It could have been dumb luck that brought the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel together. He was there for the taking, but team after team passed him by, and eventually everything fell perfectly into place.
Tennessee, the New York Giants, Dallas, the New York Jets … the clock was ticking. Johnny Football was in freefall.
And he fell right into the Browns’ lap. Who knows if they planned it exactly that way, as they claimed, but the plan worked. Instead of taking a shot on Manziel with the No. 4 pick, Cleveland gambled and got its quarterback at No. 22.
The first round of the NFL Draft was truly an unscripted reality show, and although he fell, Manziel was star of it.
“It’s a soap opera for guys,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “This first round is just an unbelievable spectacle.”
On a Thursday in May, Esposito hosted a draft party, and it felt like a Sunday in September. Fans were slamming beers and cheering and jeering picks as if games were won and lost. The Browns, who rarely win on Sundays, seemed to come out ahead with a couple of bold moves that highlighted the night.
But initially, based on reactions on Twitter, their moves were perceived as dumb and dumber. Cleveland traded its fourth pick to Buffalo and dropped to the No. 9 spot, then traded up to No. 8 to grab cornerback Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State. That was a head-scratcher.
But it finally made sense when the Browns traded up four spots from No. 26 and picked Manziel, the most polarizing prospect of the entire party.
Just when it seemed the Browns had it wrong again, they got it right.
“It’s a calculated risk,” said Bernie Fratto, who covered the Detroit Lions and is now an ESPN Radio host in Las Vegas. “Manziel could have gone to another team, but Cleveland was not going to take him that high, I guess.
“Manziel is the interesting wild card. The guy does have the magical playmaking capability. The Browns incredibly helped themselves. Gilbert helps them Day One on defense, and they still got their quarterback.”
Whether it was a calculated risk or simply a lucky break, the Browns were surprise winners on the first day of the three-day draft.
In a few years, the Titans, Giants, Cowboys, Jets and a handful of other teams might sorely regret passing on an exciting franchise quarterback. In a few years, those teams might also look wise for passing on a quarterback who could be a high-risk bust.
Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, is no sure-fire NFL star. But he will fire up a Cleveland fan base that has been beaten down for too long.
The Titans needed a quarterback, but opted for Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan at No. 11. The Giants soon will need a replacement for Eli Manning, but they chose Louisiana State wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with the next pick.
Amazingly, the Cowboys resisted temptation and took Zack Martin from Notre Dame at No. 16. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who is all about making headlines and winning press conferences, decided to build on the offensive line instead of making headlines with Manziel. As for the Jets, they needed offensive help but took Calvin Pryor, a safety from Louisville, at No. 18.
Of course, the smart guys in the Cleveland front office — Kevin Costner not included — said this was their plan all along. True or not, it worked.
After the Houston Texans made defensive end Jadeveon Clowney the top pick, St. Louis tabbed offensive tackle Greg Robinson from Auburn. It’s hard to argue with either pick.
The debates start at No. 3, where Jacksonville jumped for Blake Bortles, a quarterback from Central Florida. Bortles might be a bust, but the Jaguars took a shot at patching their sorest spot.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the Jaguars needed to make a splash,” Esposito said. “I think it’s a move they had to make.”
Buffalo traded a bounty of picks to the Browns to snag Sammy Watkins, a speed-burner wide receiver from Clemson, in the fourth spot. That move triggered Brian Blessing, a lifelong Bills fan and the Sunset Station party host, into a wild celebration.
“The price is steep, but Watkins is the guy,” Blessing said. “He’s the real deal.”
The night ended with Minnesota making Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback from Louisville, the 32nd pick.
“I think there is going to be pressure to start Manziel in Week 1, and he’s got to be the odds-on favorite to start,” Fratto said. “They should be very happy in Cleveland.”
In a few years, it might be a different story. But on Thursday, the Browns got lucky, and Manziel was the life of the party.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.