Heisman Winner Slides In NFL Draft, Caught By Cleveland

The NFL draft opened Thursday night, and as sportswriter Stefan Fatsis notes, it wasn't short on drama. The most talked-about draftee, quarterback Johnny Manziel, slid to the 22nd pick. Stretched across the whole weekend, the draft has become all but ubiquitous.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This was an NFL draft party last night hosted by the sports radio station ESPN Cleveland.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: With the 22nd pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select Johnny Manziel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGEL: The selection of quarterback Johnny Manziel by the hometown team, the Browns, was greeted, shall we say, rather enthusiastically and the National Football League draft continues in New York. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Johnny Football, as he's known, was a late choice in the first round of the draft, but he was, by far, the most talked about draftee.

FATSIS: Yeah, the website Deadspin counted 113 references to Manziel on ESPN's telecast, almost four times as many as for the next player, top pick, defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney. It wasn't surprising. Manziel's a polarizing figure. He won the Heisman trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M. He's undersized, scrambling. He's got this winning style of play, but also a lot of questions about his attitude and his behavior.

So he became this Litmus test. Is he confident and creative or is he cocky and spoiled? Is he too small for the NFL or is he strong and crafty and a stereotype buster? The Browns are a team in need of excitement. They got that. We won't know for a while whether they also got a great pro quarterback.

SIEGEL: But this is a powerful story for the fans, the idea of a new savior for a sports team.

FATSIS: That's what drafts are for and the NFL has been great at exploiting that - a new name, renewal, hope. That's why Manziel is so powerful. But the weird part of the draft to me is the way that players, Manziel and others, are now scrutinized not just by teams, but in public. A website called The National Football Post compiled red flag reports on draftees, amassing and actually rating player transgressions.

The NFL's own website posted write-ups that are heavy not just on football jargon, but social and psychological analysis. Some of this is reflecting back what teams do. A New England Patriots scouting report of Johnny Manziel turned up online today. It's incredibly harsh about his character, filled with rumors and assumptions about his family and his background.

SIEGEL: What I find amazing about the NFL draft is that it's ubiquitous, not just the live coverage, but all of the nonstop ancillary coverage.

FATSIS: Yeah, the draft this year, Robert, was two weeks later than normal. The NFL said that was because of a conflict at Radio City Music Hall. But that just meant two more weeks of talking heads and mock drafts. ESPN and the NFL's own cable network combined to attract almost 10 million viewers last night for the draft. That's about three times as many people as watched the NBA's two playoff games - actual games, one of which featured LeBron James.

The NFL started televising its draft in 1979 over the objections of some owners. Now it's considering extending it to four days from the current three.

SIEGEL: It's a reality show.

FATSIS: It's a reality show. You know, sports are supposed to be a reality show. This is even more intense for some fans.

SIEGEL: While the draft moves into its second and third days, the name that will be mentioned a lot is that of Michael Sam. He is the openly gay defensive end from the University of Missouri.

FATSIS: Yeah, Sam came out in February. He was the defensive player of the year in college football's toughest conference, but he underperformed at the NFL's pre-draft meat market, the combine. He's considered undersized for his position and now people are wondering whether he'll picked at all and failing that, whether he'll be signed after the draft as a free agent.

For its own PR, the NFL has to hope that Sam is not spurned and that somebody signs him. Teams would be smart to consider what happened with Jason Collins, who was signed by basketball's Brooklyn Nets after he came out and after a flurry of initial media, he's been no distraction at all. And it's not like Michael Sam isn't a desirable commodity. He just signed an endorsement deal and has done a commercial already for Visa.

SIEGEL: And how much longer does the draft go on?

FATSIS: Through Saturday, Robert, stay awake.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Stefan. Stefan Fatsis is the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us on Fridays.

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