Montreal traded for a tantalizing talent in Johnny Manziel, but he must realize his CFL potential and play like the Johnny Football who won the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M University to be worth the investment.
The Alouettes have been trying to get Manziel for more than a year and finally landed the coveted quarterback in a blockbuster deal with Hamilton and potentially found a solution quarterback.
General manager Kavis Reed first reached out to the Ticats in March last year about acquiring the rights to Manziel. In September the Als were given the go-ahead to work the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner out in September, background research that ultimately laid the framework for Montreal to send two high calibre, proven players in speedy receiver Chris Williams and ratio-breaking defensive end Jamaal Westerman and a pair of first-round picks.
The price was high for Manziel, but the Alouettes have long been searching for an answer at quarterback and if the 25-year-old quarterback provides the solution, the cost will be largely forgotten. Thirteen quarterbacks have started for Montreal since Hall of Fame passer Anthony Calvillo retired following the 2013 season: Jonathan Crompton, Troy Smith, Alex Brink, Rakeem Cato, Kevin Glenn, Tanner Marsh, Brandon Bridge, Vernon Adams, Darian Durant, Drew Willy, Matthew Shiltz and Jeff Mathews. That’s a lengthy list the Alouettes would rather stop adding names on to.
When Manziel takes the field in a Montreal uniform, he will be the 14th name and based on what the Als sent to Hamilton needs to be the franchise pivot Reed and Mike Sherman believe he can be. It’s well known Manziel and Sherman already have an existing relationship, which certainly played a factor in the Alouettes longing for the star signal caller. Sherman convinced Manziel to switch his commitment from the University of Oregon to Texas A&M and the two spent the 2011 season together with the Aggies when the dual-threat quarterback was redshirting as a freshman.
Sherman wanted a quarterback who could extend the play and he’s seen firsthand what Manziel could do for an entire season in practice at the NCAA level. The 63-year-old offensive-minded head coach saw Manziel live in the pre-season when Hamilton visited Montreal and he completed 12-of-20 passes for 88 yards and rushed four times for 19 yards, scrambling on a handful of occasions and making plays. But Manziel hasn’t played since then so there is an unknown factor.
Two of the pieces the Alouettes traded away were known quantities. Williams has the ability to take the top off a defence and make game-changing plays in an instant. He’s put up 1,000-yard seasons in four of his five full years in the CFL. Westerman consistently produces sacks – 35 in 52 career CFL games – while being stout in the run game as a player who happens to have a Canadian passport. Reed wanted Westerman badly in free agency and made him the highest paid free agent to bring him to Montreal, but the Ticats were adamant the 33-year-old was included in the deal.
Chris Harper and Demornay Pierson-Elas are possible players to fill the spot at receiver, they have some similar traits to Williams, but neither are close to his 4.28 40-yard speed. On defence rookie Vantrel McMillan could be an option at defensive end as an American, Jesse Joseph, Jean-Samuel Blanc and 2018 third-round pick, Bo Banner give the Alouettes Canadians to consider on the edge.
The value of each of the first-round picks is still to be determined, however, players from Canada, especially the elite ones at the top of the draft, are drawing more NFL eyeballs and clearly have become more capable of making an impact quickly in the CFL. Montreal doesn’t currently have a first-round choice until 2022 after having used their 2019 first choice to secure Tyler Johnstone in the CFL supplemental draft.
Montreal does get certainty in one area: buzz around the team. The Alouettes attendance has dwindled for the last few years and the excitement of Manziel will sell tickets and renew interest in the Alouettes in the short term. That could be vital for the health of the league overall to create energy around the Als and hopefully bring the fanbase back.
The premium tab paid for Johnny LeFootball won’t be an issue if Manziel lights up the league and the Alouettes finally find a franchise quarterback.