Manziel Mania, Now Headed to Cleveland
NEW YORK CITY—Johnny Football was on. He had to be. He was poised to do his first on-camera interview with the Cleveland Browns team website in a crowded room of media members, and before he started, he slipped in a wink.
A few feet away, his agent, Erik Burkhardt, sat hunched in a chair, gripping a water bottle. It was nearly midnight now, and wearily, the agent said what Cleveland’s brand-new hope couldn’t: “It was a long night.”
Johnny Manziel’s wait at Radio City Music Hall lasted 21 names and two hours, 42 minutes. He watched Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles fly off the board to Jacksonville at No. 3, and two of his college teammates drafted back-to-back at Nos. 6 and 7. Manziel shed his blue suit jacket. The Cowboys passed on him at No. 16, but as Manziel shrewdly admitted later, “I don’t know if the world could have handled that, honestly.”
This wasn’t necessarily a slide. The swashbuckling Texas A&M quarterback’s NFL future is a perplexing question, with his exciting play-making ability, imperfect fundamentals and larger-than-life persona adding up to no clear answer. And that’s exactly why an entire league, and its fan base, waited eagerly to see which team would take the bait.
Of course it took place in dramatic fashion. The Eagles, whose coach professed his love for Manziel on many an occasion, were on the clock. But the Browns struck, giving up a third-round pick to leap four spots into Philadelphia’s No. 22 pick. It was happening. The Radio City crowd—and not just the contingent in bright orange “Johnny Cleveland” T-shirts--started chanting, “Johnny! Johnny!” When commissioner Roger Goodell breathed the first syllable of Manziel’s first name, the place erupted in a roar that might have been louder than that for all the other picks combined.
Manziel quickly reassembled himself: Suit jacket back on, new Browns hat slipped on his head, and a Browns helmet pin affixed to his lapel by one of the team’s PR staffers. He emerged from the green room, and as he walked toward Goodell, held up his hands and made that cash-rub finger gesture that drew him flak last fall.
This next part happened fast: A desperate Browns fan base, which has seen the playoffs once in the past 15 years, pinned its hopes on Manziel’s shoulders. Choosing quarterbacks with the No. 22 pick has been a sore spot for the team (see: Brady Quinn, 2007; Brandon Weeden, 2012). But this was college football’s most exciting player—and he was secured with the pick recouped from trading Trent Richardson last fall, no less.
Even fans wearing the jerseys of other teams’ stars—Victor Cruz, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers—desperately sought an autograph, or a selfie with Manziel, on his way off the stage. This was Manziel’s show, a lesson his new Browns teammate, cornerback Justin Gilbert, learned a few hours earlier. Gilbert, who was picked by Cleveland No. 8 overall, was meeting with the media when news of the Cowboys' passing on Manziel was broadcast on the surrounding television screens. The media collectively gasped, and his press conference abruptly ended.
At Manziel’s own session with the media, he projected the image he’s worked hard to show teams over the past few months. He described his drive to be great, and promised he held no bitterness or grudge toward the teams who passed on him—just a little extra fuel to his fire. He cited Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s success with Robert Griffin III as a rookie in Washington, and explained that his play will continue to adapt as his professional career begins.
Soon enough, a group of Cleveland fans waiting outside his press conference broke into another “Johnny Cleveland!” chant. And then, “Johnny Super Bowl!”
One security guard turned to a colleague. “Should we say something?”
“No, they’re alright,” the other replied.
There came a point, though, when Manziel had enough for the night. By the time he walked out of Radio City Music Hall, at 12:24 a.m., the venue was mostly deserted. Clutching his Browns jersey in one hand and a water bottle in the other, he scribbled his name one or two more times—and then jutted across the street, in front of a taxi. The fans were close behind, their cries escalating just like the expectations for him.
“Sign for me, Johnny!”
“I love you!”
“You’re going to win a Super Bowl!”
Manziel climbed into the back seat of a black GMC on the corner of 51st street. The fans hovered by the window, begging for the quarterback. “Don’t worry, he’ll open the window!” someone shouted. “He’ll definitely open.”
Manziel never did. A minute later, the GMC pulled out, turned right and shot up Sixth Avenue. A very long night, indeed.
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The MMQB’s Robert Klemko was with the Eagles in Philadelphia on Thursday. He reports on their pick:
It’s the most important question in the wake of every NFL draft, especially following the first round: Did Team A draft for need or talent? Eagles GM Howie Roseman said he learned a lesson about drafting for need in 2011, when Philly used a first-round pick on guard Danny Watkins, who is no longer with the club. Three years later, did the Eagles lean towards addressing a need in picking Louisville OLB Marcus Smith—a guy many believed would be around on the second day—or did they take the best player available?
