June 26, 2016

Partly sunny

Browns draft Gilbert, Manziel

Scott Petrak

The Gazette

BEREA — Johnny Football is headed to BrownsTown.

The Browns had a hectic and productive first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday, and that was before they traded up to take Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel with the No. 22 pick.

They quickly became the story of the draft, the NFL and the sports world.

Manziel, the most polarizing and discussed player in the draft, spent nearly three hours backstage in New York’s RadioCityMusic Hall waiting to hear his name called. When it finally was, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner — the first freshman to win college football’s biggest award — put on a Browns hat, did his signature money sign with his fingers in the air and walked across the stage to embrace Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“I’m in a great place,” Manziel told Cleveland media on a conference call a few minutes later. “I’m very excited to be part of Cleveland, the Dawg Pound, the love they have for the Browns.”

The 2014 Browns draft will be remembered for Manziel. But before he brought his electric style — and the circus — to town, rookie general manager Ray Farmer made a pair of other trades, drafted Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and acquired a first-round pick in 2015.

Farmer filled the team’s biggest needs on both sides of the ball with the two picks, but Gilbert at No. 8 was immediately overshadowed when the Browns sent a third-round pick (No. 83 overall) to Philadelphia to move up from No. 26 to 22 for the chance to take Manziel.

“My style of play obviously is pretty exciting and I will continue to try to get better,” he said. “I feel like we can be successful. More than anything we want to win games. There are a lot of really good forces on the team. There is success to be had in the future.

“The team obviously wants to win and wants to win now. I’ve been a winner everywhere I’ve been. I’m ready to work extremely hard.”

The Browns had the chance to take Manziel (5-foot-11¾, 210 pounds) twice in the top 10, but Farmer waited patiently. He read the situation correctly and predicted Manziel would slide down the board.

When Manziel was still there in the 20s, Farmer jumped ahead of Kansas City and Cincinnati. There was no third strike.

“We definitely like his ability to perform and make plays,” Farmer said. “He’s passionate, relentless, played fearless, competitive. We added a guy to our roster to help us win.”

Opinions vary greatly across the league whether Manziel’s scrambling, improvisational style will translate to the NFL. He’s undersized and doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he made plays and won games for the Aggies in the Southeastern Conference, the toughest league in America.

Manziel played 26 games and completed 69 percent for 7,820 yards, 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He rushed 345 times for 2,160 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Farmer showed guts in his first draft in charge, making three trades and two picks in the first 22 selections.

Gilbert (6-foot, 202 pounds) appeared to be the target of the Browns from the start of the night. He is a playmaker who ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and intercepted seven passes as a senior — fourth in the country — returning two for touchdowns. He returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.

“He’s long. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s a playmaker,” Farmer said. “He plays like a Brown. No. 1 thing we talk about when we talk about corners is they’ve got to cover like Browns. He’s got great arm length. He’s got the speed. He’s got the ball skills.”

Farmer identified Gilbert as his choice and thought he could get him later than the No. 4 pick. So Farmer traded it to Buffalo for the No. 9 pick and first- and fourth-rounders in 2015. The Browns will have two first-round picks for two straight years, and the Bills quickly announced they took Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

The Browns also passed on University at Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans and Texas A&M offensive lineman Jake Matthews.

With Minnesota in need of defense at No. 8, Farmer didn’t want to risk the Vikings taking Gilbert. So Farmer gave up a fifth-round pick (No. 145 overall) to move up one spot. The Vikings took UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr at No. 9.

“It didn’t cost us much to move back into position when he was on the board,” Farmer said of Gilbert. “We took that opportunity.”

Gilbert should step in and start opposite All-Pro Joe Haden. That would allow Buster Skrine to slide into the nickelback for which he’s better suited.

“An every-down cornerback that can guard big receivers and small receivers,” Gilbert said of himself. “I can pretty much do it all, a guy who can create turnovers and get the ball back to our offense a lot. Just an all-around cornerback.”

Who can find the ball in the air and go get it.

“It’s something that you can’t really coach,” Gilbert said. “I think you have to be born with it, and I think I was born with that ability to make plays on the ball.”

He was the fastest cornerback at the draft and has 33-inch arms. He’s a smooth athlete with good ball skills, but detractors have criticized his willingness and ability to tackle.

“I’ve heard that before. It’s something that doesn’t bother me at all,” Gilbert said. “I think I only missed like two tackles this year. I think they’re paying more attention to block shedding. It’s something that doesn’t bother me at all because I know I can tackle.”

“I know some people have questioned his tackling,” Farmer said. “We cover like Browns. Tackling was good, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be great. We understand exactly who he is, what he is. We think he can make plays for us. He’s going to play relentless. He’s going to play at the line of scrimmage and press people. He’s able to do things we need him to do.”

The draft continues tonight at 7 with the second and third rounds. The Browns have a pick in both.

Manziel will also be in town for a news conference.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.