Monday, October 7, 2013
Why Clowney is still 2014's top prospect
By Todd McShay
Despite not putting up big numbers, Jadeveon Clowney has performed very well this season.
In a perfect world, Jadeveon Clowney would have come out and played for South Carolina this season without any health issues, put up 15 sacks and fed the hype machine with a half-dozen more highlight-reel plays.
It hasn’t happened that way so far, with Clowney recording just two sacks in four games and earning more attention for his alleged conditioning issues (against North Carolina in Week 1) and his decision to not play in the Kentucky game because to a rib injury (surprising his coaching staff shortly before game time) than he has for his on-field play.
The question many are asking is what this means for Clowney’s draft stock, and I can understand why there is some concern. But while these recent issues are certainly ones that NFL teams will investigate as Clowney goes through the draft process, I’ve still got Clowney as the No. 1 prospect on my board and consider him the likeliest player to be taken No. 1 in the 2014 NFL draft.
1. His on-field performance this season hasn’t been an issue
I went back and studied the tape of South Carolina’s games against North Carolina, Georgia and Central Florida, and the truth is that, contrary to popular belief, nothing has really changed with Clowney’s play this season. With the exception of certain stretches against the Tar Heels when he appeared gassed (he was reportedly playing with a stomach virus, and the heat and humidity in that game were unusually severe), he has played a high percentage of snaps, displayed very good effort and been highly disruptive and effective.
Jadeveon Clowney caused a stir with his decision not to play against Kentucky.
The UCF game provides us with a good example. He played 75 percent of the Gamecocks' defensive snaps (he played 85 percent against Georgia), a high number for a defensive lineman. Of the 49 plays he was on the field, I gave him a "plus" grade on 20, a "plus-plus" on six, a "minus" on six and a "minus-minus" on two, both of which were effort-related. (The remaining 15 plays didn't provide him with the opportunity to have a positive or negative effect on a play -- such as a quick pass to the opposite side of the field.)
By my count, he had nine quarterback hurries on 28 pass attempts, which is an excellent percentage. One of his hurries directly resulted in an interception, and the other led to his teammate getting a strip sack -- so that’s two turnovers that were a direct result of his getting pressure on the QB.
There are times when it’s clear on tape that he’s getting frustrated by all of the extra attention opponents are dedicating to him, and that occasionally leads to him getting sucked inside and losing gap control, leaving his defense vulnerable if he’s unable to make the play himself.
But for the vast majority of this season, his participation, effort and production have all been very good, and considering the extent to which offenses are scheming against him, he's been really disruptive.
2. NFL teams aren’t making up their minds right now
I don’t mean for all of this to sound as though I’m letting Clowney off the hook, because clearly he’s been his own worst enemy in certain regards. In particular, his communication with his coaching staff this past week was not as good as it could have been. It’s highly unusual for a player who has been cleared medically to play to tell his coaching staff that close to game time that he’ll be unable to play (although it’s worth mentioning that he’s the only one who really knows whether he’s healthy enough to play), so that certainly creates cause for concern if you’re an NFL scout. Among the questions teams are going to want to answer: “Is he tough enough?” and “Is he a team player who will communicate with his coaches effectively?”
But here’s the important thing to remember: The deadline for NFL teams to make final determinations on a player isn't until May. There’s no such thing as a player rising or falling on an NFL draft board, because there aren’t any draft boards right now. We're merely in the fact-finding stage. Scouts will talk to everyone from Clowney's coaches to his professors to the Gamecocks' training staff, and once all of that information is gathered, teams will send in other scouts to cross-check the evaluation. Teams will put Clowney through psychological tests and character evaluations and have him interview with several members of the personnel department, all the way up to the owner, in some cases. And only when all of that information is gathered, two or three weeks before the draft, will the organization's decision-makers draw final conclusions.
Are scouts paying attention to everything from Clowney's bone spurs in his foot to the fact that he took himself out of the game against Kentucky? Certainly. Will they continue to dig for more information on all of these recent incidents? Certainly. Will all of that be reason enough for NFL teams to not take him No. 1 overall if they think he’s the best player? Almost certainly not.
3. He’s still the most talented player in the 2014 draft class
This last point is an important one, because at the end of the day, if you’re a decision-maker for a team at the top of the draft, you’re going to have to build a case that there are enough concerns with Clowney to offset his talent level, which is clearly greater than anyone else in this class.
Are they really going to be worried enough about the Kentucky situation that they’re willing to pass on one of the best defensive prospects we’ve seen in a decade or so? Maybe a few teams will, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Time will tell, but I just don’t see teams being scared off by what’s gone on to this point. And another factor working in his favor is that the recent track record of first-round defensive ends is pretty strong.
He’s still the top-ranked player on my board, and when all is said and done, whether the team drafting first overall needs a quarterback should have a greater impact on whether Clowney's the No. 1 pick than anything else that’s happened with him this season.