The Hype Is No Joke

December 11, 2013 by Greg A. Bedard

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Believe the hype.

South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, heralded as the best NFL defensive draft prospect in more than a decade, trots out of the tunnel at Williams-Brice Stadium for pregame warm-ups before taking on blood rival Clemson on Nov. 30. And, my word, is he physically imposing.

Listed in the program at 6-6 and 274 pounds—and the eyeball test says that’s close to legit—Clowney, who doesn’t turn 21 until Valentine’s Day, looks as if he entered the NFL five years ago. He has muscles from his toes to the top of his scalp. He is rock-solid, especially in his thighs, hamstrings and butt—the nuclear reactor for a pass rusher. He is power personified, with oversized, strapping arms and enormous hands capable of doing with an offensive player whatever he wishes.

Meld together the best parts of the NFL’s most impactful edge players over the last 20 years—the natural power of Michael Strahan, the length of Julius Peppers and the speed of Jason Taylor—and you have the promise of Jadeveon Clowney.

But will he deliver?

After NFL personnel departments wrap up their postseason draft meetings and set their draft boards, they’ll fan out across the country again to dig deep on every prospect. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Clowney will be the most scrutinized players from February to early May. In many ways Clowney will be more researched and dissected. While Manziel has let everyone into every aspect of his life through social media, Clowney has only come through as a person in tightly controlled press conferences. There’s much to unearth about him, especially after an underwhelming final season: about his effort, his family and the hangers-on, and his maturity.

But greatness in the NFL usually comes down to one simple question: Are you motivated by love of the game, or by money?

“I think there’s flashes of brilliance and flashes of extreme inconsistency,” an AFC general manager says of Clowney. “I mean, it’s a boom or bust thing.”

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The top-10 showdown with Clemson was supposed to be Clowney’s 2013 coming-out party. After not suiting up against Coastal Carolina, he had played just once in the previous 28 days. That should have given plenty of time for his troublesome ribs and/or ankle bone spurs (which likely need surgery) to heal. The No. 10 Gamecocks were facing the sixth-ranked Tigers, their bitter in-state rival in Clowney’s final home game. Last season Clowney had 4.5 sacks against the same opponent and the same left tackle, Brandon Thomas. It was time for him to give everyone one final glance at the player who, by the end of last season, was probably the most impressive sophomore defensive prospect in recent memory.

Yet as has been the case for most of this season, Clowney didn’t have much of an impact. On Clemson’s first touchdown he followed the fake, not realizing the run was through his gap until quarterback Tajh Boyd went by him for the easy score. Clowney had one sack in the game, but on that play he was actually blocked well by the understated yet effective Thomas; Boyd just ran into the sack. And it’s not as if Clowney was given extra attention: He was single-blocked for much of the game by Thomas, and even sometimes by a tight end.

Clowney’s most impressive play came with 6:12 left in the third quarter, when he slipped inside Thomas with a swim move and decked Boyd in just 1.82 seconds, forcing an incomplete pass. Ferocious explosiveness. And that’s what sends the tongues of NFL personnel evaluators wagging.

“When you look at him on film, he can do whatever he wants to do,” says an AFC college scouting director. “When he’s locked in and engaged … it takes such a concentrated effort to neutralize him. It opens up opportunities for others to make plays.”

Clowney’s best asset is his power. He hasn’t even developed the proper handwork needed in the NFL, and yet he’s shown the ability to overpower opponents. His first step is devastating, and he has very good quickness in a small box, able to make one move and go like few can.

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That’s what happened on the hit-heard-around-the-country in the Outback Bowl against Michigan last season. Clowney was in the backfield in 1.45 seconds—just after running back Vincent Smith got the handoff—and jarred the Wolverine’s helmet off. That’s great and all, but Clowney wasn’t blocked. “It’s not like he destroyed a blocker and made that play,” the AFC director says.

