INDIANAPOLIS - Jadeveon Clowney never sacked Johnny Manziel. Never had a chance; they never faced off in college.
It's been Clowney's dream since he was the No. 1 recruit out of high school to become the No. 1 NFL draft selection out of South Carolina. In this year's landscape, Clowney represents upside, the roll-the-dice prospect who could go boom as a Hall of Fame- worthy defensive end, or bust as an underwhelming presence who couldn't live up to the mighty hype.
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Standing in his way of earning that coveted first pick off the board? A guy nearly six inches shorter; a guy with six feet of off-field baggage.
Manziel is the Texas A&M dynamo who desperately wants to continue his football life leading the NFL organization next door, if it can look past his party-boy persona and reported private demons.
With the team at the top certainly craving a long-term solution at quarterback, Manziel's not the only candidate - Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles, each a BCS bowl winner within the past two seasons, could be the one.
It's the billion-dollar-business version of kids at recess, extending an arm to the sky and screeching at the top of their lungs, "Pick me! Pick me!"
Beyond their game film and on-field drills, their interviews and measurements at this weekend's NFL Scouting Combine, it's not up to them. The Houston Texans have 21/2 months to weigh their options, and they were in this position not too long ago.
The Texans' deja vu
Rick Smith can't comment on this similar predicament, because he wasn't appointed Houston's general manager until five weeks after the team chose the hulking defensive end from the Carolinas over the dynamic, popular local quarterback.
In April 2006, it actually wasn't that simple. Many presumed the Texans would take running back Reggie Bush first overall out of Southern Cal, whereas Texas quarterback Vince Young was an obvious logistical choice as well. However, the night before the draft, Houston signed the 6-6, 292-pound Mario Williams, coming off a 14-sack year at N.C. State.
"If you want to compare (Clowney) to Mario Williams," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said recently, "I think he's a better football player with more upside than when Mario came out of college, and he was obviously the first pick."
Eight years later (after Williams moved on to Buffalo,) the Texans fell precipitously from 12-4 and AFC South champs to 2-14 and replacing head coach Gary Kubiak with former Patriots assistant and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien.
The consolation prize: another crack at any player they want, Houston's third in a dozen years since its 2002 expansion draft. No other NFL team has had multiple top picks since 2000.
"You have to remove the need and the current complexion of your roster, and evaluate players based on just pure value," Smith said. "I've talked for years about that, but that requires a certain amount of discipline to do it. I don't think that we're going to have a problem with that."
Smith and O'Brien, as expected, were coy in their remarks Friday - O'Brien wouldn't even place a ballpark number on narrowing down how many names are on his wish list.
"Yeah, everybody wants to know. That's fun," Smith said. "We try to keep our opinions close to the vest. That becomes increasingly difficult when the whirl of the media continues to grow the way it has."
The circus has come to town, and two main attractions are Johnny Football and The Freak.
The case for Manziel
A match made in heaven, perhaps. At least in Manziel's vision of heaven; the native son of Kerrville, Texas, lets his pro career blossom just as the nearby Texans have the motive and draft position to ordain him the franchise savior.
"I think it would be extremely cool," Manziel said Friday. "I'm a Texas guy, born and raised in Texas. I've never really left the state. For them to have the first pick means a lot to me."
That's the mature side of Johnny Manziel; it was Johnny Football earlier this month who, per the Houston Chronicle, challenged the Texans "it would be the worst decision they've ever made" if they went another direction.
"He's a colorful, confident guy," Smith said. "You've got to appreciate that about him. I don't have any problem with that."
Important distinction, between Mr. Manziel and Mr. Football. The latter earned his nickname by claiming the 2012 Heisman Trophy, but blurred his reputation with an assortment of embarrassing headlines ranging from alcohol-related incidents to allegations of accepting cash for his autograph last summer, a significant NCAA violation. (He ultimately served a one-half suspension in the 2013 opener.)
On Friday, Manziel denied earlier reports he received professional treatment from alcohol and anger management counselors, though he acknowledged Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin hooked him up with an in-house consultant.
"What's important to your team," O'Brien said, "is that you have team guys that are thinking about being coachable and being really good teammates. And understanding that when they leave the building, they represent the organization."
Manziel will not throw for scouts Sunday, and his official height (5 feet, 113/4 inches) isn't advantageous. But the newly-crowned Super Bowl champion quarterback, Russell Wilson, isn't much bigger, and his hands (97/8 inches) are larger than those on Bortles and Bridgewater.
Plus, Manziel's flagrant self-confidence impresses pro scouts.
"I'm probably one of the most competitive people on the face of this earth," Manziel said. "Whether it's sitting here playing tic-tac-toe or rock, paper, scissors or whatever it may be, I want to win."
The case for Clowney
A grin creeps across his face the moment the Texans are mentioned. Yeah, Clowney wants it. He wants it bad, even if he's not as fiery with his statements.
"Of course. That's one of my goals here, to go No. 1," Clowney said. "I came out of high school as the No. 1 player, so I want to come into the league as the No. 1 draft pick."
Clowney has been ordained for stardom since Rock Hill, and perhaps that's the problem: he was a victim of his own God-granted greatness. When a sports titan (Manning, Tiger, LeBron, etc.) is anything shy of perfect, he's picked apart in the public eye like TMZ taking down a celebrity, fair or unfair.
If Clowney had been allowed to leave South Carolina after two years, he would have. He admitted so Saturday. And barring something strange, he would have been an easy pick for the Kansas City Chiefs to kick off the 2013 draft.
Forced to stick with college and turning in a forgettable season, it let doubt creep in about his pure passion, as if he were bored with merely rolling out of bed and being better than everybody else.
"I played with him for three years. I was with him behind closed doors," USC quarterback Connor Shaw said, asked about his teammate's work ethic. "And I can tell you, if a team passes up on him, they're going to wish they had him later on. They're going to regret passing up on him. I think Jadeveon Clowney's going to be a better NFL player than he was a college player."
Maybe Clowney caught a break when the Texans ended up with the top pick. Their owner, Bob McNair, is a South Carolina grad, met his wife in Columbia, and attended Clowney's final college game, the Gamecocks' Capital One Bowl win over Wisconsin on New Year's Day.
"He is a remarkable player," McNair said Jan. 14 in a short video statement on the Texans' team website. "He's one of these players that's really a once-in-every-10-years type of physical specimen that comes along. Mario Williams was that way. I think Clowney is actually a better athlete than Mario. So that tells you what kind of player he can be."
Clowney said he's never spoken with McNair.
"But when I heard that, I was kind of happy," Clowney said. "Hopefully he'll give me a chance to go to the Texans. But I just hope I end up somewhere good, and no matter, what I'm going to play hard and hope for the best."