By Peter Melling /// Sports Editor
Last week, the National Football League held its annual player draft, and this year was full of some wild surprises. All of the league’s 32 teams looked to improve their squads with the best talent that college football had to offer last year, and what a class they had at their disposal! Talents like Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, and Sammy Watkins do not come often, and when they do, clubs will do anything to get their hands on them (tanking the season, trading key assets for higher draft standings, etc.). Some teams got markedly better, while some depreciated. Here are a couple of highlights from the seven rounds of the draft.
The Houston Texans surprised many people by taking defensive star Jadeveon Clowney as the first pick of the draft, instead of a quarterback like Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, or Teddy Bridgewater (who went 3rd, 22nd, and 32nd, respectively). In my preview of the NFL Draft, I said that there was a strong possibility that the Texans would select Clowney in spite of their desperate need for a quarterback and their lack of defensive woes. Still, making an already excellent defensive unit better with Clowney’s talents was the best move the Texans could have made. What is more surprising is that they waited until the fourth round to select their new quarterback (Tom Savage, out of the University of Pittsburgh), selecting an offensive guard, a tight end, and a nose tackle before going for Savage. Savage has showed some good stuff over his college career, but has had some issues with consistency. Still, it makes sense that the Texans would try to reinforce the various offensive and defensive units around Savage to let him naturally grow into his role as a starting quarterback that makes the most of the opportunities given to him by the rest of his team. The Texans played it smart by avoiding the allure of blowing the top pick on a quarterback, and improved their team greatly by adding solid defensive talent and a quarterback with high potential (who is still somewhat replaceable).
The Fall of Johnny Football
What might be the most surprising moment of the draft would be Johnny Manziel, who placed within the top 20 in several mock drafts (Mel Kiper Jr. had him as the 7th pick going to Tampa Bay and Todd McShay had him as the 16th pick going to Dallas), going 22nd overall to the Cleveland Browns. What happened to Johnny Football to make him fall so far? Was it worries about his autographing scandal and history of wild partying that soiled excellent pro day and combine performances, or was he simply not desirable to teams (despite his Heisman trophy from his freshman year and two bowl wind)? While it was probably a mix of both factors, seeing as how Blake Bortles was the only quarterback selected ahead of Manziel and several teams that needed quarterbacks addressed their needs later in the draft, it is surprising that he went so low. Surely, his potential would have wooed some of the more trigger-happy teams with higher draft positions who would want Manziel’s publicity (like the Dallas Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars). But no, he fell into the quarterback graveyard known as the Cleveland Browns, where they have been through 20 quarterbacks since 1999. Manziel’s style, which combines both effect mobile tactics and accurate passing, needs time to adjust to the NFL style of play and the right supporting cast to flourish. Cleveland is the worst possible place for him to be, as they have little in the way of offensive tools (with one of their best players, Josh Gordon, receiving a drug suspension) and a lackluster defense. Unless he finds a way off the Browns, his career will be doomed before it can truly begin.
The Equality Threshold
Even though it is a 7th round pick, and not many experts pick him to last long at the NFL level, the St. Louis Rams’ selection of Michael Sam is a landmark moment in sports. He becomes the first openly gay player in the NFL, and brings with him a world of glories and risks. While his sexuality may generate great publicity around the Rams for having the courage to draft a player who may alienate many fans and players (especially evidenced by the outpouring of homophobia from Twitter after his selection, and pro-LGBT retorts from writers, players, and other fans), he is still problematic for other reasons. Namely, he is lacking in his ability to defend against the run (which is important considering two of the quarterbacks in his division, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, will frequently run in key situations). While the Rams’ coaching staff is good enough to get Sam where he needs to be, it might not be enough. Even if he is cut in the preseason or signed by another team after his release, his selection in the draft alone breaks a threshold. Once one openly gay player can enter the NFL, more will follow, and some might even be selected in the first or second round. The sports world is changing when it comes to LGBT rights, and we are witnessing some of those first few steps towards equality.