Jadeveon Clowney’s April 2 workout on South Carolina's campus didn't tell us anything we don’t already know about his unique blend of size, speed and power at the defensive end position.
A player with a rare skill set, Clowney should be considered the top prospect in the 2014 draft class. He has a legitimate chance to come off the board No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans.
However, in order for Clowney to progress as a pro, the style of coaching he gets at the NFL level will be crucial to maximizing his abilities. Let’s discuss how Clowney can develop into a true star by being put in a situation that demands accountability and welcomes the challenge of coaching top-tier talent.
Elite Athletic Ability in the NFL
Everyone in the NFL can play ball, but it is the elite athletes who stand out when you turn on the film or watch the speed, burst and change-of-direction skills on game days.
I had the opportunity to play with some of those high-level athletes during my time in the league—guys such as Orlando Pace, LaVar Arrington and the late Sean Taylor. Those players had natural abilities you don’t see every day on the football field, along with explosive power at the point of attack.
We drafted Taylor out of the University of Miami back in ’04, and I thought he was a linebacker when he first arrived at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va. At 6’3”, 220 pounds, Taylor had the upper body of a rush end, the 4.3-4.4 speed of a cornerback and the ball skills of a wide receiver.
He put that ridiculous skill set on display during his first practice in the pros.
Taylor did things on the field during the two seasons I played with him in Washington under Joe Gibbs that I didn’t even think were possible for a defensive back. Whether it was the way he attacked the football or ran through wide receivers (literally), his overall ability was at a level that no one could match.
Clowney has that type of natural talent, too.
The 40-yard dash time in the low 4.5 range (at 6’5”, 266 pounds) he posted back at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis meshes with the speed and burst off the ball that the defensive end shows on tape. Clowney can turn the corner to squeeze the pocket, use his length/power to press an offensive tackle and chase down plays from behind to go along with an athletic skill set that shows up routinely.
But will that talent translate to pro-level production?
Developing Rare Talent
There are multiple reasons why top draft picks fail to produce the expected results in the NFL—and I’ve seen plenty of them.
A lack of preparation, accountability (living in the training room) and maturity are at the top of the list, as some young players just don’t understand (or accept) the demands that are put on pros to answer the bell daily.
There are others who simply aren’t pushed hard enough to maximize their true ability. That poor situation leads to young guys in the league accepting average play as the norm.
When Taylor was a rookie, our defensive coordinator in Washington, Gregg Williams, coached him hard. He demanded accountability from our top-five pick, and that carried over throughout the year.
I truly believe it was a challenge for Williams, during Taylor’s first season, to develop his talent to fit our defensive system and our style of play. But Williams also welcomed that challenge because players with Taylor’s skill set are rare.
Looking at Clowney, I would love to coach him. I really would. And I haven’t said that about many players in the past. With that amount of speed and ability, every day would be a challenge to mold his talent to mesh with the demands and commitment of the pro game.
From Clowney’s on-the-field work ethic (which will have to be raised to a much higher level in the NFL) to the footwork, technique and conditioning, the defensive end is a prospect coaches should line up to work with.
A Fit in Houston?
I’ve mentioned the Texans before as a fit for Clowney because of the energy and graduate-level teaching defensive line coach Bill Kollar brings to the field.
I was with Kollar during two stops on my journeyman career (St. Louis, Buffalo), and I can’t compare his passion for the game or his coaching style to many others in the league. And just like Williams in Washington, Kollar stresses accountability, doesn’t allow his guys to take plays off and would welcome the opportunity to work with a talent like Clowney.
You want a coach who will get Clowney ready to compete and produce? Then put the South Carolina product in the film room and on the field with Kollar.
I know the Texans run a 3-4 front (as I broke down last week), but in Clowney, I see a player who has scheme flexibility because of his skill set. He fits multiple fronts (and packages) if you can develop his talent to mesh with your style of football.
Maybe the Texans pass on Clowney and take a quarterback at No. 1. That’s a strong possibility, given the need at the position for Bill O’Brien’s team and the opportunity to draft Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater.
But what about the Jaguars at No. 3 or the Raiders, Falcons, etc.?
I saw Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville staff coach at the Senior Bowl. The energy level, tempo and constructive on-the-field coaching were impressive. That staff was there to work and push those young prospects through pro-style practices.
There is no question that this is a two-way street between players and coaches. You need both sides to see results, and that means Clowney will have to show the effort and professionalism it takes to produce at a consistent rate in the NFL.
However, putting Clowney in the right situation with a coaching staff that welcomes the challenge of developing his talent could be the difference between the defensive end becoming an elite player or another top draft pick who doesn’t quite meet expectations.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.