Clowney isn’t a bend-around-the edge rusher like Robert Mathis, Robert Quinn, Von Miller or Aldon Smith. He is extremely stiff in the hips, a straight-line player. That’s why, in a survey of six NFL front office executives, Clowney is viewed optimally as a 4-3 left defensive end, where he can hold the edge against the tackle and/or tight end in the run and turn it loose when needed. He’ll be especially lethal when kicked inside in sub-packages to overwhelm guards.

“Strahan ran a 4.9 but had great power,” says an NFC personnel director “He was able to develop his pass rush. [Clowney will] be able to power some people and then develop as a pass rusher.”

Some old-school types feel that being a strong-side outside linebacker in a two-gap system would be best for Clowney, although the use of those schemes is dwindling because of the speed in today’s game.

“Bill Belichick would make a monster out of him,” says an NFC general manager, who likens Clowney’s physical attributes to those of former Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest, who was drafted fourth overall by Bill Parcells in 1994.

“Parcells would have loved to put [Clowney] at SAM linebacker outside and set that edge, and would have just loved this kid—the way he played, maybe not the kid himself,” adds the NFC personnel director.

clowney-press-conference-inline360-NEWWhat about Clowney the person?

Outwardly, he appears to be a happy-go-lucky kid with a ready smile. That can be viewed as not being serious enough about the task at hand, but that’s a bit unfair. Those who have known him for a while say Clowney is a big kid at heart, which some might use to explain how he was recently ticketed for going 110 in a 70 mph zone. It would also induce the maturity questions that are on the minds of NFL talent evaluators.

It doesn’t help that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has mostly restricted Clowney to talking in press conferences after games. But it would be a mistake to make the leap and think that it’s correlated to Clowney’s lack of maturity: Spurrier restricts all the players, mostly to keep distractions to a minimum, but also to prevent one player from being perceived as being above the team.

Clowney’s background—he was raised mostly by a hard-working single mother after his father spent almost 12 years in prison for second-degree burglary—will receive scrutiny, but other draft prospects have come from much worse. Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s mother had him when she was 14, and he had to live in several homes after her arrest and conviction for selling crack cocaine. Despite all that, and with some hard work by the Cowboys to supervise his activities and financials, Bryant has flourished.

Whoever drafts him is going to dig into every nook and cranny,” says an AFC GM. “And they’re going to see what’s in his soul.

The reason is that Bryant loves the game of football. He treated spring games in college like they were the Super Bowl, even as he got closer to the NFL. Evidence, and it is admittedly circumstantial, shows that Clowney is not the same breed of competitor.

As a sophomore last year, Clowney had 54 tackles, 23.5 for loss, and 13 sacks. With one game to play in his college career, he has 35 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, and three sacks in 2013. Clowney has certainly received more attention from blockers, and teams try to go away from him, but that alone doesn’t explain the downturn. The game tape never lies.

“Looking at him this year compared to last year, it seemed like last year every single play was balls to the wall, hell on wheels,” says the AFC executive. “This year, there’s a lot of plays where he comes off the ball super hard, and if the ball is away he just kind of chills and watches the play. There’s definitely going to be some questions about that.”

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There was also the well-documented situation in October when Clowney informed Spurrier just before kickoff against Kentucky that he couldn’t play. Elite recruits often rule the roost once they’re established at schools. The coaches have little power once that happens, even less when a player like Clowney knows he isn’t just turning pro but is a top-10 pick who could have sat out the entire year to avoid getting hurt without affecting his draft stock. Combine that with Clowney’s watching Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks’ star running back, drop from a first-round talent to the fourth round because of a gruesome knee injury last year, and the stars aligned for Clowney’s subpar season—perhaps dropping him from being the first overall pick.

“I don’t see how that is such a factor that a team would take him off their board,” says an AFC scouting director. “Yeah, he’s immature and a young kid, but you can also go against that and say when he had a chance to shut it down, he did decide to come back. I think some of that can be overblown.”

clowney-inline-double-team360-NEWBut there’s still a question of how much Clowney lives and breathes football. Those who know him well say he loved to play the game in high school, and during his first two years at Carolina. But this season, with the rib and ankle issues, and teams dedicated to stopping him, Clowney has appeared to grow frustrated on game days. If Clowney is already having problems dealing with his first football adversity, how is he going to handle the NFL, a league that is tough from down to down in practice, let alone games? That’s what teams headed for the top of the draft will be digging through as draft day approaches.