As always, the answer falls somewhere in the middle.
Roseman told The MMQB he was weighing the 2014 class of wide receivers against this class of pass rushers in making his choice.
“We’re looking at tiers,” Roseman said early Friday morning upon exiting the team’s facility. “If you feel like one of the positions is harder to address as a whole, you address that. If you look at the wide receiver group, it’s a strong group going forward. We’ve got a bunch of guys in that tier.”
In other words, the Eagles dealt their No. 22 pick to the QB-hungry Browns for the 26th and a third-rounder, then selected Smith at 26 because they had him pegged for "near that position," Roseman said, and they knew they could get a quality receiver in the second or third round, and they felt the next best pass rusher didn’t compare to the Louisville product.
“We had very short board for pass rushers, and it kind of fell off a cliff after Smith,” Roseman said. "We had him rated in the area that we took him. You know things aren’t going to go the way you planned. We had an opportunity to move back and we took it.”
Smith was the fifth pass rusher off the board after the Chiefs took Auburn’s Dee Ford at No. 23. The next best man, according to SI’s big board, is Missouri’s Kony Ealy. In terms of wide receivers, the Panthers snatched Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin at No. 28, so the Eagles shouldn’t hold their breath for Southern Cal’s Marquise Lee, likely to be gone by the time they select at 54.
Philadelphia’s collective draft philosophy—previously authored by Andy Reid—is still a work in progress as coach Chip Kelly enjoys his first draft with a full offseason under his belt since joining the staff two winters ago. Kelly brushed off any suggestion the team was considering adding Johnny Manziel to a group of QBs that includes Pro Bowler Nick Foles. In picking Smith to support and potentially replace either Connor Barwin or Trent Cole on the edges, Kelly stuck with a mantra which Philly writers have come to enjoy: “Long levers are strong levers.” (Smith’s arms measure out to 34 inches.)
“Last draft, our personnel staff talked about what we wanted a lot, but we didn’t see it in action,” Roseman said. “Now we’ve seen it. Having coach go to these pro days is a huge value for us.”
Smith, who watched the draft at a sports bar with friends, had trouble determining Thursday night’s biggest surprise: That he was drafted in the first round or that he went before Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, chosen by the Vikings with the last pick of the first round.
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Shon Coleman walked across the stage of a raucous Radio City Music Hall with Roger Goodell last night, and that was surreal. So was the message the NFL Commissioner gave him afterward. “He said in the next couple years,” Coleman said, “he hopes to see me again.”
The NFL started a neat practice at last year’s draft: Inviting a patient from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to announce a first-round draft pick. Coleman, though, is not just a survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, he also has a real chance to hear his own name called in a future draft.
Coleman was the 6-6 young man in a taupe-colored suit who strode across stage last night between his mom, DeKeishia Coleman-Tunstall, and Goodell, when the draft’s 13th pick came in. Coleman grew up a Rams fan, so the NFL arranged for him to announce the team’s second first-round selection: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle from Pittsburgh. The Rams’ first selection last night, as it turned out, was Coleman’s teammate at Auburn last season, left tackle Greg Robinson.
Coleman’s college football career was put on pause even before it started. Just a few weeks after signing his letter of intent with Auburn, the five-star recruit was diagnosed with cancer, and began weekly treatment at St. Jude in Memphis. That was four years ago. Today, Coleman is an Auburn graduate (as of last week) and competing to replace Robinson as the Tigers’ starting left tackle.
His left hand was wrapped in a soft cast yesterday, the result of surgery to fix a tendon he tore in Auburn’s spring game, but football injuries are no sweat after enduring 31 months of chemotherapy. Even as his cancer fight made him weary and nauseous, Coleman dreamed of football—not just returning to the game (as he did in 2012), and not just learning behind Robinson (as he did last season), but hearing his name called like Robinson’s was last night. “That’s always been his ultimate goal,” his mom said. “The road took a couple of turns, it wasn’t just a straight shot that we initially thought it was going to be, which makes it even better.”
Coleman, who turns 23 in November, has three years of college eligibility left. Right now, he’s focusing on this season, and starting his graduate studies in the fall. But last night, he let his mind skip ahead a bit. He walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and he envisioned it as a dress rehearsal.
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Before Blake Bortles was the first quarterback chosen in the 2014 draft, before he experienced “the greatest feeling” of his life, the 22-year-old sat in a Manhattan hotel room with his college roommate and watched Oceans 13.
“Just tried to relax and watch some TV,” said Joey Grant, who was also Bortles’ center at UCF. “Just like old times.”
Grant had been with Bortles since he arrived in New York on Tuesday. Over a 48-hour period they rode a double-decker tour bus, swung by the Empire State Building and visited the 9-11 memorial. They ate pizza and cannoli in Little Italy.
