By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jadeveon Clowney looked every inch the best young prospect the National Football League has seen in years when he took his first steps into the professional ranks on Thursday.
As widely expected, the 21-year-old was chosen by the Houston Texans as the first overall pick at the annual NFL Draft and took the news in his stride.
When the defensive end’s name was announced, he strolled on to the podium at Radio City Music Hall like he had been in the spotlight all his life, flashing a sheepish smile and hugged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” he later told reporters. “It’s like the pressure was relieved.
PHOTOS: Draft Day
“I always wanted to play in the NFL, I always wanted to be a football player and now I’ve got my chance.”
Standing 6-feet-5 (1.96 m) and weighing 266 pounds, Clowney has all the physical attributes needed to make it in the NFL.
Clowney has been earmarked for the NFL from the moment he began his college career at the University of South Carolina, developing a huge national following with his dreadlocked hair and trademark diamond-stud earrings, which he wore again on Thursday.
An All-American in his second year in 2012, setting records for sacks, he was already good enough to enter the NFL but had to wait another year under the league’s rules.
His production dropped the following season, prompting speculation he was protecting his body for the NFL, but it mattered little when the draft took place and he was selected first.
“This feels great, I’ve been waiting all my life for this,” he said. “I grew up the hard way. A lot of people said I’d be nothing.
“But I always said I’d be something one day and here I am.”
As the number one pick, Clowney became an instant millionaire the moment his name was called, entitled to earn around $25 million for his first four seasons in the NFL.
It was a life-changing moment for Clowney, who was raised by a single mother who has spent the last 20 years working in a potato chip factory just to make ends meet.
“The first thing I’m going to do is take care of my mom,” he said.
Going number one is no guarantee of success.
Although the list of former number ones includes the likes of Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw, there have been plenty of flops as well with players who were brilliant in college failing to have the same impact in the professional game.
Clowney said he was confident of making the transition and helping the Texans, who lost their last 14 games in 2013 to finish bottom of the NFL, get better.
“Just how great I want to be is up to me,” he said. “I hope to be a Hall of Famer one day. “I’m very humble about playing this game. I always tell myself I want to be better.
“I’ve never been on a losing team so whatever they want me to do it, I’ll do it.”
‘JOHNNY FOOTBALL’ SET TO LIGHT UP CLEVELAND OFFENSE
Johnny Manziel, College football’s most charismatic and talked about player, is heading to Ohio after the Cleveland Browns traded up to snare the quarterback in the first round of the National Football League draft on Thursday.
Known popularly as ‘Johnny Football’, Manziel was selected by the Browns as the 22nd overall choice after waiting almost three hours to hear his name called out.
He may not have gone number one and he was not even the first quarterback picked on Thursday, but there was no more popular choice than the 21-year-old from Texas A&M University.
Even before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced his name, the crowd at the Radio City Music Hall was on its feet, chanting “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny”.
“To get that call was a weight off my shoulders,” Manziel said. “It’s a dream come true to be a first round pick in the NFL.
“This is a great day for me, something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid.”
For Manziel and his supporters, it was still an agonising wait. Because of his enormous popularity, he was heavily promoted in the lead up to the draft and featured during the broadcast.
He had been tipped as a possible first choice but as each pick came and went, his disappointment was captured on television.
The Browns had emerged as the team most likely to pick him and when they traded up four places with the Philadelphia Eagles to get their man, the news was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he walked out and collected his Cleveland jersey.
“It feels right,” Manziel said. “It feels like where I’m meant to be.”
“It’s great for me to end up at a team where the fans are as passionate about the game as I am.
“I haven’t been to Cleveland that many times but you’ve got to shake things up a bit and for the first time in four and a half months, I now have somewhere to call home.”
Manziel was an instant hit at College, breaking numerous passing records in his rookie season in 2012, and becoming the first freshmen to win the Heisman Trophy.
Standing at slightly under 6ft (1.82m) tall, Manziel is small by modern quarterback standards but he opted to leave college a year before finishing his degree as he feels ready to make the step up to professional football.
A dynamic player on the field and outspoken off it, he said before the draft that any team that overlooked him could pay for their mistake and he was sticking to his line after falling back to 22nd.
“I’m going to pour my heart out for this team and this city and try to be the player I want to be. I want to win, that’s the main thing,” he said.
“I never really put any stock into what people said or where I might go, but obviously there were some teams that passed me up and we’re going to play them in the future.
“There’s no bitterness or grudges… but it does add a little fuel to the fire.”
IN OTHER TOP PICKS:
- The St. Louis Rams, getting the second pick from Washington in the deal that brought Robert Griffin III to the Redskins two years ago, took Auburn offensive tackle Grant Robinson with the second pick. He could start at left tackle to begin the season if Jake Long isn’t ready to go after offseason knee surgery.
- Jacksonville, with the worst scoring offense in the NFL last season and an 11-37 record in the last three seasons, took Blake Bortles, a quarterback out of Central Florida.
- Buffalo, trading up with Cleveland to get the No. 4 pick, selected Sammy Watkins, wide receiver out of Clemson. He’s a speed merchant who’s expected to work well with second-year QB E.J. Manuel.
- The Oakland Raiders, whose front four produced just four sacks last season, took Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker out of the University of Buffalo. He had 75 tackles for a loss, a football bowl subdivision record, for Buffalo.
- The Atlanta Falcons, coming off a 4-12 season, took Jake Matthews, offensive tackle out of Texas A&M. He’s the seventh member of his extended family to make the NFL, including his cousin, Clay Matthews, of the Green Bay Packers.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, operating under new coach Lovie Smith, selected Mike Evans at number seven. He’s a wide receiver out of Texas A&M. A former basketball player, the 6-foot-5 Evans averaged more than 20 yards a catch last year with the Aggies, and was a favorite target of Johnny Manziel.
- The Cleveland Browns, who swapped with Minnesota to get the eighth pick, took Justin Gilbert, a cornerback out of Oklahoma State.
- Minnesota took Anthony Barr, a linebacker out of UCLA, with the ninth pick. He was from offense to defense after two years in college and finished with 23½ sacks in two seasons playing outside linebacker in 3-4 defense.
- Rounding out the top 10 picks, the Detroit Lions took Eric Ebron, a tight end out of North Carolina. He’s the first tight end taken in the top 10 since the 49ers took Vernon Davis in 2006.