Editor’s note: This is eighth in a series of stories previewing the 2014 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday.
For a player who’s been at the forefront of this year’s draft long before this year began, Jadeveon Clowney is still brushing off quite a few question marks entering the 2014 NFL Draft on Thursday.
Clowney, a defensive end from South Carolina University, is the projected No. 1 overall pick by many and one who’s often called a “physically gifted freak” or a “freakish athlete.” It’s likely that if the Browns want to add him to coach Mike Pettine’s defense as the best player on the board, they’ll have to trade up to the No. 1 or No. 2 overall selection with the Houston Texans or St. Louis Rams. He isn’t expected to last until the Browns pick at No. 4.
Clowney has built his draft stock on a once-in-a-generation level of athleticism, speed and size. Said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, “He’s the scariest, freakiest, physical specimen I’ve ever seen since I’ve been doing this as a potential upside defensive lineman.”
But he’s also had an aura to him since New Year’s Day 2013, one that created impossible expectations and, in turn, as many new questions as answers.
That was the day he delivered “The Hit,” a deafening blow to Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint in the Outback Bowl that sent the ball, and Toussaint’s helmet, flying and social media sites like Twitter into a frenzy.
It was a widely thought belief that Clowney would have been the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft as a true sophomore if he had been eligible to enter. He had 13 sacks that season and then delivered the highlight-reel hit, which even put him into some Heisman discussions entering the 2013 season.
Except it created so much buzz that people wanted him to be more of a superhero than a mere mortal playing football.
“Some of the expectations put on him were unrealistic,” said Deke Adams, Clowney’s defensive line coach at South Carolina. “People were expecting him to have three, four sacks a game and 10-12 tackles for a loss. That’s just not realistic. I don’t know if people expected him to be Superman and fly across the field with a cape or something and make every play, but you watch tape, you still see him run down plays even on the other side of the field.”
After the expectations multiplied almost overnight, teams starting paying more attention to Clowney than Adams has ever seen paid to a single player. There were double teams and triple teams. Running backs and tight ends chipped him at the line of scrimmage. Teams started running the ball away from him at an alarming rate.
South Carolina’s defense flourished as other defenders were free to roam while Clowney occupied multiple linemen, but the result was only three sacks, which spawned questions about his work ethic. Did he care about winning and or was he taking plays off and just waiting for a paycheck?
After all, he is Superman, right?
Some around football openly questioned if Clowney should have even played his junior season, saying he could have just waited for the NFL Draft to roll around so he could be the No. 1 overall pick, and that he already had nothing else to prove and a lot to lose should he get seriously injured.
Adams said that was never an option in Clowney’s mind.
“That was just people running their mouths,” Adams said. “He never expressed he didn’t want to play, never said he thought about it. He said, ‘That’s just the media; I’m playing.’ ”
That’s a lot of question marks for a 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end who wowed scouts with a 4.53 40-yard-dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, one who’s had his name attached to the No. 1 overall selection for more than 16 months.
The biggest one remaining, some say, still surrounds his work ethic in practice. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, when asked about Clowney’s conduct in practice, only said it was “OK,” and that his work habits were “pretty good” but not quite like some other players he’s coached.
Adams says it was never an issue with him.
“When he put the pads on, there was no question,” Adams said. “There was never an issue with me as far as him practicing hard. I had no problem with the way he worked and the way he did things.”
Said Clowney at the NFL Scouting Combine: “I believe I did work hard. You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that. That’s what I told them. I’ll tell everybody that.”
More concerns emerged since the combine, when Clowney benched 225 times only 21 times. Adams says that shouldn’t be an issue either. Clowney, he says, can generate more power because he has such an elite burst off the line of scrimmage.
“He does a great job of transferring speed to power,” Adams said. “His quickness is unbelievable and he has an amazing ball get-off. Doing that a lot of times, [offensive tackles] are off balance trying to keep up with him and when you’re doing that, you’re not fundamentally sound.”
Clowney has also played with bone spurs in his right foot for two years but has not had surgery because the injury could heal on its own. If anything could be a red flag to teams, it could be that team doctors have real concerns about the bone spurs.
Clowney’s not perfect, though, even if completely healthy. At times, he was almost too athletic, though he’s gotten by so far. There are still some small mechanical issues to clean up to excel at the NFL level.
“He’s such a freakish athlete sometimes it’s hard to take the athleticism out of him and make him just buckle down and play the fundamental aspects,” Adams said. “We tried to clean up a lot of the technique things. But he continued to make plays. As a coach, you try to figure out the best ways to let him make plays and make him more sound.”
The Browns think they could be the team to take whoever they draft to the next level, Clowney included.
“I think you have to be confident, and I think that’s one thing that I want to be the trademark of the staff — that we can get a guy that is playing at a certain level and elevate it a notch or two, or else then I probably need to make some changes on the staff,” Pettine said at the NFL owners’ meetings in late March.
All of these small concerns, though, are likely to be easily overshadowed by Clowney’s supreme talents and potential in the NFL, which are elite.
“Do people wonder about certain pieces of his game? Sure. But the more you overthink it, we could shoot holes in all of these guys,” Browns General Manager Ray Farmer said during a pre-draft news conference April 28. “Every single guy in the draft, you could shoot him full of holes and say this is wrong with him, this is wrong, but the reality is you want to take the time to really unearth what can this guy do, how can he help your program and can this guy be a difference maker, and I think Jadeveon Clowney could do those things.”
So how good could Clowney be?
“He has the ability to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” Adams said. “That’s a long way away and the kid hasn’t taken a snap. But I think he could be one of the greatest.”
Whichever team drafts Clowney might not be getting Superman. But what they get might not be too far off.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.