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Monson: Johnny Whatever will be an NFL star

Published May 11, 2014 4:54 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Millions got pulled into the NFL Draft.

It got better ratings that first night than all the NBA and NHL playoff games combined, the highest ratings it had ever gotten.

The broadcast this time around had the feel of a reality show, only with a billion times more meaning than anything from that genre. We're talking about the future fates of 32 of the most followed franchises in all of sports. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars did the impossible — making us give a flying Frito about them — taking the draft's first quarterback, a surprise move with Blake Bortles, thought to be a mid-first-rounder, and following that in the second round with a dynamic target at wide receiver, Marqise Lee.

The whole thing was cool from the beginning, when Jadeveon Clowney was taken No. 1 by the Houston Texans, after all the speculation about what the Texans would do with that first selection, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound defensive end broke down and cried. It was a sweet moment for all but the most cynical. Clowney is one of those freak athletes who had so much attention paid to him, maybe too much, what with Steve Spurrier's passive-aggressive criticism of him at South Carolina last season and other observers analyzing his every move while Clowney simply awaited his chance to play in the NFL.

There were nine defensive backs taken in that first round, along with six receivers, three quarterbacks, five offensive tackles, and no running backs, underscoring the NFL's status as a passing league.

Buffalo gave away its first-round pick, next year's first round pick, and a fourth-round pick in 2015 in order to move up just five spots to take receiver Sammy Watkins.

But most of that, while significant, was background noise.

The story that absolutely owned the draft was You-Know-Who's.

Johnny Cleveland's.

Johnny Manziel, nervously opening a bottle of water, taking a short sip, then screwing the cap back on, then repeating, waited, along with the rest of us, for his name to be called. He hugged two college teammates who were drafted before him. He congratulated other selectees. He sat by while team after team passed over him for this offensive tackle and that DB, including the club that eventually took him at No. 22. The Browns picked cornerback Justin Gilbert at No. 8, before circling back and moving up to grab Manziel in their second go-round.

The most-watched moment of that first night came when the Cowboys picked at No. 16 — and passed on Johnny Cowboy, in favor of offensive tackle Zack Martin. The reality of Manziel being taken by Dallas might darn near have broken the Internet. The quarterback wore a blue suit that would have matched smartly a Cowboys cap.

Instead, it was brown on blue.

When Cleveland made its move, and the selection was announced, Manziel acted happy, in a limited sort of way, but it was far from a thunder dunk. What quarterback wants to play in Cleveland? Ugh. Look at the litany of failure there over the past 15 years. Look at the lack of anything positive.

But, then, Manziel seemed OK with it, not that he had much of a choice. And Cleveland was beyond OK with it. From the time of the pick until now, thousands of new season tickets have been sold. People lined up at the Browns store to buy fresh Manziel jerseys. The people and the place are on fire.

Good for them.

Cleveland fans haven't had much to get excited about through the years — in any sport. The Indians? The Cavs? The Browns? Come on. Even native son LeBron James ditched them for a place where the sun shined more brightly and the titles came more frequently.

The day after the first round, LeBron, a noted Cowboys fan, wore a Manziel Browns jersey. He talked with the quarterback, telling him how much the town would embrace him, what a terrific place Cleveland is. Slap that grin off your face — at least until Johnny Cleveland becomes Johnny South Beach.

Even the news on Friday that prolific Browns receiver Josh Gordon would be suspended for the coming season didn't curb the Manzielmania there.

At his introductory news conference, Manziel said he was fully aware of the madness around him, but that he knew who he was, who he really is, and that he meant to work hard, earn the veterans' respect, and be about football, not the hype. Asked about being the first quarterback under 6-foot to be drafted in the first round since 1953, he answered:

"I guess you can measure height. You can't really measure heart."

That's just one of the reasons we care so much about this kid. And don't pretend we don't. He was the center of this draft, the reason so many people watched it. He's competitive. He thrives under pressure. He's a winner. Yeah, he's made mistakes. He's been arrogant. He's been irresponsible, at times. He's admitted to allowing his persona to overshadow the player, and he's trying to make amends, where and how he can. He's not Johnny Football, he said, he's Johnny Manziel.

Whoever he is, the diversity of opinion among experts — some teams hated him, others liked him — about whether he can thrive in the NFL laid over his big personality and bold style of play creates an episode away from which few of us can avert our eyes.

Manziel has a strong arm, is mobile, and will have to hang in the pocket more than he did in college — or else he'll get killed. He has some flaws in his mechanics, but can make all the throws. And he's fearless. In time, he'll learn, and he'll become a force in the NFL — for a lot more than the celebrity friends he has or partying he does or buzz he stirs.

Cleveland has found itself a star.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.