INDIANAPOLIS: It surely was not what he intended, but new General Manager Ray Farmer might have laid the groundwork Thursday for the Browns to select Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Farmer made it clear that a player’s off-the-field issues would not stand in the way if he decides a potential draftee had learned from his mistakes. Much of his 23-minute interview at the NFL Combine wasn’t specific to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, but there was the underlying implication that Farmer is keeping an open mind on Manziel’s escapades that have dominated TMZ and Twitter.
“I was told this by an older coach, ‘If you don’t have some dirt under your fingernails, you’re not [experiencing life],’ ” Farmer said in the hallway at Lucas Oil Stadium. “We all have to experience some negatives and you have to turn some of those negatives into positives.”
Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com recently criticized Manziel for his “sense of entitlement and prima donna arrogance seeking out the bright lights of Hollywood.” Nawrocki is going down the same path with Manziel that he did with Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. A two-time Pro Bowler, Newton has compiled a 25-23 record, 12-4 last season, as a starter for the Carolina Panthers.
Manziel’s affinity for the party life of clubs and casinos has been well documented, as has the autograph scandal that sparked an NCAA investigation last summer and resulted in him being suspended for the first half of the season opener against Rice.
Manziel also tweeted “can’t wait to leave College Station,” which ignited a firestorm of hatred from Aggies fans, and skipped the Manning Passing Academy after he overslept.
“The question is if he’s done stuff in his past and he’s learned from his mistakes and you can see a change in his behavior,” Farmer said, not speaking specifically about Manziel. “Whether he’s changed the circumstance, whether he’s involved other people to help him, that demonstrates a real change.”
The Browns have the fourth overall pick in the May 8-10 draft and could use it and the 26th overall selection obtained in the Trent Richardson trade to move up if necessary.
But first they must sort out how they feel about the top prospects and the baggage carried by some of them, especially Manziel.
The Browns’ previous six regimes since 1999 have vacillated on the character issue.
Former coach Eric Mangini heavily emphasized it. He traded trouble-plagued tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. less than two months into his tenure and high-maintenance receiver Braylon Edwards followed eight months later.
Former General Manager Phil Savage leaned toward the conservative side, although he did acquire talented but temperamental defensive tackle Shaun Rogers in 2008.
Ex-General Manager Tom Heckert gambled on habitual marijuana user Josh Gordon in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft. Wide receiver Gordon set a franchise record with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013 and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, nephew of former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews and son of hall of fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, vouched for Manziel on Thursday.
“I don’t consider him a me-first guy,” Matthews said. “My whole experience with him as a quarterback was nothing but good things. I never really had any issues with him.”
Farmer said his top priority at the combine is to interact and “truly get to the core character” with prospects. With too many high Browns draft picks, finding the right combination of character and talent has been the root of their failure, dubious history Farmer hopes to correct. Winslow, Edwards and “Kill the head and the body’s dead” Gerard Warren represent one end of the spectrum, Mangini’s 2009 second-round disaster of Brian Robiskie, Mohamed Massaquoi and David Veikune the other.
“Talent will take him to a certain level, character is what will allow him to sustain that level or take it up another notch,” Farmer said. “They’re all not going to be the best people from a lot of perspectives.”
Farmer might be as intrigued by the edge to Manziel as much as his improvisational skills. On May 8, Farmer might check his fingernails and take a character chance some of his predecessors would have never considered.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.