Their words could chip diamond.
Haters, detractors, whatever you want to call them. They've come in all forms since The Hit, from fans to coaches to even his fellow players at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jadeveon Clowney has heard every criticism.
And it's starting to render them all moot.
After a performance in Indianapolis that left NFL scouts with Bugs Bunny hearts, Clowney arguably is right back to being where he was at this time last year—the favorite to go No. 1 overall in May's draft. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman and multiple other sources have indicated the Houston Texans, who already have J.J. Watt on one side of the defensive line, have pegged Clowney as the top player on their draft board despite a glaring need at quarterback.
Looking back at the combine, it's not hard to see why. Clowney's 4.53-second official time in the 40-yard dash was the fastest of any player weighing at least 260 pounds since 2006. The second-fastest on that list? Jimmy Graham. Not the same position, but not exactly bad company, either.
Clowney also had a 37.5-inch vertical leap and 124-inch broad jump. Those numbers not only ranked him among the best defensive linemen who participated in those drills but also verify the otherworldly explosion that shows up on tape. Detractors could point to Clowney's mediocre bench-press numbers and infer a low strength grade, but the news coming from the decision-makers that actually matter was all glowing.
As one Texans official told Freeman: "We've never really seen anything like Clowney. There's the chance he could redefine the position the way Reggie White or Bruce Smith did."
The weird and utterly baffling thing about Clowney's combine is how normal it all seemed. Everyone with a Twitter account was staring at their feed from work waiting to hear his 40 time. Not because they were curious whether it would be high or low like they were with Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam, the two other highest-profile guys in Indianapolis.
Everyone knew Clowney's time would be freakish. They just wanted to know the proper level of exasperation they needed to get through their day.
And we probably all should have seen this coming.
Clowney's junior season at South Carolina was a disappointment, because it was always bound to be. After a record-setting sophomore campaign, The Hit and all the bluster about whether he would have been the No. 1 overall pick last year had he been eligible (spoiler: yes), he would have had to acquire superpowers to satisfy expectations. He was considered the front-runner to become the first defense-only Heisman winner in history, a statuesque picture of college football perfection.
The results, as you may have heard one or six times, did not back up the hype. Clowney finished with only three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, both numbers less than half of what he did in 2012. Amid his struggles, murmurs about Clowney's commitment to the game, physical shape and motor became nearly as loud as his hype before the season.
Even South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier didn't exactly give him a ringing endorsement on the work ethic front.
"He was OK," Spurrier told NFL Network. "It wasn't like Marcus Lattimore, you know, every player is a little different. His work habits are pretty good, they're not quite like Lattimore, a Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys, but when the ball is snapped he's got something no one else has."
That's not a ringing endorsement, but it's a middle-ground answer no one has seemed willing to find. The rush to have the latest and hottest take has left no room for nuance when discussing Clowney—much in the same way Manziel's evaluations polarize the public.
Either you're a Clowney zealot or a Clowney truther.
Clowney is a loafer with terrible work ethic, who doesn't love the game and plays without the old-school grit that truly makes players great. Or he was the victim of constant double- and triple-teams that eroded his stats—schemes he won't see nearly as much at the NFL level—and is bound for the same superstardom we thought he was a year ago.
Neither side is 100 percent right. But, if we're willing to venture a guess, Clowney's attitude, performance in drills and what shows up on tape highlight the best player in this draft—bar none. There is no more physically gifted player in this class, nor one with as high a ceiling.
Dude is freakishly gifted. Like...he is built to play professional football in the same way LeBron James was secretly created in a lab by aliens created to dominate basketball.
Maybe he doesn't play for the "love of the game" or whatever fairytale fans have to tell themselves. Is it too outlandish for him to consider his job a...job? Or to be motivated by the prospect of greatness and money more so than all the garbage coachspeak that typically wafts on the national airwaves?
All that matters is that he finds a motivation. He has all the physical tools to attain whatever goal he wants in the NFL. Given what he told reporters at the combine, whatever team winds up drafting him should come away pleased:
I just want to be the best, one of the greatest of all time. The NFL is just the next level, stepping stone in my way. Coming out of high school, I said I wanted to be one of the best in college and I think I proved that. Going to the NFL, I want to be one of the best in the NFL, go down in history as one of the best, so I have another stepping stone in my way and hopefully take care of business and accomplish that in the NFL.
From what I've gathered, a number of factors went into his down season. The double- and triple-team factor was real. Very, very real. It shows up in film from the opening win against North Carolina through the bowl game. Teams game-planned to not allow Clowney to beat them. Those luxuries won't be there in the NFL.
And, while I don't know this for a fact, it's hard to blame Clowney if he did give less than 100 percent effort. He knew what he was worth on the field to South Carolina, via jersey sales, ticket sales and the like. He knew he wasn't seeing a penny. And as more and more media members fawned over what could have been if Clowney entered the draft in 2013, it's hard not to get sucked into that a little.
All that pressure is gone now. What's left is one of the most physically gifted football players we've seen in a very, very long time coming out of college—and the only knock scouts have on him is that his work ethic might be "OK" instead of great.
But if his combine performance is what happens when he's putting in OK effort, umm, well, good luck if he ever finds that motor you all have been talking about.
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