A once-in-a-lifetime prospect? Scouts break down Jadeveon Clowney

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By now, you've seen the play. Late in the fourth quarter of the 2013 Outback Bowl, Michigan's Devin Gardner goes to hand off to the diminutive Vincent Smith. Then it happens.

A flash of crimson enters the screen and the 6-foot-6, 274-pound semi-truck known as Jadeveon Clowney hits Smith like the play was designed to be a handoff to the Gamecocks' outstanding defensive end. The legend wasn't born there -- Clowney was the No. 1 overall player as a preps star at South Pointe (S.C.) High -- but it was solidified.

The best defensive player since Ndamukong Suh? Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson? Some have said Lawrence Taylor. Suffice to say, if Clowney hits his ceiling, he could be one of the best prospects to come out of college in a decade -- perhaps a generation.

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He converts speed to power like few edge rushers can, runs down plays from the backside like a linebacker, and plans to burn down the combine with unheard of numbers for a player of his size.

One former NFL talent evaluator described Clowney like this: "He has the speed and first step to get by blockers before they can even get their hands on him. When [linemen] overcompensated for his speed, he'd bury his body in their chest and bull-rush his blocker into the QB's lap."

If you thought the Smith hit was the highlight of Clowney's career, wait until he runs a 4.45 40-yard dash -- it's been rumored for at least a year that Clowney would run sub-4.6, maybe even sub-4.5 -- at the NFL combine later this month.

Critics have pointed to Clowney's lack of production this season for South Carolina, insisting he was out of shape or didn't give maximum effort. And to be sure, the statistical dropoff is stark. As a sophomore in 2012, Clowney posted a nation-leading 23.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in America's best college football conference, the SEC.

As a junior, he had just 11.5 TFLs and only three sacks.

But if you ask personnel evaluators about Clowney's statistical decline, they basically just shrug.

"The interesting aspect of Clowney is the dynamic change from 2012 to '13," explained former Tampa Bay Buccaneers team operations coordinator Joe Bussell. "When watching Clowney on film last season, teams weren't prepared for the raw brutality that he brought to the game. He destroyed left tackles and left guards when matched up one-on-one. He couldn't be blocked in the run game or the pass game."

But then, Bussell said, Clowney became a victim of his own success. Teams accounted for him with two, and sometimes three blockers. Missouri intentionally ran the ball to the opposite side of the formation from Clowney.

But for an NFL defense, this attention is an asset. When teams have to devote multiple blockers to one defender, it frees up other players to make plays.

Rotoworld's NFL Draft guru Josh Norris made the case for disruption over statistical production early this year.

"I consider Clowney a 'rare' prospect," Norris told SI.com. "I almost never use that word in terms of a full evaluation. Prospects can have rare traits, but very, very seldom is the total package 'rare'. He will be the fourth I have evaluated. The others are Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Andrew Luck."

But one NFC scout found flaws he considered more than just nits to pick: Clowney isn't as refined a prospect as other, similarly elite pass rushers of the past few years.

"Just as a player, you really like what he brings to the table and what he could become: a perennial Pro Bowler and those type of things," the scout said. "But is he going to become a Day 1 starter? I really don't know that.

"Aldon Smith, watching him in college, he was pretty raw, but he was further along, in my opinion, than Clowney is. But obviously, Clowney is more athletic than him, so I don't know."

As far as the hyperbole surrounding Clowney as a once-in-a-generation talent? The scout who said Suh was the highest-graded player he'd ever scouted was somewhat dubious.

"He could be [Julius] Peppers in time. But to say he's going to walk in the league Day 1 and rip it up, tear it up, like Ndamukong Suh or Aldon Smith or Von Miller? It's hard for me to say that ... He's not a better rusher than Von Miller.

"If you're talking about a guy who's going to get home and get to the passer, maybe he's a top-five prospect in the past decade. You could say that, but just the best? I don't know if you can say that about Clowney."

It speaks to Clowney's ceiling as a player that even those who question his ability to be a Day 1 impact player also believe his talent is among the best of the last decade.

Former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauff told SI.com he was more concerned about Clowney's mental makeup in terms of potential red flags (he also believes Clowney is a superior prospect to the aforementioned Aldon Smith).

"I have no reservations about his physical attributes and upside. To me, it's more the off-the-field stuff. I want to know what makes this guy tick," Middlekauf said.

The questions are less about off-the-field issues, and more about motivation. Does Clowney love football? It was a question that came up this past season when some wondered if Clowney had been milking an injury to protect his draft stock. Does he have the right mindset to be an elite defensive player? Middlekauf even mentioned Lawrence Taylor as a player who was a major problem off the field, but his instability made him the perfect, relentless rusher. All of this is a way of wondering if Clowney is perhaps just a physically gifted athlete who happened to play football because he was really good at it, not because it was a passion.

Even without being able to go through the process and interview Clowney, Middlekauf said, "He'll be a terror."

Bussell was more effusive in his praise of Clowney.

"Clowney is one of those rare prospects that has an astronomically high ceiling while showing both polish and room to get better," Bussell noted.

"When comparing Clowney to past draft prospects, the way teams have to adjust to him reminds me of the way teams adjusted to Lawrence Taylor. I would put Clowney in that same class, and ahead of, top-notch edge rushing prospects Mario Williams and Von Miller."

That narrative about Clowney being a once-in-a-generation player? Bussell was fully on board.

"Along the defensive line, he grades out better than any prospect I've seen based on the combination of size, athleticism and instincts. Ndamukong Suh was one of the best defensive line prospects I ever graded, and Clowney looks to be a better prospect than Suh. Clowney is a special talent that only comes around once or twice in a generation."

NFL Films' Greg Cosell summed up the story on South Carolina's outstanding prospect like this: "Whether Clowney is a once-in-a-generation player, or just a damn good pass rusher that every team would love to have, it doesn't matter. He's a really good pass rusher."

Clowney's place in history as a prospect makes for good fodder for barroom debates, but it has little bearing on whether or not he's the No. 1 overall pick.

Texans owner Bob McNair has already heaped public praise on Clowney and apparently even went to star J.J. Watt to make sure Clowney would have him in his corner should Houston spend its top pick on the college star.

"He is a remarkable player. He's one of these players that's really a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen that comes along," McNair said in an interview on the team's website.

That being said, Clowney is hardly a lock, or even the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick. That honor belongs to Teddy Bridgewater, who certainly isn't on the same level as Clowney in terms of his stature as an ultra-elite talent.

Coincidently, the last defensive player in Clowney's stratosphere was Suh, who went No. 2, behind Sam Bradford -- a player Bussell feels is the closest recent comparison for Bridgewater. So far, Bradford has underwhelmed while Suh, despite occasional lapses in judgment, has proved to be one of the most disruptive interior players in the league. In other words, Detroit seems to have gotten the better end of that pair of selections.

Clowney possesses the type of talent to make any team who passes on him look inept. Just ask Vincent Smith what happens when you underestimate the impact Clowney can have on a game.