Evaluating NFL draft prospects is hard work. You have to put aside personal bias, look at a player objectively and report their strengths and weaknesses in such a way that fans can get a clear image of who they are as an NFL prospect.
This became all too evident as I spent a significant amount of time breaking down South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. His positives are so good and his negatives so minimal that it is vital to look very closely, because as the old saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Physically, Clowney is a sort of defensive end version of a Swiss Army knife. 6-foot-6 and close to 275 pounds is freakish to say the least. I don’t know Clowney’s arm length, but it appears to be long even for his height. He’s built lean and muscular, not how a typical 20-year-old should be. Looking at Clowney going forward, there are multiple positions he could project to at the next level. He could easily stay just how he is and work in as either a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 rush outside linebacker. With a frame that could hold 10-15 more pounds without much problem, a 3-4 defensive end or even a 3-technique defensive tackle isn’t out of the question.
Breaking down a prospect like Clowney, there is so much to like. His combination of size, speed, quickness, raw power, and potential are as good as any defensive end I’ve graded in the last decade. At the snap Clowney is like a rocket with arms. He’s up into the offensive lineman quickly and either drops his shoulder and blows past them or uses that strength to toss them aside. The bull rush and the speed rush are Clowney’s two big pitches, and he throws them well. Most elite pass rushers in college rely on one or the other, but Clowney makes a lineman pick their poison. Even when faced with a double team, Clowney’s athleticism beats it. On multiple plays the offense used a tight end or back to try and chip Clowney and help the tackle, but he simply chose to either get wide and bypass the tackle altogether or use that anticipation and those active hands to split the two. Play after play it was evident that many plays were won by Clowney even before the snap.
In run support things are less glowing, but still good. When I watch Clowney defend the run it is less about instincts and more about effort and athleticism. He’s able to run down even the quickest running backs and quarterbacks with regularity, but his strength is more about being disruptive. A lot of times the way to beat a great pass rusher is to run right at them. But Clowney’s strength is so great that when he takes away the leverage of the offensive lineman in front of him, he in effect defending the run, even if he isn’t the one who makes the tackle.
What is the bad news you might be asking? I am not going to be all gloom and doom about Clowney from the neck up, but you can see that the vast majority of his big plays come from his raw physical abilities and his overwhelming athletic edge. I have no doubt that Clowney is going to make plenty of big plays in the NFL, but if you go back and study every snap you see so many plays that he could have made if he makes the smart play at the snap. He is going to need to learn to make in play adjustments if he wants to be a consistent defensive force rather than simply good for a highlight play or two a week.
I understand the infatuation with Clowney. We have seen it before. Mario Williams, Shawne Merriman, and Aaron Curry were all going to be that guy. Call me a skeptic or a cynic or whatever you want. The NFL draft world has been burned on can’t miss defensive line prospects before, so while I concede Clowney is a definite candidate for the top overall pick in 2014, I am going to watch him closely this year to see if he can put together big games. No doubt he has a chance to be a once in a generation type of defensive player, but he’s not there yet.