As we hurtle towards the 2014 NFL draft (which, let's be honest, can't get here soon enough), it's useful to start taking a long look at how some players will fit into the structure of existing NFL teams.
So today we've taken a look at three prospects—each a very athletic, very impressive prospect—and examined the different ways they might fit into the NFL.
Of course, some of this depends on their landing spot, but all three have the versatility and ability to work in more than one way for their teams.
Let's check them out.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
While we know Clowney is an athletic freak—something Chris Burke of SI.com reported on again during Clowney’s pro day—the real question at the end of the day is how a team can best utilize that freakish talent.
Clowney has the speed, explosiveness, power and overall ability to fit into any scheme. Put aside the alleged work-ethic issues that seem to come up every two weeks (thanks for your contributions on ESPN and NFL Network last week, Merril Hoge and Warren Sapp (h/t Evan Silva of Rotoworld and Pro Football Talk)—for Sapp, it was his second go-round) and consider that from a pure football standpoint, he can do everything you need a pass-rusher to do.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a 3-4 or 4-3 base.
Yes, Clowney has less experience in a 3-4 than a 4-3, but he showed enough at his pro day and on film to believe he has the tools to make the transition—and maybe not just at end (more on that in a minute).
If he were to go to the Houston Texans with the first overall pick, Clowney would step into a 3-4 defense. More than likely he would take over on the right side, across from J.J. Watt, replacing Tim Jamison (per Ourlads.com), who, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), played a whopping 43 snaps last year.
It’s possible that by preseason, the Texans could move Jared Crick to the right, but Clowney would be an upgrade over him as well.
Clowney would see a lot of work against left tackles initially, but with pressure from Watt on the left side he probably wouldn’t see too many double-teams, and if a back was kept in to block, he’d be sent to Watt’s side.
Another plus would be the presence of Whitney Mercilus at weak-side linebacker. Mercilus, like much of the defense, had a so-so year in 2013, but even then he continued to improve.
If Clowney attracts attention, it will free Mercilus up to come around the edge. If teams adjust for that, it frees Clowney up.
The Texans could also work in some stunts and other maneuvering to free up Clowney or another piece of the defense as well.
That’s also true for a 4-3 team like the St. Louis Rams or Jacksonville Jaguars.
While both teams run a 4-3 base, the Rams would have to do more juggling to fully utilize Clowney, at least initially. With Chris Long on the left and Robert Quinn on the right (per Ourlads.com), it’d be a more difficult fit.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars have a much simpler option and would quickly replace Tyson Alualu on the left side (per Ourlads.com).
Either way, the advantage of Clowney in a 4-3 is simple—the extra interior lineman would occupy one more offensive lineman.
Of course, on a generic pass rush (just the four defensive linemen) the offensive line would still outnumber the defensive line, but if the team blitzes even just one linebacker, it’s much easier to overwhelm the offense.
Clowney himself would attract a lot of attention, though it would be much more of an issue for Jacksonville, who has less options for the ends than St. Louis, who could constantly shift Clowney, Long and Quinn.
A third possibility would be to move Clowney to outside linebacker. As I mentioned a little while ago, Clowney has no real experience in a 3-4 alignment, but many believe he could make the switch.
Former NFL defensive end Stephen White is one such individual. As he wrote on SBNation back in February, he believes Clowney can make the transition.
While Clowney lacks that experience, White says he does something else which makes it likely he could excel as a linebacker: "The key, in my book at least, is that at outside rushing linebacker in a 3-4, opposing offenses will have to try to block Clowney in space a lot more than they would if he were in a 4-3. The most consistent thing out of all those games is that he looked damn near unblockable in space."
So a team—whether it be Houston at No. 1 overall or Atlanta at No.6—could easily shift Clowney back and outside and still make it work.
For myself, the 4-3 defensive end scheme is his most natural fit. But he would bring some great advantages to any scheme.
