By Russ Lande
Leading up to the Super Bowl, Sports on Earth is offering an introduction to five players who we're confident will be selected in the top 10 picks of the 2014 NFL draft, what NFL teams know about them and what they want to find out. We started on Monday with a look at University of Buffalo defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack; on Tuesday, we focused the spotlight on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; on Wednesday, we took aim at UCLA defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Barr. On Thursday, we tackled the "elephant in the room," Johnny Manziel, and we finish the week with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
In 20 years of NFL scouting, I have never evaluated a defensive player with the national hype that Jadeveon Clowney has received. That hype makes it vital to be extremely thorough and detailed when grading. There is no question in my mind that Clowney has the physical tools to be a dominant defender in the NFL, but it is concerning that he did not consistently impact games at his expected level. I have spoken to many NFL scouts about Clowney to see if they agree with my assessment of his talent and skill set, while also gathering information about his character and intangibles. No one I spoke with denied that Clowney has the physical tools to warrant the first overall selection in the draft, but almost half expressed that they would not feel comfortable taking him that high, because they feel there is a significant chance that he'll fail to live up to the hype.
From the first play, it is clear that Clowney has rare athleticism for a man his size and is able to explode off the ball or change directions in a flash, far faster than most NFL pass rushers. While he has yet to be officially measured by NFL teams, it's clear on film that he has the perfect combination of height, thickness and long arms for rushing the passer, and in this sense, he reminds me a little of Julius Peppers. His first-step quickness charted out to be the best of the top defensive ends in this year's draft. This enables him to reach the turn point consistently before the offensive tackle can set. That same explosive burst allowed him to take advantage of offensive tackles who slid out too quickly to protect the corner, as he can change directions in a flash and burst through the inside gap. Not only able to beat pass blocks with his athleticism, Clowney also displays a "slap and arm-over" move to either side that can be devastating when he maintains leverage during rush. While he flashes the ability to make big plays rushing the passer, the shocking thing when evaluating Clowney was that he was drastically more productive against the run, by more than a two-to-one ratio.
When offenses made the mistake of trying to "reach block" him on running plays away, his quickness beating the block inside and exploding down the line to make the tackle was outstanding. Additionally, on running plays to his side of the field, he consistently made tackles behind the line when teams tried to block him with a tight end or left him unblocked. When he had to deal with an offensive tackle, he usually made the tackle at the line of scrimmage or a few yards down the field. Despite his size, long arms and natural strength, I was still shocked at how easy he made it look, standing up run-blocking offensive linemen in their tracks, torque-ing and tossing them off him to make the tackle. This is rarely seen in a defensive end, and it definitely grabbed my attention.
Even given all of the great skills and athleticism Clowney showed on film, there are some real concerns to his game that were substantiated by NFL scouts. They agreed that Clowney is extremely raw rushing the quarterback, lacking any real pass-rush moves other than his "slap and arm-over" move, which is not polished. He tends to get very high before trying to execute that move, so deliberate in his setup that he gives the move away. He does not consistently rush aggressively, and if the pass blocker stops his initial rush, he tends to get tied up chicken fighting with the blocker. Most players whose motor is inconsistent compete hardest as a pass rusher and quit against run blocks, but Clowney is the opposite, a dominant run defender who rarely makes an impact rushing the passer. Disappointed with his play in junior-season games, I went back and evaluated his play against Michigan at the end of South Carolina's 2012 season, to see if his production was different before his bone spur injury. Unfortunately, there was no difference in terms of his intensity, consistency or overall production. Amazingly, the highlight-reel hit that Clowney made on Michigan running back Vincent Smith was the first play that Clowney made that game, and it came in the third quarter (although it was the first of four consecutive plays he made).
Although Clowney's on-field effort is a concern, scouts definitely have more issues with him off the field. Every scout that I spoke with told me that the people at South Carolina speak highly of Clowney as a good, decent young man. While he is a bit immature, he treats the people within the football department well. Rumors persist that he dictates when and how much he wants to practice, which raises the question of what type of effort he will put into being a professional. NFL people compared him to two different players: Julius Peppers and Greg Hardy. Peppers is similar physically to Clowney, weighing over 270 pounds in college, with excellent height and length and elite athleticism, and he's too showed hot-and-cold effort and production in college. The similarities to Hardy are unmistakable, as both players exploded onto the college scene with dominant first seasons but then disappointed during their final college season.
Given that he has the talent to be a dominating defender, one who can change games with surprising ease, Clowney's tendency to disappear for long stretches is maddening. Although I would be very nervous drafting Clowney in the first half of the first round, I have no doubt that some team will gamble on him within the top five selections. Players with his skill set come along maybe once every 10 years, and Clowney has the potential to be a Hall of Fame defensive player.
Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.