The chase for Jadeveon Clowney is on.
The pass rusher out of South Carolina is one of the most exciting defensive players to enter the NFL draft in recent memory. The latest buzz involving Clowney was a report that said the Atlanta Falcons might trade up to get the chance to take him.
It makes perfect sense: there's little belief that a once-in-a-generation quarterback, offensive lineman, running back or receiver is available this year. Clowney, however, is thought to be a once-in-a-generation pass-disruptor. He has mauled quarterbacks since his first year of high school, and praise that would normally draw chuckles at this time of year – comparisons to Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith for instance – has been met with surprisingly little skepticism.
And while that means Clowney looms as the most obvious pick of the upcoming draft, he's also the most precarious. Because all that stunning talent has provided him with a shield against a normally discouraging worry.
For evidence, consider the man who coached Clowney most recently.
Recently, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was asked about Clowney's work ethic. He called it "OK." Spurrier said other recent Gamecocks, like Marcus Lattimore, were harder workers. That kind of lukewarm answer, coming from a college coach, is alarming.
When pressed, Spurrier backtracked: "I said [Lattimore] was exceptional," Spurrier told the Houston Chronicle in a later interview. "I maybe should not have compared [Clowney]. I should have said, 'Jadeveon, with the rest of the team, he was right there doing what they did.' Maybe that would've helped out. I compared him to a guy who went above and beyond what was asked."
But that's what the best players are supposed to do: go above and beyond what is asked. Isn't your best player supposed to be your hardest worker? It's strange that Spurrier, one of the most successful coaches of his era, is sorry for putting such a burden on his most talented player. That has been a pattern with Clowney. Concerns that would wreck many elite draft prospects haven't seemed to hurt his value at all.
Almost all rookies are asked to improve something. One scout told Yahoo Sports last fall that it was remarkable how good Clowney is considering "he hasn't been coached." In other words: just wait until he gets some fundamental training at the next level. Auburn's Dee Ford put it more bluntly when he said Clowney was "like a blind dog in a meat market."
So what happens when the "blind dog" is given NFL coaching? And why hasn't any prior coaching showed up in an obvious way?
Because talent is so clear in Clowney's case, and work ethic is so subjective, the blame for his inconsistent play tends to bounce off of him. This stands in direct contrast to someone like Teddy Bridgewater, who has been superb in every single college season but is dropping through the first round in mock drafts because of his fundamentals. Clowney's problems don't get absorbed by Clowney; so far they haven't really been considered problems at all. If they were, his drop-off in production in 2013 would have caused a drop-off in draft status.
The point is not that Clowney is lazy. The point is that it's very hard to tell if he is or not. And if he is lazy, or (more fairly) unable to live up to his potential, it's more than possible the blame will fall on his coaching staff for not fully unlocking his immense talent. If the Houston Texans pick him, the coaching staff will include Bill O'Brien and Mike Vrabel. They will get the burden of proof, because look at how talented Clowney is. How could someone so gifted not be dominant?
The situation is not dissimilar to the case of Nick Fairley, who was incredible at the college level and is now inconsistent as a pro. Fairly disrupts sometimes, and sometimes with highlight-worthy effects, but we can now see why he fell to the Lions. Clowney is not falling at all.
It's very hard to find a superstar in sports who does not have a superior work ethic. Pick a name from the best in sports history: Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Sidney Crosby, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter – all with an astounding work ethic. It's possible that Clowney is so good that he can possess an "OK" work ethic and still be one of the best of his generation.
But it's unlikely.
It's also unlikely that Clowney's work ethic – whatever it is – will improve at the NFL level. There aren't many top athletes who suddenly became practice demons at the pro level. In fact, there aren't many top performers in any field that ramped up their effort when the dollars came flooding in.
That means it might be on Clowney's new coaches to keep him motivated. And it will likely be on his new coaches if they can't.
The other source of pressure for Clowney's team will be the expectation that he will excel right away. His position (whether he's at defensive end or linebacker) is unfairly considered instinctual. Clowney's speed and strength will be clear immediately – in Week 1 when he (if a Texan) is charged with chasing down Robert Griffin III. So if Clowney's not immediately a force, the questions will start. Is he out of position? Is he in shape? Or is he not being properly taught?
Those questions will land at the feet of the coaching staff. If the Texans remain at No. 1 and take a quarterback, like Blake Bortles, there will be more patience. It's widely believed Bortles needs time to develop, like all quarterbacks. Clowney? He's ready-made.
Up until now, the Clowney questions have been batted away. When two anonymous personnel executives questioned Clowney's character in separate stories (one to Yahoo Sports), they were chastised for having "an agenda." When ESPN analyst Merril Hoge called Clowney "atrocious" as a football player, Hoge was attacked on social media.
Clowney's supposed lethargy is difficult to pinpoint. How is anyone supposed to know how badly he wants to be brilliant? Isn't it unfair for anyone to assume he doesn't care as much as the next player?
Well, yes and no. It's unfair to call him lazy when it's impossible to know what drives him. But if he is indeed light on work ethic, and that keeps him from being truly great, then the staff who gets him will be punished far more than Clowney is.