Talent, in the end, trumps all. And when NFL teams consider Jadeveon Clowney for next May's draft, they certainly will understand the situation that he's currently in.
Clowney, the under-the-microscope South Carolina pass rusher, is said to have started slowly this season, but a closer inspection of his play shows that just isn't really an accurate assessment. He has lived in opponents' backfields this season, even if that hasn't translated into sacks and flash plays as consistently.
But the biggest question for him of late was his surprising pre-game tap out against Kentucky because of a painful foot injury, minutes prior to kickoff. That shocked the coaches, and it led to some interesting post-game commentary from Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier.
"If he wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier said.
That, in turn, led Clowney to defend himself (somewhat) and offer up an assurance that he's not just coasting until the draft.
"I haven't played my last game here," Clowney said. "I will be back on the field. I just don't know how long it's going to take me to get back, but I will be back.
"Regardless of what people think, I didn't sit out (this season). I could have sat out. I am not looking to sit out. I am not that type of guy. I am here for the team regardless, and I am here to work with the team. When I get back healthy they know I am going to come there to play and do my job, do what I have to do to take care of business on the field."
He's right. As unpopular as this view might be, he put himself in harm's way by coming back to college this season, and one flashback to Marcus Lattimore's season-ending knee injury surely has Clowney thinking about his own future. Lattimore went from a potential first-round pick and impact rookie in the NFL to a fourth-rounder who is on injured reserve his first season.
As for the NFL, the league will wait. Oh, sure, there will be character checks, tough questions on why he skipped the UK game and grilling from coaches to find out if he has enough dirt under his fingernails. But if we're talking about stock slippage, it's no more than, say, from the second pick to the third — there's just way too much talent here to think he'll fall outside the top five picks, as things stand right now.
The premature 2014 mock draft, picks 1-16 (order based on inverse of current power rankings)
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
For now, this one is written in ink until we see any evidence that (a) Bridgewater isn’t the best quarterback available or (b) the Jaguars would go any other direction in this spot. That would require Blaine Gabbert getting healthy fast and changing convinced minds just as quickly. Fat chance.
2. New York Giants
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
The Giants’ pass rush has been shockingly absent, and this is exactly the kind of player the team would love to pair with Jason Pierre-Paul, especially with Justin Tuck only having put up 9.5 sacks in his past 32 games. Clowney would not escape the spotlight in New York, but he’d be a welcome addition to this defense.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
UCLA LB Anthony Barr
There’s no perfect projection right here that isn’t a quarterback right now, and with Mike Glennon getting the chance to prove himself, we’ll go elsewhere. Barr might be the second-most destructive rusher in this class, and he could have a Von Miller-like effect in the NFL.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
It’s a close race between Lewan, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio for top tackle honors. It will come down to specific fits in an offense, and team need, as to who will be picked first. Lewan fits the blue-collar mold the Steelers long have sought in their linemen. That said, he hasn’t been completely dominant thus far this season.
5. Buffalo Bills
Texas A&M Jake Matthews
With Cordy Glenn, he and Matthews could be a great tackle tandem for the next several years. Have to protect EJ Manuel for at least that long.
6. St. Louis Rams
Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio
He could play right tackle, a sore spot this season, and help better insulate this offense, which has not taken shape or cultivated an identity yet.
7. St. Louis Rams (pick traded from Washington Redskins to Rams)
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
If this is the second pick they end up with, the Rams might be strong candidates to trade down. They’d love a running back at some point, but definitely not here. That said, in this spot, they’d be hard-pressed to pass up
8. Minnesota Vikings
Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
With Josh Freeman on board, he’ll get the rest of the season to be evaluated for 2014 — and he can be franchised. So we instead look to an ailing defense for help, and Mosley is the type of intelligent, high-intensity leader to add juice to a unit.
9. Carolina Panthers
Texas A&M Mike Evans
Ideally, they’d love it if one of the top offensive tackles fell to this spot because that’s a major worry — now and down the road. GM Dave Gettleman drafted Hakeem Nicks in Round One in New York and lobbied hard for Rueben Randle in the first round a few years later, only to get him a round later. Evans fits the mold of the big, physical receiver the Panthers have lacked for years.
