NEW YORK — For nearly three years, Jadeveon Clowney couldn’t wait to get to the NFL, and the league was just as eager to add the player some called the best defensive prospect in a decade.
But Thursday’s first pick of the 2014 NFL draft didn’t come without some intrigue about how it would all turn out. There had been criticism of Clowney’s work ethic last season and questions about whether the Houston Texans would hold or trade the No. 1 slot.
‘‘I just been proving a lot of people wrong throughout my life,’’ Clowney said. ‘‘Growing up, I grew up hard. I always said I’m going to do something great. Hopefully, I’m going to be a Hall of Famer one day.’’
Houston will take that. This draft’s other big name, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, sat with a sullen look on his face until Cleveland made its third trade of the round and grabbed the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner at No. 22. To rousing cheers and chants of ‘‘Johnny, Johnny,’’ Manziel smiled widely as he walked onto the Radio City Music Hall stage.
Manziel’s wait added plenty of suspense nearly three hours after the Texans took their time selecting Clowney. Rarely does a team not reveal the top overall choice until it is announced, and there was wide speculation the Texans had soured on the defensive end, whose junior season at South Carolina was accompanied by criticism he played it safe to stay healthy for the pros.
After Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the pick, fans filling Radio City Music Hall to capacity applauded Clowney as he held up his index finger, his eyes moist, a relieved look on his face. Just like the 30 prospects on hand, the fans were extra eager to see who would wind up where after the draft was pushed back from late April because the theater was unavailable.
‘‘It’s been a long time. It just kicked in at the end there, man, I’ve been drafted,’’ he said.
Clowney, 21, brings size, speed and power to a lineup that already has 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. His diligence had been questioned after he slipped from 13 sacks to just three in 2013. Critics said he was protecting himself from injury in his junior year before declaring early for the draft.
He is the first defensive player taken first overall since Houston selected another end, Mario Williams, in 2006. Williams now is with Buffalo. Houston also made the top pick in its first season, 2002, taking quarterback David Carr. He never lived up to that billing; the Texans hope Clowney has more of an impact.
Tackle Greg Robinson, whose blocking helped high-powered Auburn make the national championship game last season, went second to St. Louis. The Rams owned the pick as the final payment for a 2012 trade with Washington that allowed the Redskins to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III.
St. Louis is concerned about the health of starting left tackle Jake Long, who is coming off knee surgery.
The first quarterback to go went to Jacksonville in the third slot, but it wasn’t Johnny Football. Blake Bortles of Central Florida, whose stock shot up last season and in subsequent workouts. At 6-5, 232, Bortles drew comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger because of his combination of size and mobility.
Jacksonville missed the last time it took a QB in the first round, Blaine Gabbert in 2011. The Jaguars gave up on the inconsistent Gabbert, who struggled to read defenses and was benched for journeyman Chad Henne. Gabbert is now a backup in San Francisco.
‘‘He’s a down-to-earth guy, a self-made guy, a blue-collar guy and he wants to be the best he can be,’’ said Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, who added a word of caution: ‘‘He just needs a little bit of time.’’
Seeing a chance to grab playmaking receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Buffalo swapped spots with Cleveland, also sending a first- and fourth-round selection next year to move up from ninth to fourth.
‘‘Dynamic playmaker, and that’s what this game is all about,’’ Bills GM Doug Whaley said of Watkins. ‘‘He’s automatically going to make our quarterback (EJ Manuel) better.’’
Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, went to Atlanta with the sixth overall pick. The Falcons leaked so badly on the offensive line in 2013 as they plummeted from NFC South champion to 4-12 that Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times.
Another Aggies star was chosen next, receiver Mike Evans to Tampa Bay. The 6-4, 231-pound Evans is durable, versatile — and quite emotional. He also couldn’t hold back the tears when Goodell called his name.
The crowd thought Manziel might go eighth when Cleveland traded up one spot to get Minnesota’s pick. So when the Browns took cornerback Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, there was a loud groan from the fans. Gilbert smiled wryly as he shook Goodell’s hand.
Minnesota grabbed UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Detroit selected North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, by far the best tight end in this crop, and Tennessee filled a need on the offensive line with Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan.
Finally, a local team was on the clock and the audience approved lustily when the Giants chose LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham was followed by Pitt DT Aaron Donald to St. Louis, Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller to Chicago, Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier to Ohio State, Notre Dame G Zack Martin to Dallas, Alabama LB C.J. Mosley to Baltimore and, as fans chanted ‘‘J-E-T-S,’’ Louisville safety Calvin Pryor is New York-bound.
Minnesota finished off the opening round by trading with Seattle to select Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, the third quarterback taken. Bridgewater was an early entrant into the draft, but already had graduated college. Fourteen underclassmen were chosen, including the first four picks. The SEC led all conferences with 11 players taken.