NEW YORK — For nearly three years, Jadeveon Clowney couldn’t wait to get to the NFL, and the league was just as eager to add the player some called the best defensive prospect in a decade.
No surprise: Clowney is the Texans’ man.
But Thursday’s first pick of the NFL draft didn’t come without some intrigue about how it would all turn out. There had been criticism of Clowney’s work ethic last season and questions about whether the Texans would hold or trade the No. 1 slot.
“I just been proving a lot of people wrong throughout my life,” Clowney said. “Growing up, I grew up hard. I always said I’m going to do something great. Hopefully, I’m going to be a Hall of Famer one day.”
Houston will take that.
This draft’s other big name, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, sat with a sullen look on his face until Cleveland made its third trade of the round and grabbed the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner at No. 22. To rousing cheers and chants of “Johnny, Johnny,” Manziel smiled widely as he walked onto the Radio City Music Hall stage.
“If you call it a slide, I wouldn’t call it that at all,” he said. “I was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.
“It’s a great story. It’s great for me to end up there, at a team that has fans that are as passionate as I am on the field.”
Manziel’s wait added plenty of suspense nearly three hours after the Texans took their time selecting Clowney. Rarely does a team not reveal the top overall choice until it is announced, and there was wide speculation the Texans had soured on the defensive end, whose junior season at South Carolina was accompanied by criticism he played it safe to stay healthy for the pros.
After commissioner Roger Goodell announced the pick, fans filling Radio City Music Hall to capacity applauded Clowney as he held up his index finger, his eyes moist, a relieved look on his face. Just like the 30 prospects on hand, the fans were extra eager to see who would wind up where after the draft was pushed back from late April because the theater was unavailable.
“It’s been a long time. It just kicked in at the end there, man, I’ve been drafted,” he said.
Clowney, 21, brings size, speed and power to a lineup that already has 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Clowney is the first defensive player taken No. 1 overall since Houston selected another end, Mario Williams, in 2006. Williams now is with Buffalo. Houston also made the top pick in its first season, 2002, taking quarterback David Carr. He never lived up to that billing; the Texans hope Clowney has more of an impact.
Tackle Greg Robinson, whose blocking helped high-powered Auburn make the national championship game last season, went second to St. Louis. The Rams owned the pick as the final payment for a 2012 trade with Washington that allowed the Redskins to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III.
St. Louis is concerned about the health of starting left tackle Jake Long, who is coming off knee surgery.
The first quarterback to go went to Jacksonville in the third slot, but it wasn’t Johnny Football.
Instead it was Blake Bortles of Central Florida, whose stock shot up last season and in subsequent workouts. At 6-5, 232, Bortles drew comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger because of his combination of size and mobility.
Jacksonville missed the last time it took a QB in the first round, Blaine Gabbert in 2011. The Jaguars gave up on the inconsistent Gabbert, who struggled to read defenses and was benched for journeyman Chad Henne. Gabbert is now a backup in San Francisco.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy, a self-made guy, a blue-collar guy and he wants to be the best he can be,” said Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, who added a word of caution: “He just needs a little bit of time.”
Seeing a chance to grab playmaking receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Buffalo swapped spots with Cleveland, also sending a first- and fourth-round selection next year to move up from ninth to fourth.
The Arizona Cardinals traded down seven spots to select safety Deone Bucannon of Washington State with the 27th pick overall.
It’s a position of need for the Cardinals, who also had a goal of adding another pick in the draft.
General manager Steve Keim immediately invoked the name of one of the best safeties the Cardinals have known.
“The guy’s a headhunter. He’s extremely physical,” Keim said. “I don’t want to mention him in the same breath as Adrian Wilson but there are some physical similarities and the same type of mentality that we were looking for.”