFL draft.
On Thursday, Manuel will find out if he deserves to share the same stage as as Geno Smith, Luke Joeckel, Sharrif Floyd, Dion Jordan and several other of his colleagues who are near locks to be selected in the first round.
No quarterback’s stock has soared more going into the final week of pre-draft workouts than Manuel, who months ago was viewed as a second-day pick who might last into the third or fourth round.
Last month, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock elevated the former Florida State quarterback to No. 2 in his quarterback rankings behind West Virginia’s Smith. Interest shown by the Eagles, Browns, Bills and Jets -- each of which select in the top 15 -- suggest that Manuel’s draft ceiling is much higher than initially thought.
Asked how interested he thought the Eagles were in drafting him, Manuel confidently boasted, “They want me pretty bad.”
“But I think it’s just a matter of who takes me first, because I know the Eagles may want me, the Cleveland Browns may want me, the Buffalo Bills and the Jets,” he said. “I think those are all sequential picks, you know what I mean, within those top 13 picks or whatever. I’m just hoping one team loves me, because really, that’s all you need, one team to fall in love with you.”
Manuel is a microcosm of this year’s quarterback class. He is far from a finished product and comes with as many questions as answers, but his scouting report doesn’t differ much from other potential early quarterback picks, including Smith, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray.
Mayock, who also appeared at the charity event, said his endorsement of Manuel as the class’ second-best quarterback stems from his overall frustration in trying to evaluate the overall talent of a class that several league officials have said lacks a no-brainer.
“I finally got to the point where I said, ‘If I’m going to make a mistake on a late-one, mid-two [round] kind of quarterback, I’m gonna do it on an athlete with size and arm talent,’” Mayock said.
“And as for me, E.J. Manuel didn’t get asked to do a lot [at Florida State], and I don’t think you can ding the kid. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, can he read defenses?’ But I don’t think they asked him to do it a lot. So we don’t really know that.
“I think he’s a big kid with upside and arm talent. If the Eagles jumped on him in the second round, I think he’d be a great fit.”
Problem is, with the fourth overall pick, Manuel would be considered an inexplicable reach by the Eagles, who already have Mike Vick and Nick Foles and have already said the fourth overall pick won’t be earmarked for a project who can’t play immediately. Several analysts and evaluators believe Manuel could be gone when the Eagles pick 35th, third in the second round.
Compounding the issue -- if the Eagles really want Manuel -- are the quarterback-needy teams that pick shortly after the Eagles do. The Jets have two first-rounders, the Browns pick sixth overall and the Bills go eighth.
The Browns, who don’t have a second-round pick, could potentially trade down to get that second-rounder back and still grab Manuel later in the first round. The Bills might be willing to trade up in the second round, ahead of the Eagles, if Manuel is still on the board after Thursday night. The Jets could easily gamble one of their two first-rounders on Manuel.
If you don’t think teams pull crazy stunts to get quarterbacks, remember that the Vikings picked Christian Ponder -- another Florida State quarterback -- at 12th overall in 2011 when most scouts and analysts pegged Ponder’s draft ceiling as late first round.
Manuel said interest from the Bills and Jets, two teams known for taking risks in the annual guessing game, has picked up over the past few days.
“I don’t know if all those things are smoke screens. I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why I don’t look too deep into them. That’s just why I want to wait until [Thursday] night.”
Manuel agreed with Mayock’s sentiment that his fullest potential in the Florida State offense wasn’t maximized because of a passer-friendly system that didn’t emphasize the progressions often seen at the pro level, but he also thinks that his soaring stock comes from the intellect he showed in meetings with several offensive coaches throughout the draft process.
The Virginia Beach, Va., native predicted that his NFL career would reap more success than his college one did, even though he led Florida State to four BCS Bowl games in his four seasons in Tallahassee.
“I do plan on having a great career,” he said. “I think I’ll be a better pro than I was in college, simply because of the schemes that they run on offense in these pro offenses.”
If he’s drafted by the Eagles, the clock will start ticking quickly in terms of fan expectations, especially if he’s taken in the first or second rounds. Pressure and scrutiny come with the territory of playing quarterback.
By accepting an invite to the draft, Manuel showed that he’s not afraid to confront one of the sport’s biggest spotlight. When the NFL reached out and asked him to come in March, Manuel was still viewed more as a second-day pick and he’s still not a sure shot to go among the first 32 selections.
It’s feasible Thursday night that Manuel follows in the footsteps of Brady Quinn and Aaron Rodgers, two quarterbacks who tumbled down the first-round boards in their respective drafts and had their faces of disappointment broadcast to millions, an embarrassing start of their pro careers.
Manuel said his goal since the end of Florida State’s season was to be invited to the draft and insisted that he wouldn’t let the uncertainty spoil a moment he feels privileged to have.
“I understand that that’s a possibility, but I’m with my family and I’m a very family-oriented guy,” he said. “This is not just for me, this is for them to enjoy. I’ve got my grandmothers coming in. This is a once-in-a-lifetime possibility. You only get drafted once, so when I got the call in March, I took advantage of it.”