Jevon Kearse was selected 16th overall by the Titans and coach Jeff Fisher (now with the Rams) in 1999 out of Florida. At 6-5, 262 pounds, and having run a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash—all comparable to Clowney’s actual or projected numbers—Kearse was known as “The Freak” for his unreal athleticism. He had 14.5 sacks as a rookie and was named first-team All Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kearse had double-digit sacks in each of his first three seasons, but never again.

“Does [Clowney] have all the talent in the world? Yeah,” says the AFC GM. “For people to get secure with him, it’s going to come in the interviews, the one-on-ones with teams. They’ll try to get him off the pre-scripted stuff from the agent. You have to be able to pass that smell test. Whoever drafts him is going to dig into every nook and cranny on him. And they’re going to see what’s in his soul. They’re going to see what makes him tick.”

All six personnel executives who were consulted for this story said it’s imperative that Clowney lands with a top-notch defensive line coach who can draw the best out of him on a consistent basis. Peppers had many of the same questions surrounding him when the Panthers took him with the second overall pick in 2002. While he hasn’t been the model of consistency, he still has 118 sacks in 12 seasons and has been a top force his entire career. With the Panthers, Peppers also had John Fox as his head coach and Mike Trgovac as his coordinator, two supreme motivators. Same with Rod Marinelli in Peppers’ first three seasons with the Bears.

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Where will Clowney land? Right now, the Texans have the first pick and a glaring need at quarterback, where Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater is the clear-cut top prospect. But Houston could address several positions. The intrigue really starts with the Rams, who have the second selection via Washington and the Robert Griffin III trade. St. Louis also has its own first-round pick (currently 13th).

The Rams appear to be happy with quarterback Sam Bradford, who has two years remaining on his contract and is coming back from ACL surgery. Left defensive end Chris Long received a contract extension before the 2012 season. Right end Robert Quinn is second in the league with 13 sacks. But the Rams still don’t have a top-flight pass rush. They’re 13th in the The MMQB’s Pressure Points rating, which measures the total pressure generated on opposing quarterbacks. Clowney, in a three-man rotation and at tackle in sub-packages, would help make their rush one of the best in the league. But the Rams could also use immediate help on the offensive line, safety and receiver.

The Falcons currently sit in the third spot, and if there’s any team that desperately needs an impact pass rusher, it’s Atlanta. It ranks 30th in Pressure Points and is tied for 27th in sacks. The Falcons also need help on the offensive line, and several prospect tackles could have first-round grades. But Clowney makes all the sense in the world. Would general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose daring trade for receiver Julio Jones doesn’t look great today, trade up to get Clowney? It can’t be ruled out. “I can see Atlanta doing something,” says the AFC general manager. “They have an extreme need. He needs defensive help a lot.”

After that, there are four quarterback-desperate teams: Minnesota, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland.

Wherever he lands, Clowney will be subjected to a spotlight that will make what he’s seen as the nation’s top high school recruit, and in the artificially cozy confines of Columbia, look like a reading light. He’ll be on a high wire without a net. There’s no question he has all the physical tools to be the next great pass rusher; the hype is no joke. It’s how he handles the off-field distractions and the game preparation that will determine whether he realizes his full potential.

“He’s a man amongst boys,” says an NFC personnel director. “But he’s one of those guys that’s a Pro Bowler, or he could be a big-time bust depending on what’s on the inside. That’s what we’ll all be digging into.”

We’ll find out for ourselves when Clowney puts his hand into the dirt on Sundays.

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Opening photo credits, clockwise from top left: Steve Jacobson/Sports Illustrated :: John Bazemore/AP :: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrted :: Scott Cunningham/Sports Illustrated :: Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI :: Rainier Ehrhardt/AP :: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (sign)