While the NFL parlor game called "Where will Johnny Go?'' rages on, here are the draft rumblings I'm hearing as the wide-open first round looms Thursday night in New York's Radio City Music Hall ...
• This week's strong and completely contrasting media reports about Cleveland's intent on drafting Manziel at No. 4 makes his ultimate destination seem a total riddle, but there is one nugget I've gleaned from a source that has insight into Manziel's inner circle. From what I've been told, Manziel's family is not rooting for Houston to be his NFL home, believing that staying in Texas will make his already challenging transition to professional football that much more challenging.
Their thinking is that Manziel will find it far easier to distance himself from his "Johnny Football'' persona and focus completely on football if he's not near the circle of peers who comprised his college-era partying crowd. His family is said to be in favor of anywhere but Houston, but I'd have to think Dallas would pose the same set of complications in their view.
I've also heard that Manziel himself isn't wild about the idea of landing in Jacksonville, one of the NFL's smaller markets, and that the Jaguars would not be his first choice of employers. It's not a preference based on people, only location. But Manziel doesn't get to choose his new workplace address, and quarterback-needy Jacksonville remains very much a possibility as his ultimate destination. There was a Houston Chronicle report on Wednesday morning that had momentum building for the Manziel-Jaguars marriage to unfold Thursday night.
• Seven or eight of the teams in the draft's top 10 seem to be willing and in the mood to either trade up or down (No. 3 Jacksonville and No. 5 Oakland appear the best bets to stick), but I'd put the label of most likely to vacate their spot on the No. 8 Vikings, who clearly are trying to deal downward. Logically that means Minnesota is not sold on any of the quarterbacks at that pick, which closes the first round's opening quarter, as it were.
The Vikings figure to get their wish, because at No. 8 they're in prime position for teams seeking to climb up into the neighborhood where either the third-rated offensive tackle/lineman (Michigan's Tyler Lewan or Notre Dame's Zack Martin) or Pitt's highly regarded defensive tackle, Aaron Donald, should be available. No. 19 Miami, the No. 12 Giants and No. 9 Buffalo make possible trade partners for an offensive tackle, and Minnesota might get a phone call and an on-the-clock offer from either No. 16 Dallas or No. 14 Chicago, both of whom are known to covet Donald.
If the Vikings are able to deal down, maybe their intended target will be Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles in a lower slot, but new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is also known to think highly of Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Minnesota's second-round pick is No. 40, and that may be just beyond the range of where Garoppolo will be available.
• For a team that owns this draft, with the first pick of the proceedings on Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon, it doesn't seem like the Texans are loving life right now. Houston wants to trade out of the No. 1 slot, but the league sources I've talked to say it's probably not happening. That means it's either South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney or Buffalo's Khalil Mack from this vantage point, because I don't think the homegrown Johnny Manziel is going to get the nod.
Mack has all the late momentum for what that's worth, and is viewed as the better fit than Clowney in Houston's 3-4 defense. But the pick is said to still be an open debate, with Texans owner Bob McNair favoring Clowney, general manager Rick Smith backing Mack, and new head coach Bill O'Brien wanting a quarterback. Barring a deal down, getting to a consensus in Houston is what the final hours before the picking starts will be all about. My money is on Mack at the moment, with no trade happening.
That said, if the Texans are willing to discount their top draft slot to get whatever they can squeeze out of the pick, perhaps they'll coax No. 6 Atlanta into moving up for Clowney at a relatively bargain-basement price. The problem with that scenario is the Falcons might be higher on Mack than they are on Clowney, and Mack is probably the target if Houston moves down in the top 10. In any case, there's obviously no guarantee Mack would still be there at No. 6 for the Texans if they swung a deal with Atlanta, which is why the idea of Houston selecting Clowney and then dealing him to the Falcons at No. 6 if Mack is still on the board is not all that implausible.
For the record, Houston has only dealt a first-round pick twice before in franchise history, and never when it held anything remotely as valuable as the No. 1 overall selection. In 2005, the Texans sent their No. 13 slot to New Orleans, dropping down three spots to choose 16th; and in 2008, Houston traded the 18th pick to Baltimore, picking up the Ravens' 26th slot and more in the deal.
• I heard from one club's offensive coordinator Tuesday night who continues to put stock in the notion that St. Louis's very public inspection of Manziel is legit. He said he considered it a smokescreen for months, but now he's buying it might happen.
I'm not. Not unless Manziel is there at No. 13 -- the team's second first-round pick -- and the Rams don't like any of their other choices. Maybe they consider taking him there given Sam Bradford's injury history and the pivotal nature of the penultimate season of the quarterback's contract. But it still ranks as a long shot. More likely St. Louis will put that pick up for auction and see who wants Manziel at an early-teens price tag.
This much I'm certain about: The media report this week that linked the Vikings and Rams in trade talks for Bradford has no basis in reality. I asked someone in the position to know how strong the validity of such a potential deal was, on a scale of 1-10, and was told it was in the "minus-5'' range.
