South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney can't control whether the Houston Texans select him with the first overall pick. What he did do at the NFL Scouting Combine is illustrate why he's clearly the best prospect available in the 2014 NFL draft class.
It's fair to debate the merits of the spotlight predraft event. Exactly how some of the drills translate to in-game success is a question mark. Yet, the number of key personnel who show up to watch from head coaches to general managers and other talent evaluators establish its importance.
For Clowney, the combine was significant for two key reasons.
Most notably, he was coming off a season with South Carolina that didn't come anywhere close to the incredibly high standards set before junior campaign. He registered just 40 tackles and three sacks one season after tallying 13 sacks to emerge as a serious game-changer.
He didn't shy away from questions about the drop-off in production. Jeff Legwold of ESPN provided comments the defensive lineman made over the weekend. He talked about the season not going exactly as he wanted, but also how getting the victories was more important:
Going into last season, I had a lot of high expectations of myself, and things don't always happen like you plan on. I was really trying to break the [career] sack record for us for the next guys coming in. There were a lot of ups and downs, but we won 11 games, were 11-2, won our bowl game, finished No. 4 in the country for the first time in South Carolina history. So I was pretty excited about the season.
I wasn't worried about my stats really. A lot of game-changing went on when we played teams. ... I wasn't really worried about my stats, I just wanted to win.
Ultimately, there are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to racking up huge numbers.
Clowney certainly didn't seem to perform with the same drive as he did during his sophomore season. It's also key to remember the main focus of opposing offenses was making sure he didn't dominate the game, though. That opened up opportunities for his teammates to make more plays.
The other reason the combine was crucial for Clowney was the rapid rise of Khalil Mack out of Buffalo.
Mack has been viewed as a likely top-10 selection for months. It wasn't until more recently that he started gaining some traction as the possible top defender in the draft with a chance of his own to get selected with the first overall pick.
The NFL Network passed along comments from draft guru Mike Mayock, who went as far as saying he would struggle to suggest taking Clowney over Mack:
"It would be hard for me to take Jadeveon Clowney over Khalil Mack." - Mike Mayock— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) February 22, 2014
So without strong 2013 stats to fall back on and Mack moving into the top pick conversation it was important for Clowney to remind everybody why he garnered so much hype in the first place.
He did exactly that. The combine's official site lists him as a top performer in three of the five athletic drills, including the 40-yard dash. He clocked in at 4.53 seconds, the best among defensive linemen and nothing sort of amazing for a player of his size and strength.
In doing so he illustrated the immense physical gifts that no other player in the class can match. Will Brinson of CBS Sports passed along an NFL Network screen shot that shows Clowney easily outpacing dual-threat quarterback and fellow top prospect Johnny Manziel:
Jadeveon Clowney with Johnny Manziel on their 40’s. JFF got smoked: pic.twitter.com/EYY8RahGpL— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) February 24, 2014
Quite simply, prospects with his type of raw ability don't come along very often. Yes, he needs to improve his pass-rushing technique and must work to make a more consistent impact on a weekly basis, but the tools he possesses are off the charts.
Who is the top prospect in the 2014 draft?
Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson are great offensive tackle prospects. Sammy Watkins is a No. 1 wide receiver in the making. Teams like the Texans that are searching for a new quarterback to lead the offense have several viable options. Mack should be a high-impact defender from day one.
None of those otherwise terrific players can match the raw potential of Clowney. In an era where rushing the quarterback is vital to success, he can become the most valuable defender in the league within a couple years after he gains experience and gets further coaching.
Looking ahead, it's still unknown exactly where Clowney will fall in the draft. Multiple teams near the top of the order need quarterbacks and, as Mayock's remarks about Mack's showing, there are other options for teams with lingering concerns about the South Carolina star's lackluster 2013 season.
In the long view, it's hard to imagine him becoming anything less than a bona fide defensive superstar. His athletic ability is off the charts and he's proven himself as a playmaker in the past. It just comes down to putting it all together in the coming years.
If the Texans determine one of the available quarterbacks is the answer to their problems, they should by all means select him. That's still the most important position on the field.
They won't be getting the best prospect in the draft, though. That's Clowney.