Jadeveon Clowney is a transformational talent, the type of player a franchise can build a foundation around. Despite inconsistent production in his junior season at South Carolina, that fact has not changed.
Clowney has drawn plenty of headlines at the NFL combine this week, but they have not been about his transcendent talent. Rather, the sentiment surrounding the ex-Gamecock has been doubtful, with questions arising about his motor and character. For his part, Clowney tried to diffuse motivational concerns immediately:
"I want to be No.1 in the draft. I want to be the best. I want to be 1 of the greatest of all time." Jadeveon Clowney at the Combine today— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 23, 2014
However, the statement of draft guru Mike Mayock lingers as a skeptical cloud above Clowney's rebuttal. According to NFL.com's Mike Hugenin, Mayock sees a plethora of red flags surrounding Clowney:
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney doesn't work out until Monday, and while Mayock praised his talent -- Clowney has the potential to be "the most dominant player in the league," Mayock said -- he also is not sold on Clowney. Mayock reiterated that he would take Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack ahead of Clowney and openly questioned Clowney's intensity level. "I think there are red flags there" in regard to Clowney's work ethic, Mayock said. He also said it was possible Clowney does not go in the top five picks.
Indeed, it almost feels as though the vultures are circling around Clowney, despite his consensus projection as a top-five pick. Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, a mid- to late-first-round prospect, recently criticized Clowney for shoddy technique and called himself a better player, per CBSSports.com's Will Brinson.
Such self-evaluations are not particularly meaningful, but they do reflect a perception that Clowney is a product of relentless media overhype since his famous jarring hit against Michigan over a year ago. "The Hit" was a reflection of Clowney's immense physical talent, something the combine measurables have backed up:
Jadeveon Clowney measured in at 6'5 ¼, 266 lbs, 34 ½ inch arms, 83 inch wingspan. Bill Polian calls him "Bruce Smith like."— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 22, 2014
However, every NFL player is physically gifted, even if not to the same degree as Clowney. In this extremely comprehensive must-read scouting report, SBNation.com's Stephen White illustrates how questions about Clowney's desire to refine his game have translated to the field:
For as athletic as Clowney is and for the fact that he had three years of coaching in the SEC, he is still immature as a pass rusher. What I mean is he doesn't do hardly any of the little things technique-wise that would have made him a much more productive pass rusher this year, and probably in every other year of his college career.
White then dissects how Clowney does not turn his hips properly toward the quarterback, has a flawed swim move and discusses other technique-related shortcomings. It's worth noting that White is ultimately a strong advocate for the Houston Texans to take Clowney with the first pick, but his piece exposes the South Carolina product as someone who needs significant work to fulfill his game-changing potential.
White also raises another interesting question about Clowney, namely his system fit. Clowney was a 4-3 defensive end at South Carolina who rarely demonstrated the gap discipline necessary to fit within the scheme, especially against the run. While he often made huge plays as a result of that freelancing, such a mindset is unlikely to result in a net-positive result in the NFL.
There is no reason Clowney should not excel in Houston's 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. As a rushing outside linebacker, he would receive more space to start his pass rush, something that has generally been deadly at the collegiate level given his superior athleticism. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reports that the Texans do indeed see Clowney as a suitable fit in their scheme:
Talked to a few evaluators about what Jadeveon Clowney would be if #Texans drafted him in Romeo’s scheme: SAM linebacker. Is athletic enough— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 21, 2014
How big of a deal are Jadeveon Clowney's character questions?
In some ways, Clowney's rawness might make him even more attractive as a top pick. He certainly possesses the athleticism to master the nuances of the position, and with a full pass-rushing tool kit, there is little reason to expect anything besides a generational player.
At the moment, Clowney, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr represent the trio of elite front seven defensive prospects. With so little to separate them in terms of game film and physical assets, Clowney's off-field questions could truly cost him millions of dollars, fairly or not. In a hyper-sensitive era with 24/7 media coverage, his biggest hurdles are not on the field, but off it.