With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. Landing at No. 2 on our rankings is a player who easily could wind up being the No. 1 pick come May 8.
No. 2: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Bio: Jadeveon Clowney often drew double and even triple teams from opposing offenses hell-bent on keeping him out of the backfield. Such attention was nothing compared to the full-scale onslaught that Clowney endured -- and, to some extent, continues to endure -- once South Carolina's season ended and he officially declared for the 2014 draft.
Clowney's former coach, Steve Spurrier, deemed his work ethic "OK. ... It wasn't like Marcus Lattimore." The NFL Network's Mike Mayock said prior to the combine that "there are red flags" flying around Clowney due to his perceived lack of hustle. Another Gamecock draft hopeful, Kelcy Quarles, confirmed he was slightly annoyed by all the attention heaped on Clowney; while Auburn's Dee Ford criticized Clowney's technique as a pass rusher -- "When I rely on my athleticism rather than bring the technical aspects, the fundamental part, watch film to become a great pass rusher, I become a blind dog in a meat market. When I watch Jadeveon that’s what I see. He’s 6-foot-6, 240 and he just plays. But at the end of the day, does that make you a great pass rusher or a better pass rusher than me? No."
The freakishly talented Clowney has pushed back in the best way possible: on the field. He blew scouts away at the combine by running a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-6 and 266 pounds. No other defensive lineman posted a faster mark, and Clowney was about on par with RBs Tre Mason (4.5), De'Anthony Thomas (4.51) and Lache Seastrunk (4.51). Clowney's vertical jump (37.5 inches) was second among D-linemen only to Shepherd's Howard Jones; his broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) fell just shy of Kareem Martin's mark.
Clowney then repeated his brilliant performance at South Carolina's pro day, running laps around Quarles and Chaz Sutton in drills. Time and again, he displayed his quickness, including when asked to drop in coverage.
"I believe I did work hard," Clowney said of his South Carolina career. "You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that. That’s what I told [NFL teams]. I’ll tell everybody that. I will always be working hard. No matter where I end up I am going to work hard and give a team everything I’ve got."
[si_video id="video_CC88D13F-E344-DD4E-835E-9467DFC221F0" height="475"]
Many Clowney critics pointed to his severe drop in production this season, from 23.5 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks in 2012 to 11.5 and three, respectively. The counter would be that Clowney had to deal not only with extra blockers but with gameplans designed specifically to avoid him.
Still, more will be expected of Clowney as a likely top-three draft pick ... just as the bar raised for him prior to the 2013 season on the heels of his highlight-reel destruction of Michigan RB Vincent Smith during the Outback Bowl.
"Yeah, coming into the next season after 'The Hit,' people were talking about sitting out, all of this, all of that. A lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles-for-loss," Clowney said. "I knew that wasn’t going to happen, of course, but a lot of people expected it.
"I just went out there and played my game -- hard and physical football like I played my last two years there. We won, like I said. We won, got a high ranking."
Whether or not Clowney has done enough to warrant the No. 1 overall pick is now up to the Texans (or any team that swaps spots with Houston). No matter the franchise or the draft spot, Clowney will head into his rookie NFL season expected to perform like a superstar.
He believes he will. Not everyone seems as sure.
Strengths: An imposing figure, with strength and size to match his speed. Because of that combination, Clowney can keep tackles and tight ends guessing as to how he will attack. When he gets a step around the edge, even the most agile blockers will find it difficult to recover before he disrupts the pocket. When opponents are in solid position, Clowney can extend his arms, drive his legs and power his way where he wants to go. As the blow-up of Smith proved, Clowney will lower the boom if he gets the chance -- that goes for unaware quarterbacks as well as running backs.
Though dropping him in at a DE spot and leaving him alone might be tempting, Clowney did perform well from various positions up front. He definitely has the strength to drop down inside on pass-rushing downs for a team with multiple outside threats. Much like J.J. Watt, Clowney has the awareness and the length to disrupt aerial attacks even when he cannot break through the line.
Has the athleticism to chase down plays from the backside. Also will be better dropping in coverage than most people expect, should he be tasked with that challenge.
Weaknesses: The concerns regarding his motor and conditioning are overblown, but Clowney can run on fumes at times, which was especially noticeable early in the season versus up-tempo offenses. Rather than come off the field when he was fatigued, Clowney appeared to ease up -- thus making himself an easy blocking assignment.
Linebacker skills will need work. Right now, he could handle the most basic of those duties but could be exposed if he somehow winds up in space against a RB or TE. Not going to make many plays on the ball if he's not at the line (though, the same could be said for most DE-types).
Mentally, can he handle the expectations?
Conclusion: The notion that this draft class is absent of obvious stars in a misnomer, and one need look no further than Clowney for proof. Some of the pointed criticism launched his direction may hold weight given his stats in 2013, but the overall body of work shows a player who could dominate at the next level for a very long time.
Clowney would not be a reach at No. 1 overall. It won't be very long before he is in the All-Pro mix on a regular basis.