10. Arizona Cardinals
North Carolina OT James Hurst
With Jonathan Cooper returning from injury, the Cardinals could have “Tar Heel West” working up front. But you also can’t rule out a quarterback here; one possibility would be LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, who would be a fit for the Bruce Arians offense.
11. San Diego Chargers
Oregon CB Ife Ekpre-Olomu
The Chargers have been roasted in the secondary through the early going, and a young addition here would be most welcome.
12. Oakland Raiders
Notre Dame DT Louis Nix
Some teams actually have Nix’s teammate, Stephon Tuitt, ranked higher. But the massive Nix might fit this defense better, with its aim to control the line of scrimmage and collapse the pocket from the inside out.
13. Philadelphia Eagles
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
You know the connection. The Eagles’ QB situation is still muddled, and everyone just assumes that Chip Kelly is going to want to bring in “his” guy. But whether or not that’s Mariota isn’t written in stone. Some say Kelly might be just as infatuated with Johnny Manziel. We’re just delivering the words here — don’t shoot us.
14. Atlanta Falcons
Notre Dame DL Stephon Tuitt
More agile than you think, and capable of playing multiple techniques, Tuitt might not be the edge rusher that everyone is pining for, but he could provide a desperately sought burst inside.
15. Houston Texans
LSU QB Zach Mettenberger
Could Mettenberger end up beating his former Georgia teammate — and the man, Aaron Murray, who beat him on the field a few weeks ago — for draft positioning? Fascinating (early) thought.
16. New York Jets
Oregon WR-RB De’Anthony Thomas
We’ve issued this pairing for a few weeks now, and it seems like a nice fit. The thought process is that Thomas could play the Tavon Austin role for Geno Smith in New York, and he’d come cheaper here than Austin did at No. 8 overall last year.
Stanford DE-OLB Trent Murphy
Murphy was a force in the Cardinal’s narrow victory over Washington, and he came up big by tipping a pass late in the fourth quarter in the red zone that ended up being intercepted. In addition, Murphy notched two sacks and never seemed to tire despite chasing around mobile Huskies quarterback Keith Price all night.
On the next level, he likely will be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the mold of Paul Kruger and is closing in on a first-round grade from many teams. Murphy also can put his hand in the dirt and rush from a three-point stance. His good speed, long wingspan and growing frame also have earned comparisons to Chandler Jones.
An added bonus: Murphy also plays on the return and coverage teams on special teams, which will endear him even more to NFL folks.
Arizona State DT Will Sutton
There just has been something missing from Sutton’s game this season. He’s an undersized rusher who is at his best when his motor runs hot. But so far, Sutton has been a non-factor — or at least not a dominant player — in more games than not this season. Notre Dame, for instance, nearly blanked him last week.
Sutton is not a schematic fit for many teams because of his dimensions, and he’ll have to work extra hard to regain first-round consideration. He might be best in an upfield, gap-splitting 4-3 under scheme, but right now Sutton’s play does not scream “first-round talent.”
SOME MORE DRAFT TIDBITS
SEC defenses have somewhat taken it on the chin this season so far, but a few interesting names have started to emerge. Once barely on NFL radars, Missouri DE Michael Sam has overcome a quiet start to jump to a tie for the conference lead in sacks with six. That’s because he notched three apiece against Arkansas State and Vanderbilt, and the 6-2, 255-pound Sam has offenses suddenly taking notice. A big game against Aaron Murray and Georgia really could do Sam wonders for his draft stock. … Speaking of Vandy, WR Jordan Matthews unlocked from a good battle with Missouri CB E.J. Gaines in the first half to post seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. He has had at least 106 yards in five of six games, and a TD in five of six. With his size and vertical ability, he could be a nice second-round receiver at either the “X” or “Z” spots. … UCLA OG Xavier Su'a-Filo has had a nice season to date and could be a second-day prospect. His stock has a chance to jump a little starting this week if he’s kicked out to left tackle from left guard with starter Torian White out for the season. Su’a-Filo’s best home is likely inside, but the versatility might add a boost to his grade.