Is it a smokescreen or is the some flame there too? That's the $21 million question when it comes to the St. Louis Rams, the No. 2 pick and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. So what do we know for sure and what likelihood is there that the Rams will actually pull the trigger on the pick?
Beginnings of a rumor
It's been pretty clear from the start that the Rams would pick a quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft. The thinking is that they would find a signal caller on the second or third day of the draft who could hold the clipboard and learn the ropes in 2014. That QB could then either push to be the starter in 2015 or keep his role as a talented understudy beyond his first season, ready to take over for a quarterback with a concerning injury history.
One of the first reports of the Rams' interest in Manziel came last month from Daniel Jeremiah at the NFL Network. That linked up with an appearance by Les Snead on SiriusXM radio in which he said that the Rams were doing their homework on a number of quarterbacks, including the top players.
Since then, the Rams-Manziel chatter has bubbled up in the media here and there. It reached new levels of insanity this week.
One of the more notable advocates for bringing Manziel to St. Louis has been NFL Films guru Greg Cosell. In an appearance for a CBS Sports video, Cosell suggested that the Rams should take the QB with the second pick of the draft.
Why did Cosell suggest this? Learn and adapt from their piers in the NFC West: control the time, tone and tempo of a game with a tough defense and a heavy dose of running the ball, throw in a quarterback who can make plays, big plays down field, to put points on the board. The 49ers and Seahawks don't throw the ball an awful lot, but when they do, their quarterbacks are both dynamic playmakers who can work outside the pocket as well as they can inside of it.
"Johnny Manziel fits this whole philosophy of matching up in the NFC West. You have to beat them at their own game."
Remember that last quote; it's an important part of the story here.
Meeting with Manziel
Cosell was at it again on Monday, telling Houston radio host Lance Zierlein that he believes the Rams will pick Manziel at No. 2. ESPN insider Adam Caplan followed that with a tweet saying that idea was a popular theory with decision makers in the NFL.
First, there was the Combine meeting.
Source: #Rams had an interesting meeting with Johnny Manziel at the Combine. Kicked everyone out besides GM Les Snead, Jeff Fisher & Manziel— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 5, 2014
It's not particularly unusual that the Rams met with Manziel at the Combine. Teams meet with a lot of players during the "speed dating" round. They reportedly met with Blake Bortles too. What's notable about Rapoport's tweet is that it was just Snead and Fisher sitting down with Manziel.
Peter King dropped one of his patented nuggets in his MMQB column about some direct contact between the Rams and Manziel.
One other piece of knowledge I got confirmed Sunday: Rams GM Les Snead recently went to Texas Tech and met at length with coach Kliff Kingsbury-Manziel's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at A&M in 2012-and came away thinking Manziel could adjust to life well as an NFL passer.
The Rams were in College Station last Friday working out the trio of first-round prospects from TAMU, Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. King added that their session went well.
His workout for the Rams on Friday in Texas, with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer running the show, was impressive, as was the 80-minute post-workout session in the meeting room with Schottenheimer and coach Jeff Fisher, among others.
Something to remember about King. His agent is Marvin Demoff, the father of Rams VP Kevin Demoff, very convenient for leaking information should the need or want arise.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen, who's been talking up the Rams-Manziel connection for some time now, also mentioned the same thing as King about the Rams-Manziel work out. He added in a Monday TV appearance on the network that Manziel is "very much in the picture" for St. Louis.
Monday afternoon, I was told by a source that Jeff Fisher is the one most intrigued by Manziel. They also made it clear that Fisher was the one "running the show" for the draft. That person also told me that what's not clear is whether or not the Rams would be willing to draft Manziel with the second overall pick.
They also said that if Manziel slips to No. 13, the Rams will take him.
None of this is new information. Fisher's interest in Manziel, the McNair comparisons, and the uncertainty about taking him with the second pick has all been out there via various reporters prior to Monday. This is just the first time I've heard it directly from someone I trust.
That information does not begin to suggest that the Rams will draft Manziel, only that it's under consideration.
