With the 2014 NFL draft only weeks away, the No. 1 overall selection remains up for grabs. But of all the potential candidates, none are as rare or as physically gifted as Jadeveon Clowney. He truly is a prospect who only comes along once every decade or so.
Coming out of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney was one of the highest-touted recruits in years. While at South Pointe High School, he accumulated 162 tackles, 29.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, 11 forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
In his first year removed from high school, Clowney was named the SEC Freshman of the Year by SEC coaches after racking up 36 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks, five forced fumbles and six quarterback hurries in 13 games.
Over the course of his three years as a Gamecock, Clowney would eventually turn in a very productive career. He had 47 tackles for loss and 24 sacks in 36 games.
When comparing this output to his fellow edge-rushers of the 2013 class, he ranks among the top of his class in production per game despite a disappointing junior season that has many evaluators questioning his effort, competitiveness and work ethic.
According to Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei, an anonymous front office man thinks these concerns about Clowney’s competitiveness are valid:
He can do anything he wants to. He's Julius Peppers or Jevon Kearse. But Clowney never had to work for anything. There aren't many great ones with his mental makeup. I question if Clowney has the fierce competitiveness that all the great ones have. I don't see it.
This anonymous front office guy is certainly right regarding the mental makeup of the great ones.
In order to be truly great, a pass-rusher has to be relentless. This means going full-throttle from snap to whistle on every play. A player’s motor is perhaps the single most valuable trait for any defensive lineman to have. No physical attribute or mindset will have a stronger correlation to pass-rushing production than a relentless motor. For this there is little to no substitute.
It seems as though these qualities have come into question with Clowney and for good reason.
Jadeveon Clowney is nearly unstoppable when he turns it on. The big question is—why in the heck does he ever turn it off?
One likely scenario is his ongoing issue with the bone spurs in his right foot. Bone spurs are deposits of calcium in a joint area created to fill minor cracks created by friction in the joint. This painful condition has become progressively worse over the last two seasons and is something that will likely require surgery at some point.
|Jadeveon Clowney's Measurables|
|Player||Hgt||Wght||40||Bench||Vert||Broad||SS||3 Cone||Explosion Grade||Spd/Wght Grade|
|'14 Pos. Avg||N/A||258||4.75||22||34||115||4.44||7.25||6.06||6.9|
|Credit: NFL combine, pro days and my own data|
According to Josh Kendall of GoGamecocks.com, Clowney spoke about the pain he was in after a win against Vanderbilt:
It’s painful. I’m out here playing on it, though, so I’m just trying to give everything I’ve got on it. Who knows what’s going to happen out there? It doesn’t really bother me when I am out there much. It’s just builds up pain. The more I keep going on it, the more it bothers me. I need it to get my foot back together.
In an article by Jeff Reynolds via CBSSports.com, concerns about Clowney’s competitive fire and work ethic were heightened when his former head coach, Steve Spurrier, was asked by NFL Network about the subject:
He was OK. It wasn't like Marcus Lattimore, you know, every player is a little different. His work habits are pretty good, they're not quite like Lattimore, a Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys, but when the ball is snapped he's got something no one else has.
Having your coach publicly talk about your work ethic in such a “meh” way cannot be helpful to his draft status at all. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Spurrier really has to offer up to scouts about Jadeveon’s work habits.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Clowney surprised evaluators by refusing to do position drills with the rest of the defensive linemen. Instead, he opted to stand there and joke around with fellow prospect Dee Ford.
Then more recently, Clowney declared he was no longer making himself available for private workouts after Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas tore his ACL during a private workout.
If there is one concern about this rare prospect, it has to be the ongoing questions about his passion and competitiveness. Refusing to work out for teams does not make those perceptions less concerning.
Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman disagrees with the Clowney critics. In a recent article, he offered this possible motive for all the slanderous rhetoric:
One reason I believe that teams are saying some of the unnecessarily nasty things about Clowney is that he is doing things his own way. The decision not to do any more private workouts--or severely limit the one remaining workout he might do--is smart for him but tells the powerful NFL to screw off.
One thing is for sure regarding Freeman’s statement; the powers that be in the NFL do not like their authority and processes to be challenged by players—especially rookies.
Aside from what Clowney does with his predraft participation and practice habits, consider this: He could have opted out of this entire process by having surgery on his foot but elected to show teams what he was capable of.
Furthermore, in watching his tape, he does not show any egregious issues with his motor or lack thereof. Instead, what I saw was a lightning fast edge-rusher who shows impressive instincts for getting around blocks. His favorite pass-rushing move by far is the swim. Clowney also has incredibly quick feet and long arms to keep blockers from controlling his chest.
In the screen captures above, you can see an example of something Clowney has done his entire career, which is wreak havoc in the running game by chasing down ball-carriers with impressive backside pursuit.
Long arms are also a necessity for a pass-rusher. With them, you stand a chance at winning the battle of the hands by keeping the offensive lineman under control and at length.
You don't necessarily need to run a blazing 40 time, although Clowney did, but quick feet are a must in order to negotiate the small spaces, tight windows and ticking clock to have any shot at getting your hands on the quarterback before the ball is gone. Very few rush moves are effectively executed with slow feet.
Fluidity of movement and balance are also critical to any master of the pass rush. This refers to how loose, graceful and smooth a player’s body moves. Few things will limit the potential of a pass-rusher more than robotic, rigid movements. Ideally what you want in the physical makeup of an edge-rusher is someone with the size and power of a lineman who can move and change directions like a running back.
This deadly combination is essentially what you have with Jadeveon Clowney.
In this play, Clowney is going up against the most athletic offensive tackle in this draft, Taylor Lewan. On the first play of the game for the Gamecocks defense, Jadeveon shows off just how quick he is with an impressive move inside where he just missed getting a sack.
He also used impressive functional strength and explosiveness, like you can see above, to power his way into backfields and become a highly disruptive force.
Like most NFL prospects, Clowney does come with some risk. But at the end of the day, you have to consider that nobody in the NFL is quite like Jadeveon Clowney. His potential is nearly unlimited as a prospect, and his instincts are nearly on par with his remarkable physical gifts.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.
For more draft talk, follow him on Twitter @Ryan_Riddle.