Thursday, 17 April 2014

Is Jadeveon Clowney lazy or an LT clone? Neither, it's just the NFL Draft's silly season

 The pre-draft silly season is here. How can you tell? Just read the Jadeveon Clowney headlines.

He's spoiled and lazy, charges one anonymous scout identified only as belonging to the National Football Conference. At the same time, some mock drafters compare some of his skills to Lawrence Taylor’s.

As the consensus top talent in the draft, the Southern Carolina defensive end is undergoing the relentless scrutiny that comes when the NFL's annual player selection meeting is held in May instead of its previous late April launch.

Clowney has become the main target because no quarterbacks have risen to challenge his throne. Ask the draft experts who the top pivot in this class is and you're likely to get two answers: Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.

Both of those QBs have enough questions on their resumes that they're having a tough time knocking off Clowney from the top perch. Further clouding the quarterback debate is that there are four or five other passers who could be drafted in the first three rounds and could eventually lay claim to the best quarterback drafted in 2014: Teddy Bridgewater, Zach Mettenberger, Derek Carr, A.J. McCarron and Jimmy Garoppolo. Even Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage is moving up the charts.

The gap between Bortles and Mettenberger or between Manziel and Bridgewater, depending on which type of passer you prefer, may not be worth making the leap to the top of the draft, if similar options can be had at the middle or bottom of the first round.

That's not to say some team, say Buffalo or Cleveland, may be enamoured to trade up and draft Johnny Football, as he would bring added pizzazz to either franchise, but thus far, Clowney has remained at the top of the charts.

So, is he lazy or LT? As usual with hyperbole, he’s somewhere in between. His stats from last season are rather pedestrian, 41 tackles, 3 sacks; compared to 40 tackles and 13 sacks in 2012.

 There’s no question his productivity was disappointing for someone with his athletic abilities but take a closer look at South Carolina games. There aren’t a lot of double teams. But which way are the plays going?

The majority of plays directed the football away from Clowney. They occasionally went at him to keep the defence honest but mostly they didn’t need to double team because game plans directed the flow away from him. It’s hard to rack up defensive stats when most of the game is on the other side of the field.

There’s no questioning his first step. It is stunningly quick and allowed him to be a tremendous disruptor in the run game as offensive tackles often flailed in reaching for him. His speed, 4.53, at 266 lbs. at the combine, speaks for itself.

But before we crown him as the next LT, realize that his pass rushing skills need a lot of polishing. Those bullrushes that wreaked havoc in the SEC are unlikely to make a dent in the NFL. He plays too upright and seems too stiff in the upper body as a rusher.

What do I mean by that?

The late Derrick Thomas had perhaps the quickest first step next to LT but he combined that with a rare ability to rush the passer at unbelievable angles, where his body would be nearly parallel with the ground yet still be able to generate enough power and speed to allow him to shoulder through linemen. It was freakish, like Taylor.

Clowney plays a more like LaVar Arrington than Taylor or Thomas. A penetrator who will shoot the gap and who is athletic enough to make a difference but one who may not be a great factor on the pass rush.

At the top of the board, he remains a safer pick than either of the quarterbacks but those pivots tend to rise in the weeks leading up to the draft as teams start to jostle for draft position.

In 2010, Ndamukong Suh graded out as the most talented player on the board but Sam Bradford rose to the top of the charts after he put up a Troy Aikman-like pro-day workout and was selected by the Rams.

With three weeks to go, Clowney remains the top mock pick but as you can see, the misdirection plays are just beginning.