FOXBOROUGH — Robert Kraft was out of town when Johnny Manziel came here for an official predraft visit six weeks ago, but he did run into the star quarterback when the two attended the BCS Championship game in January in Southern California.
“He seems like a wonderful young man,” Kraft said Thursday at the Patriots’ predraft party at Gillette Stadium. “He’s going to sell a lot of tickets for some team.”
That team, it turns out, is the Cleveland Browns, a team desperate for a franchise quarterback and desperate for the buzz Manziel will bring both on and off the field. Life just got a lot easier for the Browns’ season-ticket sales reps.
Thousands of tickets and jerseys will be sold in Cleveland if Thursday night’s reaction is any indication. Browns fans at the draft wore “Johnny Super Bowl” and “Draft Johnny” T-shirts. And owner Jimmy Haslam was apparently convinced to take Manziel when a homeless man on the street approached him before the draft and begged him to take the quarterback from Texas A&M. If a homeless man cares enough about the Browns’ quarterback, Haslam thought, the Browns simply had to take him.
Manziel was “Johnny Freefall” for the first two hours of the draft, sitting restlessly in the Green Room as 21 picks came and went. But with one bold move by the Browns, he quickly became “Johnny Cleveland” and the biggest story of the night, drawing more buzz than even the first player taken overall (Jadeveon Clowney) and the first quarterback taken (Blake Bortles, No. 3 to Jacksonville).
Manziel couldn’t help himself when he walked out on stage to greet commissioner Roger Goodell, first flashing his signature “money” hand sign to the crowd before accepting his new jersey.
“Had to,” Manziel said on the NFL Network broadcast. “I felt a lot of excitement in the building. That’s just me. I’m going to bring a lot of excitement wherever I go.”
Browns fans might feel a little spooked about the pick. Manziel was taken No. 22 overall, the same pick as a couple of other ignominious Browns quarterbacks — Brady Quinn (2007) and Brandon Weeden (2012).
But it’s pretty fun to be a Browns fan right now — and when was the last time anyone could say that?
They consummated three trades on Thursday night to take the top cornerback in the draft (Justin Gilbert), nab Manziel as their franchise quarterback, and pick up an extra first-rounder in next year’s draft. Their offense is now loaded with playmakers, with Manziel ready to team up with receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, two of the best young players in the game. They can add more talent with the No. 35 pick in Friday’s second round. And they were even the subject of a Hollywood feature film this offseason, though real-life GM Ray Farmer did a lot better than Kevin Costner did as the fictional GM in “Draft Day.”
The Manziel pick was a home run for now, but obviously it’s a risky move by the Browns. Manziel is certainly raw as a passer — he needs to learn to hang in the pocket and go through his progressions — and his size might be an issue. He’s the first quarterback under 6 feet tall to be taken in the first round in 61 years. There’s a reason 21 picks came and went before he was finally picked. Several NFL teams don’t believe Manziel will be able to last in the NFL.
Cleveland, though, was certainly willing to take the risk. The Browns have made the playoffs once since reentering the league in 1999. They have the league’s No. 9 defense, talented receivers, and two Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. They needed a quarterback, and had nothing to lose by going all-in on Manziel.
And suddenly, Cleveland is a hot football town again. This could be an electric offense with Manziel throwing to Gordon, who had 1,646 yards last year and can make any quarterback look good. The Browns are currently slated to play just one prime-time game this year, but here’s betting they get “flexed” into several more.
And the man in charge of guiding and developing Manziel has a pretty good track record with mobile quarterbacks — new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who had the same role with Robert Griffin III in Washington the past two years. RG3 was another supposedly raw passer who played in a gimmicky college offense and was too small to handle NFL hits, and Shanahan coaxed a 20-touchdown, five-interception season out of Griffin in his rookie year.
Now it’s Manziel’s turn.
“To be here feels right,” Manziel said. “Dawg Pound, here we come. I’m going to pour my heart out for this team.
“I truly believe Cleveland was supposed to be where I ended up.”
Cleveland’s big play for Manziel salvaged an otherwise ho-hum draft night. The Texans couldn’t pull off any wild trades for their No. 1 pick and instead went the safe route with Clowney (though I’m sure Andrew Luck, who will face Clowney and J.J. Watt twice per season, doesn’t feel so safe right now).
Only one bold trade was made all night — Buffalo jumping up from No. 9 to 4 (and giving up next year’s first-rounder) to draft receiver Sammy Watkins.
Bortles went higher than most people expected, but this wasn’t much of a surprise. The Jaguars badly needed a quarterback, and Bortles seems to have the highest upside in an imperfect quarterback class. Teddy Bridgewater fell even further than Manziel, but the Vikings salvaged his night by trading up into the 32d pick to take him to eventually run Norv Turner’s offense. And other than the two quarterbacks, no noteworthy prospects fell too far down the draft board.
It’s not often that the 22d overall pick generates the most draft buzz. Behold the power of Johnny Cleveland.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin