Debate about the relative merits of NFL draft prospects did not begin, nor will it end, with Jadeveon Clowney.
“We get the same type of thing, although not with the same vitriol that you get with Jadeveon Clowney, when you start comparing quarterbacks,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.
It’s that vitriol, though, that makes Clowney’s situation unique. In the lead up to this week’s NFL draft, the former South Carolina star has been called everything from the best defensive end prospect in 20 years to “not a very good football player.”
This is not a mock draft debate. All of those, and every reasonable human being on the planet, predict Clowney will be taken very early in Thursday night’s first round at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. This is a philosophical debate between analysts who see the 21-year-old Rock Hill native as a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and those who see a character question mark who coasted through his junior season of college.
Clowney has been called “spoiled” and “lazy,” by an anonymous NFC executive in an NJ.com article, and worse. Longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, meanwhile, says he thinks Clowney “played hard 90 percent of the time.”
“He’s a once-in-20-years guy,” Kiper said.
So where’s the truth between those two poles of opinion? In both places, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.
Clowney “woke up this morning with more physical ability than any defensive lineman on the planet, and I believe that, anywhere on the planet,” Mayock said. “With that ability, comes certain responsibilities or perhaps expectations. There are times he just kind of disappears. That left tackle from Clemson, who’s a heck of a player, Brandon Thomas, I thought got the best of him the entire game. If you’re that good, why do you disappear for the whole game?”
Clowney had one sack against Clemson in 2013, and that’s after bringing down Tajh Boyd 4.5 times in the 2012 game. His final two seasons showed a similar statistical slide – a Gamecock-record 13 sacks as a sophomore followed by three as a junior.
“Stats don’t make a difference,” Kiper said. “It’s whether you are impactful and he was impactful in all the games I watched. I like Clowney a lot.”
ESPN’s Merril Hoge does not. He made headlines during a recent SportsCenter appearance, when he called Clowney’s fundamentals “atrocious” and said he would take Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack ahead of Clowney “in a heartbeat.”
“Clowney as a football player is not very good. Amazing athlete. Don’t get confused by being an athlete and being a good football player. Not a very good football player,” Hoge said. “Jadeveon Clowney does not play very smart as a football player. He has a long learning curve to be successful in the NFL.”
Clowney played three seasons at South Carolina, totaling 24 sacks, 47 tackles-for-loss, nine forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He made dramatic game-changing plays against Georgia his freshman season and against Tennessee and Michigan his sophomore season, but his junior season left enough question marks that the four months since the Gamecocks’ season ended hasn’t been free from criticism.
“What I’d like to see is a little more of an edge about him,” Mayock said. “When he was (mad) against Tennessee, because their left tackle was chirping last year, he killed Tennessee’s entire offensive line. When the kid is motivated, he is special. The down side is coaches are looking and going, ‘Are we going to have to manage that every day for four or five years?’ ”
Davis doesn’t think so.
“A lot of us are looking at last year and saying, ‘We think we know the reasons why the numbers were down.’ Others are looking at it and going, ‘I’m just watching him play, and I don’t see it.’ He wasn’t the same guy as he was before, and I don’t think any of us would dispute that,” said Davis, an All-SEC defensive back at Tennessee. “I won’t fight you on that one. He wasn’t the same guy.”
Most evaluators are willing to forgive that, though, because they understand why, Davis said.
“We look at Jadeveon Clowney, see the body of work, freshman year, sophomore year, take into account what the junior year was, which I firmly believe that off the field, behind closed doors, the overwhelming message to him by the people closest to him was, ‘Don’t get hurt whatever you do,’ ” Davis said.
“Last year became an exercise in walking the line of, ‘I’m going to help my team, I want my team to win, I want to play well, but oh, whoa, was that a cut block? Whoa. Whoa.’ Now, how much of that was conscious thought once the games started? Let’s not get carried away, but at the same time, when that is your overwhelming thought process when you are consciously thinking it, it affects how you do things.”
Kiper has seen little unusual about the wide array of opinions on Clowney.
“In terms of the up and down publicity, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have their opinions, and the opinions can come in positive or negative on Clowney just because of the circumstances he was in at South Carolina this year. There are always going to be people with different opinions. That’s the nature of the business. In terms of where he is right now, I don’t see what others are seeing.”