And frankly, as ProFootballTalk’s Michael David Smith tweeted back in response to The Houston Chronicle’s Stephanie Stradley back in February:
@StephStradley Show me a defensive coordinator who can't fit Watt and Clowney into his defense and I'll show you a bad defensive coordinator— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) February 24, 2014
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
While most of the tight end hype goes to North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro and Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, we shouldn’t be overlooking Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
A big, athletic tight end, Fiedorowicz isn’t as fast as Ebron (and is just a hair slower than Amaro) but tracked well in all of the combine events. He was fifth in the bench press (totaling 25 reps) and sixth in the broad jump (nailing 9’8”), as well.
Ok, so he’s got some athleticism. What will that translate to on the field?
First of all, the man can block.
If you think that’s not as important as “back in the day,” you’d be wrong—at least to some extent.
Many coaches still want their tight ends to block, and for a prospect who isn’t going in the first round or two, blocking is vital.
As Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told us at the NFL combine: “Tight end for me, I'm old school. You've got to block first then catch passes. That's why I loved Heath Miller. I think Heath Miller is the best tight end in the NFL. Not because he catches 90 passes, but because he blocks big defensive ends. ... Tight ends for me block first, catch second.”
Take a moment to watch the above video, starting at the 11-second mark. On that play, Fiedorowicz lines up on the far right side with his hand in the dirt and takes on a defensive end. Note that he does a good job running the end away from the play and controlling where the defender goes.
On the very next play on the clip (the 19-second mark), Fiedorowicz (again on the right side) lines up to block, this time standing up.
Fiedorowicz seals off the incoming defensive end, allowing the right tackle to kick outside and head outside to help protect the quarterback who is bootlegging.
Watching those two plays (merely a small selection of his blocking ability) you get the sense that Fiedorowicz is a guy who will be on the field for three downs without tipping off the play you’re about to run—a valuable commodity for a tight end.
Can he catch, though?
Indeed he can, as evidenced by touchdowns such as the one he scored last season against No. 4 Ohio State.
Fast forward to the one minute, 31-second mark. Iowa is on the 2-yard line and facing a stiff goal-line defense.
On the play, you can see Fiedorowicz quickly get off his block, get into the end zone and sneak to the back corner. As the ball comes, he fully extends his body to haul in the score.
Fiedorowicz would be a great addition to any team considering running consistent two tight end sets.
A team like the New England Patriots could use him to help replace Aaron Hernandez very easily. He’s a guy who could stay in and block but also be a receiving threat, as well.
It’s possible that Fiedorowicz could stand on his own, as well—or as part of an offense that spreads the ball around and wants a versatile tight end who can stretch the field, make tough catches and block. A team like the Green Bay Packers, for example.
Either way, Fiedorowicz is a complete tight end, and he can step in and contribute very quickly for any offense he is drafted into.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
One of the tallest wide receivers in the NFL draft class, Mike Evans showed his ability every weekend at Texas A&M, shagging fly balls from Johnny Manziel.
While I am a believer that Johnny Football can become Johnny Pro Bowl, and see more good than bad in his game, I can’t deny that there were times when his whole plan consisted of, “Throw it as far as I can so Evans can leap up and catch it.”
Hey, it worked.
It’ll work for NFL teams as well—to some extent.
Evans has the height and arm length (35.125” according to NFL.com) to combat the longer, lengthier corners teams like the Seattle Seahawks are employing.
He’s also a very physical player who is adept at using his body to block out defenders when battling for the ball. Evans also is able to come up big in big moments—he won’t wilt when the pressure is on.
For an NFL team, Evans can line up in several spots. Clearly he’s someone you can use as a goal line and red zone weapon, and he can stretch the field.
Evans is a guy I could see lining up at all three main positions to varying degrees. His hands and ability to make tough catches tells me he can play slot or “Y” if need be, while his initial burst allows him to line up at the “Z” on the outside. His toughness and physicality allow him to be a useful “X” or split end and overcome the initial jams that come from standing on the line of scrimmage.
While he doesn’t have the pure ability of a guy like Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, paired with the right offense and especially with another wide receiver to attract some attention, Evans has the versatility and ability to step in and make an immediate impact.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.