What about Sam?
Also trickling up from the wires yesterday was a report that some in the league believe that the Rams and Vikings have talked about trading Sam Bradford. Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch later tweeted a report that the Rams had not had discussions about trading Bradford.
And it stands to reason that they haven't. If the brass is still uncertain enough about Manziel and using the second pick to take him, they can't really be trying to sever ties with Bradford before the draft. There's no guarantee that they'd be able to draft Manziel if they didn't use the second pick on him.
Jason LaCanfora's comments made that perfectly clear, despite the fact that many in the media, including Thomas, portrayed it as a report that the Rams and Vikings really had talked about a Bradford swap.
Here was JLC's actual quote from his interview on CBS 920:
There are people in the league who believe there have been discussions with the Vikings. Rams people have denied any conversations whatsoever. The bottom line is if they don't take a quarterback, they're not trading Sam Bradford. There's so much uncertainty in this draft that it'd be difficult to put the horse before the cart ... all these things are tied together.
That feeds into their public support of Bradford. It wouldn't really do much for the coaching staff or the locker room to have the GM or head coach doing anything other than expressing their support for Bradford when they haven't actually decided whether or not to replace him.
Smokescreens come in many different forms.
Why not just draft Manziel at No. 2 then?
Good question. Supposedly, teams are concerned about Manziel's size and his reputation to the point where using a high pick is giving them pause. That includes other teams linked to Manziel, including Cleveland, a team that's also been the subject of considerable Manziel buzz lately.
That doesn't mean the Rams won't do it on draft day, and it doesn't mean some other team will bite and trade up to pick Manziel themselves.
Of course. This is also a case where there's some kernel of truth to the Rams' interest in Manziel. They're undecided. Wafting some of that smoke, I mean, interest into the air doesn't hurt should they want to create some interest in the second overall pick, especially if reports of the Falcons and Texans having a deal in place for the top pick and Jadeveon Clowney come to fruition. Remember, the second pick is a lot less valuable without Clowney on the board.
There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out here. Keeping all options on the table is a smart move.
So what happens Thursday?
Obviously, nobody knows. My sense is that the Rams don't know either, or are having a last-minute existential crisis about what to do.
What should they do?
We're into the opinion part of this thing, so if you've already closed your mind about change, then just skip it.
The heat is on the team to start winning this year, internally and externally by an impatient fan base at risk of losing its attention. The offense isn't good enough to win games. Fisher and Snead have had two years now to evaluate Bradford. And despite the perception he played well last season thanks to some garbage time stats and nine of 14 touchdowns coming against three of the league's worst teams, it just doesn't measure up to the claims. Go back and read Mike Tanier's piece breaking down Bradford's game.
It's not all Bradford's fault. Nobody in their right mind would suggest otherwise. The inexplicable hiring of Brian Schottenheimer and, worse, the team's loyalty to him has done more than enough to hamstring the offense. Protection from the offensive line was the best it's been in years last season, but could still improve, especially given the uncertainty there heading into this season. The skill positions have talent, but it's yet to be unlocked. Bradford's never shown significant improvement in four seasons. That can't be blamed entirely on coaches and players.
A talented quarterback changes everything. The Seahawks and 49ers are proof of that.
I understand trepidation people have about Manziel or the other quarterbacks in this class. No matter how well a kid plays in college, there's no guarantee he'll play that way in the NFL. Bradford's proof of that.
What I don't understand is the fear of walking away from the status quo. We're not talking about replacing the Rams' incredible defense line here. We're talking about potential solutions for a position that's not paid dividends. What is it about a team that's plateaued at seven wins suggests to anyone that it should keep on doing what it's doing? Like I said, with the exception of the defensive ends, there's no part of this team that can't be better. Sometimes, the only way to move forward with any real progress is to take a leap, a big one. That's where the rewards get substantially bigger and better.
Stan Kroenke made Jeff Fisher one of the highest paid coaches in the league for the specific purpose of turning around a moribund franchise. What Fisher does this weekend will go along way toward determining whether or not he can do that.