By Barry Wilner, AP Pro Football Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Quarterbacks, deep threats, and Jadeveon.
For all the interest in QBs such as Johnny Football, and all the praise for the deep class of deep-threat receivers, the first player off the board on Thursday in the NFL draft figures to be that most coveted of defenders, the sack master end.
South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is expected to wind up with the Houston Texans, who get the first pick in the three-day proceedings at Radio City Music Hall.
Criticism of his work ethic and suggestions that he spent much of last season trying to avoid injury have been overwhelmed in most draft rooms by video of Clowney at his best. Those clips show him beating double-teams, even triple-teams. He's been so impressive that many NFL insiders believe Clowney would have been the top overall pick had he been eligible after his 2012 sophomore season.
"With a player like Jadeveon in his second year, he was a tremendous player," says former NFL player Tom Condon, now a prominent agent. "And then he had to play his third year and you hear the questions about what kind of motor does he have. I watched him this year and I thought he was a fantastic player."
Clowney disputes claims he doesn't always bring it, and all NFL coaches believe they can get the most out of any prospect.
"I think I work just as hard as anybody," Clowney says. "If you pick me and pair me with guys, I'm going to try and outwork them also."
Should Houston bypass adding Clowney to a defense that already has a disruptive star end in J.J. Watt, the Texans could opt for a quarterback. They dealt incumbent Matt Schaub to Oakland, leaving Case Keenum and T.J. Yates behind center.
But grabbing Texas A&M's often-spectacular and unpredictable Johnny Manziel at the top of the draft could be a reach. Same thing for the other quarterbacks being dissected by scouts — for two extra weeks this year, because the draft was moved back into early May.
Choosing Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Fresno State's Derek Carr (brother of 2002 overall top pick David Carr of the same school and an NFL bust) or any other passer might be a stretch.
Instead, many teams drafting early may opt for guys who stretch the field. NFL draft guru Gil Brandt calls it "a very strong draft for receivers," and general managers drool about Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Mike Evans of Texas A&M, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, Marqise Lee of Southern California, Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, and Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State.
Brandt lists eight wideouts in his top 50 prospects.
Asked what impact the speedy, strong, elusive workaholic Watkins might have on the Browns, general manager Ray Farmer says: "Big, big, really big. Ginormous.
"He's explosive," Farmer adds. "He's got really good hands. He's demonstrated he can run all the routes. He can be productive. So saddle him on the opposite side of Josh Gordon and WOW!"
Other WOW factor players attracting attention before the draft include Buffalo (the Bulls, not the Bills) linebacker Khalil Mack, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
But the guys in the trenches never should be ignored, with three tackles — Greg Robinson of Auburn, Jake Matthews of Texas A&M (son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews) and Taylor Lewan of Michigan — projected to go in the first dozen picks. Defensive tackles Aaron Donald of Pittsburgh, Tim Jernigan of Florida State and Louis Nix of Notre Dame also are likely first-rounders.
Just like last year, when no running backs went in the first round, that position is devalued in 2014. Top ball carriers in this crop include Carlos Hyde of Ohio State and Tre Mason of Auburn.
The impact of underclassmen will be felt more in this draft than ever, with a record 98 declaring for early entry. Clowney, Watkins, Manziel, Ebron, Robinson, and Clinton-Dix are among them.
Meanwhile, one player not likely to go until later Friday (the second and third rounds) or even Saturday (Round 4 through Round 7) is Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in an NFL draft. Sam has been a solid playmaker for the Tigers, and prefers to look at himself as a football prospect, not a trail blazer.
He's made that clear for months.
"I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?' I would love for you to ask me that question," Sam said at the NFL combine. "But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
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