Jadeveon Clowney is the best defensive prospect to ever step between the lines, right?
That was the buzz that dominated football conversations after Clowney obliterated Michigan's Vincent Smith with a hit that made every highlight reel for the next six months. The hit introduced the nation to a 6-foot-6, 270-pound boogeyman with extraordinary athleticism, physical tools and a nasty game.
Heck, I even contributed to the hype by touting Clowney as a defender with more raw talent and potential than three former teammates of mine now in the Hall of Fame: Derrick Thomas, Bruce Smith and Reggie White.
With Clowney expected to run roughshod over SEC opponents on the way to the No. 1 spot in the 2014 draft, I was excited to pop in the tape to see how the next great defensive playmaker was progressing as a dominant force on the edge. After watching six game tapes of the Gamecocks' star, however, I wonder if Clowney will ever live up to the hype and speculation that preceded his junior season.
Clowney is a spectacular athlete with a rare combination of size, speed, strength and explosiveness. Measuring 6-6, 274 pounds, Clowney moves like an NBA power forward. He smoothly changes direction in a short area and has exceptional speed and quickness for a man of his size. It's simply hard to find traditional 4-3 defensive ends with the balance, body control and movement skills that Clowney displays off the edge. Of course, a superior athlete doesn't always develop into a dominant player, but coaches and scouts will always gamble on the development of a prospect with exceptional physical tools, regardless of his technical skills when he enters the NFL.
The NFL has morphed into a passing league, but stopping the run remains the primary focus of every defensive coordinator. Coaches want defensive ends with the size and strength to set the edge, while also exhibiting the first-step quickness and burst to slip inside on designed stunts or angles. Studying Clowney closely on tape, there is little doubt that he possesses the physical tools to be a dominant edge player at the next level. He overwhelms blockers with his initial quickness and burst, which he leads to spectacular hits and disruptive plays when he correctly anticipates the quarterback's decision on zone-read plays. Additionally, Clowney's explosiveness and acceleration allows him to track down runners from the backside on perimeter runs to opposite direction. Although he often fails to make the play when chasing, the closing quickness displayed a 275-pound defender jumps off the screen. As a pro, Clowney will be expected to make more plays as a pursuer, but the fact that he flashes the speed to effectively chase from sideline to sideline will cause some defensive coaches to dismiss his lack of production.
Against runs to his side, Clowney is a disruptive presence despite poor hand usage and unpolished technical skills. He acts as a bull in a china shop off the edge, using sheer strength and power to the hold the point. Although Clowney is moderately successful employing his brutish tactics, he will need to develop better hand skills to have a chance to win against elite offensive tackles as a pro. Based on my observations as a player and scout, a good defensive line coach can bring those skills out. But Clowney must be willing to accept the instruction and implement the skills into his game to reach his potential.
Pass rush skills
Clowney entered the season regarded as the premier pass rusher in college football after notching 21 sacks in his first two seasons. He routinely blew past offensive tackles with his first-step quickness, using a quick arm-over maneuver to win inside. When coupled with excellent pre-snap anticipation, Clowney's combination of quickness and agility makes him impossible to contain off the edge. This season, however, Clowney hasn't been able to win with finesse moves against offensive tackles setting hard on the inside. Although Clowney counters with a speed rush or straight power maneuver (bull rush), he hasn't been able to get home with opponents' routinely throwing quickly to avoid sacks. Of course, these are common tactics in the pros when facing elite rushers, so you would like to see the Gamecocks' star adjust his game to make an impact. From getting his hands up at the line to forklifting offensive tackles into the quarterback's lap, Clowney can register disruptive plays such as batted passes and quarterback hurries by exerting more energy, effort and awareness getting after the passer. Additionally, he can set the table for his teammates by bringing the heat off the edge consistently. While numbers and sack production are important factors in Clowney's evaluation, the collective disruption caused by his presence is far more valuable. Clowney hasn't shown his A-game consistently this season, but his flashes of greatness are enough to project his potential dominance as a rusher at the next level.
As I mentioned in the previous graph, Clowney will be measured primarily by his impact on the game as an edge rusher. Scouts and coaches will spend more time studying how his teammates benefit from his presence of the edge and the adjustments opponents' make to neutralize his effectiveness. That doesn't mean his paltry 2013 statistics (two sacks and 6.5 tackle for loss) will be dismissed, but scouts understand that Clowney has been the focal point of every game plan, resulting in few one-on-one rushing opportunities. Therefore, Clowney only needs to display supreme energy and effort to satisfy scouts breaking down his game.
However, looking at game tapes of Clowney's play -- against North Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee -- I'm disappointed by his motor, intensity and focus. He hasn't played with the fanatical effort that evaluators expect to see from a potential No. 1 overall pick, which is concerning for teams searching for a franchise-caliber defender at the top of the draft. Of course, there have been several elite NFL defenders who mailed it in during their final seasons, but it's uncommon for a "cruiser" to become a high motor guy or a technician at the next level. With talent and athleticism certain to diminish with age, Clowney's minimal impact, effort and disruption should be closely monitored over the remainder of the season.
When evaluating elite prospects in the draft, general managers, scouts and coaches will give serious consideration to intangible qualities such as work ethic, toughness and leadership skills. Those qualities are needed to play at the highest level in the NFL, particularly as a prospect counted on to be a franchise-caliber difference maker.
Studying Clowney over the past year, I believe there are legitimate concerns about his football character. He has appeared distracted by the limelight and attention that accompanies his reputation as a potential top pick; it appears to have affected his preparation for the season. Clowney has struggled with his conditioning throughout the season and has battled a handful of bumps and bruises that have impacted his play. Additionally, he has repeatedly taken plays off and appeared disinterested in the middle of games, which is a red flag for scouts looking for a potential difference-maker at the top of the draft.
I don't know the extent of his injuries, nor have I discussed his offseason preparation with his coaches, but I know that he has failed to display the kind of motor, energy and focus of a player who is trying to reach his potential as a college player. With several other elite prospects thriving in their final seasons, namely UCLA OLB Anthony Barr, the questionable football character exhibited by Clowney intensifies the competition for the top spot on draft boards across the league.
I'll admit to feeding the hype machine surrounding Clowney when I proclaimed him the most talented defender that I've seen at this stage of his career. I made that assertion based on his spectacular combination of size, speed, athleticism and potential as a difference-maker off the edge. However, I'm miffed at his performance this season, and question whether he will ever live up to the lofty expectations that many, including myself, had for his play at the next level. While his draft status will not be affected by his play this season, he is definitely not the slam-dunk prospect that I anticipated before watching the tape.
To be fair, Mario Williams and Julius Peppers also entered the league with questions about their potential, but neither player mailed it in like Clowney. With a few games left to change that opinion, we will soon see if Clowney is OK with being good, not great, as a college player.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.