Jadeveon Clowney certainly hasn't lacked for attention over the past few years.
College football observers lauded Clowney's every move during his sophomore year at South Carolina. NFL scouts and coaches were anything but bashful in projecting his talent at the next level, pegging the pass rusher as one of the top defensive prospects in recent memory. In fact, during my summer film evaluation ahead of Clowney's junior season, I had the audacity to compare him to a few of my former teammates with Hall of Fame credentials (Derrick Thomas, Reggie White and Bruce Smith).
The hype surrounding Clowney's game and potential reached astronomical levels, creating expectations for the 2013 campaign that, to be fair, he never could have lived up to, regardless of what he did. Evaluators made Clowney out to be a superhero last offseason, then took him apart after he failed to destroy the quarterback on every play during the first few games of the fall. He didn't help matters by appearing to give a lackluster effort on some plays, sparking questions about his motor. He also was cited for speeding at pretty excessive ratestwice in December. Consequently, concerns about his maturity, desire and work ethic shifted the narrative in regard to the way some evaluators viewed him.
Now that we've reached draft season, of course, that narrative is bound to change yet again, as scouts dig deeper into his tape and get a better feel for his remarkable athletic attributes. After all, it's hard to find a 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end with rush skills and speed like Clowney's (which is reportedly around the 4.5-second range in the 40-yard dash). Don't forget that he finished his three-year career at South Carolina with 24 sacks and 47 tackles for loss despite playing in the SEC -- college football's premier conference. In the NFL, pass rushers -- particularly those of the long, rangy variety with explosive quickness -- are coveted at a premium, and Clowney is just the sort of freakish talent that coaches and scouts look for at the top of the draft.
Whatever criticisms one might have about Clowney's play, the flashes of brilliance he's displayed have been astonishing. When he played with maximum effort and solid fundamentals, he was nearly impossible to block, coming off the ball like a rocket while maintaining the balance and body control to turn the corner without losing speed. Clowney also showed a powerful butt-and-jerk maneuver to complement his quick arm-over on inside rushes. While he still needs to work on sequencing rush moves, the fact that Clowney was such a dominant player at such a young age (he turns 21 on Feb. 14) suggests that his best football lies ahead.
That's why coaches will largely ignore the purported blemishes in Clowney's performance this past season and bet on the tremendous upside that he brings as an edge rusher. Something similar happened during the evaluations of both Julius Peppers in 2002 (drafted at No. 2 overall) and Mario Williams in 2006 (the first overall pick). There were questions about Peppers' motor, and Williams had a so-so final college season, but both players have enjoyed fine NFL careers, certainly validating their high draft selections.
With that in mind, I've come up with five teams that would rank as perfect fits for Clowney. At this point, it's hard to imagine this physical freak lasting beyond the first few picks in May, but given the potential for trade activity, it's always useful to examine which teams suit a player best. And of course, a lot can change in the pre-draft process.
Houston Texans (No. 1 overall pick)
The Texans, who have the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, have fielded one of the league's top defenses the past few seasons. Adding a dynamic athlete like Clowney would make the unit downright scary. He would join with 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to create a formidable front that would have every opposing offensive coordinator and quarterback shaking in their boots. When one factors in the return of Pro Bowler Brian Cushing from injury and the continued development of Whitney Mercilus, it's clear the Texans could feature one of the best front sevens in the NFL. Given that the past two seasons have seen the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks ride defense to the Super Bowl, it's not inconceivable that Clowney could put Bill O'Brien's first Texans squad on the path to Super Bowl XLIX.
Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3)
Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley just watched his old team hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of a dominant defense. The Jaguars coach definitely would welcome the chance to have a freakishly talented rusher like Clowney anchoring his defense for the next few years. Although Clowney is raw and unpolished as a rusher, he is such a natural athlete that he will create disruption by using his explosive "get off" and agility to overwhelm edge blockers working alone in pass protection. In addition, Clowney's height and extraordinary wingspan will force quarterbacks to change the trajectory of their passes, leading to interception opportunities on tips and overthrows. Given the impact that negative plays and turnovers have on the outcomes of games, the arrival of Clowney would advance Jacksonville's return to respectability under Bradley.
Oakland Raiders (No. 5)
General manager Reggie McKenzie needs to upgrade the talent at just about every position on the Raiders' roster. Clowney would give the defense a dynamic pass rusher to build around and add some sizzle to a lineup that desperately lacks star power. Remember that the Raiders play in the AFC West, where Pro Bowl quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith roam. If Oakland wants to have a chance in the division, McKenzie must upgrade its pass rush. Other pieces are needed on the defensive side of the ball -- particularly in the secondary -- but the acquisition of a disruptive edge rusher could mask some of the unit's flaws.
Atlanta Falcons (No. 6)
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The Falcons' pass rush suffered mightily in 2013, obviously much more than GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith expected it to, given the March release of John Abraham. The Dirty Birds finished with just 32 sacks (tied for 29th in the NFL) and failed to disrupt the rhythm of quarterbacks in the pocket. Clowney would add speed and athleticism to the front line while creating opportunities for others to get after the passer, as double teams are certain to head in his direction. With the noise of the Georgia Dome crowd and the speed of the artificial turf enhancing Clowney's first-step quickness, he could become an immediate difference-maker as the designated rusher in the Falcons' hybrid scheme.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7)
New Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith inherits a defense that is one pass rusher away from becoming one of the NFC's dominant units. Clowney has drawn comparisons to a young Peppers, which could entice Smith to make the South Carolina star the centerpiece of his Tampa 2 scheme. In Chicago, the addition of Peppers' disruptive skills helped Smith's D produce takeaways and defensive scores at an astonishing rate. With Clowney displaying similar athletic attributes and a knack for creating disruption, the marriage between player and scheme could produce more defensive fireworks in Tampa Bay.