NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08: Johnny Manziel of the Texas A&M Aggies takes the stage after he was picked #22 overall by the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Updated: May 9, 2014 12:25PM
At Halas Hall, as the 2014 NFL draft was about to begin, there was still heavy chatter among the football scribes about where and when Johnny Manziel would go.
Whom the Bears would pick had been hashed to death. Opinions didn’t matter. Defense, defense, defense.
Bears GM Phil Emery was upstairs in the “war room,’’ surrounded by sergeants, lieutenants, ice-boys, blood-pressure takers. What the Bears would do at No. 14 depended on what the teams above them did. End of story.
But Johnny Football, never was a player as divisive.
People had the feisty little Texas A&M quarterback going anywhere from No. 2, to St. Louis — to the third round to anybody who would claim him. Some draft analysts said they wouldn’t take Manziel at all.
The guy is either a rare game-changer or an overhyped dud. We chatted him up there in the press room, nobody agreeing on much at all.
Then the Jaguars took University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third pick. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had gone first to the Texans, and massive tackle Greg Robinson went second to the Rams.
Bortles is from the weak American Athletic Conference.
Then, with the fifth pick, the Oakland Raiders took linebacker Khalil Mack from even smaller Buffalo, in the Mid-America Conference. Was somebody from the Midwest Fencing Conference coming next?
Most important to the moment — how far would Johnny Football fall? The thought struck us there: Was it possible Manziel was more famous, more bankable, more valued as a “amateur’’ than he would be as an adult professional? At Texas A&M, after he beat defending national champion, No.-1 ranked, undefeated Alabama in 2012, he was akin to a god on campus. That’s how he was to the entire college-football world.
If he could have been paid right then by A&M boosters, there’s no doubt he would have commanded several million dollars per year to keep doing what he did. Maybe 10 million dollars per year. Oil country, you know. Gushers come and go. Not magical college QBs.
But the insults kept coming on draft night.
Manziel teammates Jake Matthews (offensive tackle) and Mike Evans (wide receiver) went No. 6 and No. 7 to the Falcons and Buccaneers, respectively. That meant A&M’s offense wasn’t even run by Johnny. He was, what, Johnny Designated Driver?
The always-terrible Browns could have taken him at No. 8. Heck, they once took Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn first. They took cornerback Justin Gilbert instead.
The Bears’ pick was getting closer, and the choices were becoming more obvious. Emery and crew wanted defensive tackle Aaron Donald, from Pitt. A safety such as Calvin Pryor or “Hey Hey’’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix would be acceptable.
But Johnny Football sat at a table in New York at the draft nerve center, drinking water from a plastic bottle and trying to look cool, even-keeled and supportive of all the young men taken before him. Inside? I don’t think you’d want to see that.
Remember, he was just 19 when he set the college-football world on its ear that Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. a year and a half ago. To peak then seemed impossible. The thought came: What if the Bears traded quarterback Jay Cutler to A&M, straight up, for Manziel? Aggie boosters could handle the pay thing, no question. What has Cutler accomplished, after all? Maybe Kevin Sumlin could teach him how to protect the ball and win big games.
Maybe Manziel could become the quarterback equivalent of Gale Sayers and electrify this football-mad city with skill and daring and attitude. Think Jim McMahon with wheels.
But then the Rams took Bears favorite Donald at No. 13, and Emery had to regroup briefly. He picked three-time All-ACC cornerback Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech. Not bad.
Longtime Bears starting cornerback Charles “Peanut’’ Tillman is old and his shell is cracking, so this made sense. With the pass-happy NFL you can’t have too many defensive backs to throw in on nickel, dime, and more-complex coverages. Fuller has more than a 3-foot vertical. He can broad jump 10 feet, 8 inches. That should help him a lot if the Bears pass rush still reeks.
“Definitely a blessing,’’ said Fuller, when asked about becoming a Bear.
But Johnny Football was still there. Waiting.
And finally … the woeful Browns picked again, at No. 22. Johnny Football, say hello to your little friend. No jokes about Cleveland, please.