Although Bortles had several draft-related obligations—including appearances on Good Morning America and at an NFL Play 60 event, and a meeting with Roger Goodell—he tried to distract himself and enjoy the mini New York vacation. That was especially true Thursday afternoon, when Bortles and Grant spent most of the day watching television. “But nothing draft related,” Grant said. “Oh no, none of that.”
Right after Bortles was drafted, the quarterback was escorted through restricted areas for interview after interview. Grant, meanwhile, meandered around the Radio City lobby. When he spotted a father and son wearing Jaguars jerseys, he yelled “Hey, let’s go Jags!” The pair smiled at the 6-2, 291-pound Grant who was wearing a suit, although they looked a bit confused.
Then Grant walked up to a vendor on the main level and bought Jacksonville Jaguars flat-brimmed hat for $36.
“Well,” he said. “This looks good.” —Emily Kaplan
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Of Ryan Shazier’s 20 friends and family members in attendance on Thursday night, there were all kinds of NFL rooting interests. Shazier’s uncle, Maurice, grew up on the Cowboys. Shazier’s father, Vernon, is the Dolphin’s team chaplain. Oddly, Shazier’s cousin from Montana, Brittany, grew up cheering for the Steelers.
“It was because they were on national TV all the time,” she said. “Honestly, I couldn’t be happier.”
The entire Shazier clan seemed ecstatic Thursday night, when the outside linebacker from Ohio State was drafted 15th overall by the Steelers. They were told to expect something late in the first round or early in the second. “When they called Ryan’s name we weren’t really ready for it,” Maurice Shazier said. “It was the second big surprise of the day.” The first surprise came a little after lunchtime at the family’s hotel. Shazier gathered everyone into the living room of his suite to announce he had just signed a deal with Nike. “It’s crazy,” Brittany said. “I figured that would be the wildest thing that would happen all day.” —E.K.
1. Bill O’Brien is an offense-oriented coach, but when the Texans used their No. 1 overall pick on this class’ premier pass rusher, it was O’Brien whom Jadeveon Clowney credited with bringing him to Houston. “He was like, ‘I’m going to stick my neck out for you. You’ve got to come in here and stick your neck out for me. You’re going to be in my hip pocket.’ … I can’t let him down.” Clowney is the first defensive end selected first overall since, yep, the Texans took Mario Williams in 2006.
2. Interesting trade partners, the Bills and the Browns: Mike Pettine’s old team and his new team. To move up to No. 4 to nab Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, Buffalo gave Cleveland its No. 9 pick and first- and fourth-round selections in 2015. The Browns later moved back up in Round 1, swapping the No. 9 pick and a fifth-rounder for the Vikings’ No. 8 pick, with which they chose Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert—a selection that also may have a Pettine tie. Gilbert's pairing with Pro Bowler Joe Haden sounds a lot like the pairing of Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis that anchored the Jets’ defense in 2010 and 2011, when Pettine was the team's defensive coordinator.
3. He didn’t draft a cornerback last night, but Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome stuck with another of his tendencies: Alabama players. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley joins outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (second round, 2012) and nose tackle Terrence Cody (second round, 2010) as recent Crimson Tide defenders drafted high by Baltimore. Maybe we should have seen this selection coming when Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz jumped to defend Alabama players at the team’s pre-draft press conference: “Can I say something about the Alabama guys? They’ve been getting beat up a lot, and I went to Auburn,” Hortiz said last week. “These guys, they may fail physicals or be question marks, but they are tough players. … All they do is play through pain, and they have such a mental and physical toughness. They get in the NFL, and they do the same thing. Sorry to strike a nerve, but I’ve just been hearing it so much.” Mosley is one such player: He won the 2013 Butkus Award for college football’s best linebacker but dealt with elbow, hip and shoulder injuries.
4. NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said this week the union is reviewing potential action it can take on behalf of the draft-eligible players whose names were leaked this week as having failed drug tests at the combine. “Even though those players are not technically represented by the union , once they are drafted, they are,” Smith said. He alleged a “lack of appropriate attention by the NFL” on how confidential information collected at the combine, like the results of drug tests, is safeguarded. Multiple media outlets reported at least six names of players who failed drug tests (none was drafted in the first round). Smith said avenues for the union could include filing negligence claims or seeking recourse through the CBA.
5. And finally, keep this statistic in mind as you sort through all the first-round analysis: From 1998 through 2012, only 35 percent of first-rounders went to at least one Pro Bowl representing the team that drafted them, according to Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and co-founder of the Dynamic Sport Solutions consulting firm. So, if half of these players make a Pro Bowl with the team whose jersey they held up last night, that would be unusual. Something to chew on.