Can Johnny Football Make the Browns Relevant?
The first round of the 2014 NFL draft is in the books and, as expected, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was the story of the evening.
The biggest surprise wasn't the team that drafted him, however -- it was every team that passed him over until he fell to the 22nd pick, when the Cleveland Browns finally snatched him up. The Jacksonville Jaguars made waves early, drafting Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third pick. We then watched as team after team, from the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Dallas Cowboys, skipped Manziel to fill other positional needs (and as ESPN's cameras captured Johnny Football's every bewildered reaction).
Credit those teams for going with substance over flash, even the Cowboys, whose owner, Jerry Jones, has an affinity for the kind of spectacle that follows Manziel wherever he goes. Rumors were flying all week about the possibility of Dallas drafting Manziel, a kid from Texas, but nobody believed he would drop as far down as the Cowboys' 16th pick. When that actually happened, it provided the tensest moment of the draft, as everyone waited to see if Manziel would eventually assume one of the most coveted (and scrutinized) roles in professional sports. According to ESPN's Bill Hofheimer, the draft's rating peaked at a whopping 8.0 from 9:45 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. when the Cowboys were on the clock.
Reason won out, and Dallas chose Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin. The Cowboys' message was clear: They didn't just not pick Manziel to be their quarterback, they picked a guy who can give their existing quarterback, Tony Romo, some much-needed protection. Manziel, meanwhile, continued to wonder where he'd end up until Cleveland came up with the 22nd pick.
The Browns' choice is somewhat odd: a high-risk, high-reward pick that defies all kinds of logic and expensive reasoning. Yesterday, ESPN's Sal Paolantonio reported that the Browns had commissioned a $100,000 study on quarterbacks that pointed to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater as the best available QB in the draft this year. You didn't really need fancy, high-priced analysis to come to this conclusion: Bridgewater was once floated as a possible No. 1 pick, with scouts fawning over his polished mechanics, until his draft stock plummeted after his poor showing at Pro Day. Now, in possibly the most Cleveland story ever, Paolantonio reports that the idea to go with Manziel came from a conversation Browns owner Jimmy Haslam had with a homeless man.
Whatever the pick's genesis, it's a significant gamble for a team where highly touted quarterbacks have historically gone to watch their careers die. In a strange coincidence, the team has a pattern of drafting QBs with the 22nd pick in the first round: Brandon Weeden in 2012 and Brady Quinn in 2007. Let's hope it isn't a sign. To be fair, Weeden and Manziel are different people with different styles coming into different situations. Weeden was all arm and no instinct with limited mobility to boot, and joined a Browns team in disarray. Manziel's ability to scramble is his top asset, and Cleveland appears to have more of a plan for him than they did with Weeden. Head coach Mike Pettine reiterated his stance against starting a rookie quarterback, so Manziel should have time to develop while backing up Brian Hoyer.
But perhaps the biggest concern about Manziel is his small stature. He's listed at six feet tall and 210 pounds, and even those numbers are probably generous. Facing NFL defenses, he stands to get knocked around quite a bit and the Browns have to worry about his long-term sustainability. According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland ranked 17th last year in pass protection.
And as I wrote yesterday, underclassmen quarterbacks historically don't win Super Bowls, as they tend to be underdeveloped and immature. The latter has been a major knock against Manziel, who some scouts think relies on his improvisational skills to the detriment of his pocket game. His off-the-field persona shows a similar lack of discipline, which is partly why he's such a polarizing figure. Well aware of the negative influence Johnny Football has on himself, Manziel has a new strategy to reshape his image. He's been tweeting with the #JustAKidFromKerrville hashtag, an attempt to paint himself as a small-town boy from Texas instead of an arrogant son of privilege with oil money. It's not a lone occurrence: Yesterday, Manziel debuted his official Facebook page, which pushes the "Just a kid from Kerrville" angle hard. Although that small-town strategy might work among his fellow Texans, it won't work with everyone. As one Twitter post noted, "Small town kids don't sit court side."
But it doesn't actually matter if people love him or hate him; Manziel is the big name, the splashy headline, that can once again restore relevance to a Browns franchise that has floundered in mediocrity since it returned to the NFL in 1999. Even competing against the NBA and NHL playoffs, ESPN's overnight rating for the first round of the draft came in at a 6.8 -- a 48 percent increase from last year and the network's highest-ever major-market draft rating. Leading all markets was Cleveland, which posted a 13.0 rating. And just 12 hours after the Browns made their pick, the team had sold more than 1,500 season tickets. Call it the Manziel Bump.
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