South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is firmly entrenched atop 2014 NFL draft watch lists.
Not since Andrew Luck, and before him not since Mario Williams, have we seen a player so dominant that he was the default No. 1 overall player before playing his final college football season.
Had Clowney been eligible for the 2013 NFL draft, he would have been my No. 1 overall player. Same as Luck when he headed back to Stanford for his redshirt junior season.
Read on to see what makes Clowney such an amazing prospect.
When scouting defensive players, I am looking at two things: potential and production.
Does the athletic ability shown flash on film? Running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash is impressive, but does the player use that speed to chase down runners?
Clowney sees legitimate double-teams from offenses, not just the rumored kind you hear fans mention. He's targeted on every play by an outside blocker, usually a left tackle, and then he sees help from a guard, tight end or fullback as a backup blocker.
With all that attention and pressure, Clowney still produced 13 sacks in 2012.
Against one of college football's most elusive running quarterbacks—Tajh Boyd of Clemson—Clowney registered 4.5 sacks. You could argue those away as sacks without engagement from a blocker, but these weren't plays where the offense left him unblocked.
This was against a running quarterback, which means the end-of-the-line defenders are asked to set the edge and contain the runner. Clowney played with strength in anchoring the edge, but when asked to go get the quarterback, he dominated.
How well Clowney plays against NFL offensive linemen remains to be seen, though he did face many pro prospects in the SEC last season. His production indicates a high-level player who can beat constant attention from offensive coordinators.
Size and Speed
The NFL is all about size and speed, and Clowney has both. At 6'6", 270 pounds, he moves like a man 30 pounds lighter. He doesn't appear to be as tall or as heavy as he is when moving in the open field. His preseason 40-yard dash should be filed under the impossible to explain.
ESPN's Tom Rinaldi reported that #SouthCarolina DE Jadeveon Clowney ran a 4.5 40 at 270 pounds during the Gamecocks' recent winter workouts.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) March 5, 2013
Let's put that into perspective.
At the 2013 NFL combine, the fastest 40 time for a defensive end was 4.57 seconds by UConn's Trevardo Williams. He was drafted to be an outside linebacker at 6'1", 240 pounds. Clowney is five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.
How about linebackers? The only time in 2013 that would have beaten Clowney was a 4.47 by Missouri's Zaviar Gooden, and he's 6'1", 234 pounds.
You can go back a decade and struggle to find anyone who moves like Clowney does with his size and bulk. Men at 270 pounds are simply not supposed to move that fast. But he does so consistently.
And it's not just track speed, as Clowney hasn't attended the IMG's or Athletes Performance-style training grounds that every NFL prospect attends before running at the NFL Scouting Combine. Trevardo Williams and Zaviar Gooden were trained to run with fast technique and form.
Clowney is just running down the track on natural ability at this point.
The Andrew Luck of defenders. That's Jadeveon Clowney.
When Luck came out of Stanford, the draft community rushed to find ways to explain just how rare of a prospect he was. Some called him "the best since Peyton Manning," or if you're like me, just simply "the best ever." Clowney has that potential on defense.
I've been analyzing college football players since the 2001 NFL draft. In that time, we've seen Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, Terrell Suggs, Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh, Patrick Willis and other dominant-level prospects.
None of the aforementioned players has the combination of size, speed, production and potential that Clowney possesses heading into what should be his final season at South Carolina.
That doesn't mean Clowney will become the next Julius Peppers. But barring something unforeseen in his final season, he has the potential to be better than Peppers or any other defender you can name in the last 12 years.
I didn't see Reggie White or Bruce Smith in college, but I'd imagine this is what they looked like. Men playing against boys. Division I stars against JUCO blockers. That's Clowney. A once-in-a-generation talent.