A high-stakes NFL draft with a difference
NFL teams will be looking for the best college players, but this year's spectacle will include the first openly gay player ever drafted
It may bring a dynamic quarterback to the pro ranks in Johnny Manziel, or a defensive force in Jadeveon Clowney, but this week's NFL draft may be remembered for ushering in the league's first openly gay player.
High-stakes suspense envelopes the three-day draft starting tomorrow morning (Hong Kong time) that is the lifeblood of the National Football League, the mechanism that distributes the primary talent flow into the league from the college ranks.
Top candidates including linebacker Khalil Mack, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive linemen Greg Robinson, should have the guessing game over their NFL future settled in the first round, but one of the main threads of intrigue will not be resolved later until Friday or Saturday.
Michael Sam, the decorated University of Missouri defensive lineman who has been projected as a middle round pick, is expected to become the first openly gay player ever drafted.
Sam, the Southeastern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year after leading it with 11.5 sacks, may be selected on Friday when the second and third rounds are held, or he could have to wait until rounds four to seven on Saturday.
There is also the chance that Sam, who may be seen as too slow to play linebacker and not tall enough to thrive on the line, could be passed over following a so-so performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
Presuming Sam is drafted, that will set up another challenge for him - to make the final roster of the drafting team this summer to become the NFL's first openly gay player.
"I just wish you guys [would] see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player," Sam said after a slew of drills and interviews at the Scouting Combine.
The Houston Texans select first, followed by the St Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders to round out the top five in an order fashioned by worst record all the way to Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks at number 32.
Team plans are treated as top secret, and speculation abounds on whether some clubs will try to trade up to snare a prized target by providing extra picks to a team hoping to fill additional spots by moving down in the draft.
Pass rusher extraordinaire Clowney of South Carolina has long been presumed to be the likely top pick, but questions about his work ethic led some to suggest he could be overtaken.
Quarterbacks are often the wild card factor, as teams without a productive passer can be willing to wage a big price on what is widely considered the most critical position on the gridiron.
Manziel, the undersized yet electrifying quarterback dubbed "Johnny Football" during his Heisman Trophy winning days at Texas A&M, is an X-factor.
Many pundits expect the scrambling quarterback to be taken within the top five or 10 spots, while others say Manziel could slide out of the first round over worries he would not hold up to the physical punishment doled out by NFL defenders.
Other highly rated quarterbacks available include Blake Bortles of Central Florida, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Derek Carr of Fresno State.
Watkins, a standout receiver from Clemson, has been acclaimed as the best of a deep class of pass catchers.
Other receivers who could join Watkins as a first-round pick include Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Odell Beckham Jnr (Louisiana State University) and Brandin Cooks (Oregon State).
Number one overall picks have been lavished on underwhelming quarterbacks from JaMarcus Russell (Oakland in 2007) and David Carr (Houston in 2002). The inexact science of the draft is also illustrated in teams who have found success with less heralded players.
Three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.