Top prospects ready to end long wait for NFL draft

NEW YORK — Jadeveon Clowney just wants it to be over already.

The NFL’s first May draft gave everyone a little more time to critique the prospects and try to figure out who is going where and when.

No player has been more scrutinized than Clowney, the defensive end from South Carolina whose every move — on and off the field — has been analyzed since he ended his sophomore season with a helmet-removing hit against Michigan.

“I’ve been tired of it. I wish the draft was two or three weeks ago,” Clowney said Wednesday after playing flag football with grammar-school kids at the NFL’s Play 60 festival at a park on the west side of Manhattan.

The Houston Texans have the first pick and Clowney could be their guy. Or maybe they’ll take a quarterback, such as Johnny Manziel. Or maybe they’ll trade the pick.

The NFL has given fans two extra weeks to ponder these questions. The draft is usually held in April, but some scheduling conflicts at Radio City Music Hall caused the NFL to push it back. Commissioner Roger Goodell said that it’s too soon to say whether May drafts are here to stay.

This year’s draft finally gets underway Thursday night, Day 1 of the three-day, made-for-TV marathon. Rounds 2 and 3 are Friday night. It concludes with four rounds Saturday, when there will likely be more intrigue than usual. Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, who made public that he is gay back in February, is projected to be a possible late-round selection. The NFL has never had an openly gay player. Sam is trying to be the first, though he might have to get there as an undrafted free agent.

But first, the Texans are on the clock. Will they take Clowney?

“Man, I don’t know,” the 266-pound pass rusher said. “Do you know?”

Clowney looked NFL-ready after a spectacular sophomore season, when he had 13 sacks and was Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year. NFL rules state otherwise. Players must be three years removed from high school to be draft eligible.

Clowney’s junior season fell short of crazy expectations. He had some injuries. Opponents game-planned to neutralize him. His play was spotty and his work ethic was questioned after he suddenly went to his coach and pulled himself from a game.

“It’s been crazy, everybody telling when you’re going to go in the draft,” he said. “What your weakness is. What your strength is. A lot of criticism against all the players. It’s just something you got to take on.”

Clowney took it on at the combine and his pro day workout at South Carolina. He wowed scouts with the speed and agility of a running back and placed himself firmly at the top of just about every mock draft.

Still, it’s not a foregone conclusion the Texans will take him.

Houston needs a quarterback and new coach Bill O’Brien has said he plans to add one during this draft. Many fans in southeast Texas would like it to be Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and native Texan who played for Texas A&M. If there is one player who can relate to the scrutiny Clowney has faced, it’s Johnny Football.

Manziel’s character has been questioned after having a brush with the law and another with the NCAA during his time at A&M. And he’s had his heavy-on-improvisation style dissected by scouts. He’s also a little short by NFL quarterback standards, just under 6-feet. Still, his play was so sensational he could end up as a top-five pick.

“I don’t care if I’m No. 1 or 200, I just want to play,” Manziel said.

It is doubtful Manziel will have to wait that long. He could be the first quarterback off the board.

Or maybe that’ll be Central Florida’s Blake Bortles. He looks the part of the classic NFL quarterback at 6-foot-5, 232 pounds. He’s nimble, too, but also a late-bloomer.

Then there’s Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who many figured would challenge to be the No. 1 overall pick. He apparently slipped out of favor during the postseason draft process. Small hands, a narrow frame and an underwhelming pro day combined to make Bridgewater no sure thing to be taken in the first round. At least that’s what the so-called experts say. But who knows how seriously to take that?

“You try not to pay attention to what’s being said, but at the end of the day, I’m human,” Bridgewater said. “I was off Twitter for a while because you know that’s probably the easiest way to see what’s being said about you. Stay away from the internet. Wasn’t watching ESPN, NFL Network.”

All the speculation ends soon.

“I’m just ready, man,” Clowney said, speaking for just about everybody.

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