At No. 2, the Rams, like the top-spot-holding Texans, would first and foremost like to trade down. If they stay put, coach Jeff Fisher's club seems to be leaning toward Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson. If they deal down a few spots, it's Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews as the likely target.
In either case, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins doesn't seem to be in the cards for St. Louis, and I'm surprised a bit by that. By all accounts, Watkins is the clear-cut most impressive skill-position player in the draft and the best bet to produce instant offense for someone this fall. As one longtime NFL observer put it to me recently, the Rams could draft both Clowney and Mack this year and still not score enough points to compete with Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona in the rugged NFC West.
"The Rams already know how to lose low-scoring games in their division,'' the league source said. "They need to score more to win in the NFC West. They need more weapons and Watkins would make their other receivers that much better by being a true No. 1. Go get your offensive tackle or your cornerback at No. 13, but the game has changed, and they need offense.''
• In what appears to be a unique and well-received move, the Seattle Seahawks sent out a recruiting email to the agents of potential undrafted collegiate free agents this week, trumpeting their track record in that job market, then forwarded the release along to some national media members as a way of underlining how much emphasis they put on the latter end of the personnel acquisition phase of the offseason.
I got the email sent to me by Seahawks director of pro personnel Trent Kirchner, and the first thing I wondered was whether other NFL teams put together such an infomercial on their own behalf.
One rival club executive I spoke to said he knew of no other team taking that approach with UDFAs, and called it a "cool idea'' that the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks had. A long-time agent told me no club had ever been so pro-active in early pursuit of players who will go undrafted in the league's seven-round pick-fest.
"It shows the Seahawks know it's an aspect of the draft that is fairly uncontrollable, so they're trying to do what they can do to have some control over it,'' the agent said. The extra two weeks built into this year's draft season, the agent said, has given clubs more time to invest in the pool of likely undrafted prospects.
Seattle's release details a statistical analysis of how they have developed collegiate free agents and consistently relied upon them as a source of talent. There are charts that show the Seahawks lead the league in offering free agents preseason playing time, have in the past cut draft picks to create roster space for free agents and had eight current Seahawks/former free agents contribute to Seattle's Super Bowl-winning 2013 season.
It's a smart and savvy move by an organization that has made more of them than anyone in the league in the past four years or so.
• If there's anything in the top five I'm 100 percent certain about it's Manziel or any other quarterback not going to Oakland at No. 5. As I wrote in late March from the NFL's annual meeting after talking to Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, a QB for Oakland ceased to be a legitimate option the minute the club swung the deal to acquire Matt Schaub from Houston. It's win-now-or-else time for Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie, and that's no time to invest in a top-five quarterback.
Oakland is said to be content with taking an offensive tackle to help protect Schaub (Robinson, Matthews or perhaps, in a bit of a surprise, Lewan), or it could talk itself into Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. I believe that presumes Watkins is already off the board at that point.
• If the Browns do pass on Manziel at No. 4, probably in favor of a receiver like Watkins or Evans, they'd be showing a lot of confidence in their ability to get a quarterback like Bortles or Manziel at No. 26, or wherever else they might have to maneuver in the first round to get the job done. And to beat a horse to death, Cleveland's recent history of moving around in the lower third of the first round in the pursuit of a quarterback has not been impressive (see No. 22 Brady Quinn in 2007 and No. 22 Brandon Weeden in 2011).
I'm sure it'd be great to be able to field a receiving corps like Josh Gordon, Watkins or Evans, and No. 3 receiver Andrew Hawkins in 2014. But having another standout receiver won't seem quite so impressive if you still only have Brian Hoyer and Co. throwing them the ball.
It's misinformation season, of course, but one league source told me it's definitely Manziel the Browns like the most at quarterback. Cleveland is said to have some reservations about Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, given that both are from Florida and might have issues adjusting to the winter weather the Browns often play in. Then again, Texas probably didn't prepare Manziel all that well for the conditions in Cleveland every November and December.
• From talking to league sources who are paying attention to his market, Garoppolo seems likely to come off the board at No. 26 Cleveland at the absolute earliest, with No. 33 Houston and No. 39 Jacksonville seen as the most likely teams to potentially trade back up into the first round in a bid to land him. The No. 29 Patriots or No. 32 Seahawks are considered the trade slots to watch if the Texans or Jaguars make a move for Garoppolo.
The potential first-round quarterback I'm having a hard time getting an accurate read on is Fresno State's Derek Carr. He could go to the No. 20 Cardinals or No. 26 Browns as many have projected, but I'm hearing that opinions on him vary greatly and some consider him a shaky proposition for the opening round.
• If much of the late buzz is right on Manziel and Co., and there is no quarterback taken in the top five, it'll mark the first time since 1996-97 that there have been two consecutive drafts without a QB being selected that high. Last year, Buffalo's EJ Manuel was the only passer taken in the first round, at No. 16 overall.