Only a few weeks ago, Jadeveon Clowney was known as the most feared pass rusher in college football. He made highlights with his hits and headlines with his comments about how he saw worry in quarterbacks' eyes.
Now he's stirring up a more subtle concern: Is he no longer a surefire top pick in a 2014 NFL draft that looks to be heavy on QBs?
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The South Carolina defensive end has had a sporadic season, with illnesses, a foot ailment, and a rib injury that sidelined him last week against Kentucky. His conditioning and his commitment have been questioned in a way that's new for a pro prospect who was assumed to be destined for the top of the draft board next year.
"I'd be scared to death to take him if I had a top-10 pick," one NFL personnel executive told Yahoo Sports.
The issue is not talent. The source, who asked not to be named, said Clowney was one of the best collegiate talents he'd ever seen. Yet he has "major concerns" about consistency.
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That was hinted at in comments made by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier after last weekend's game. Spurrier assumed his star defender would play until just before kickoff. It was then that Clowney said he was not ready to go.
"If he wants to play, we'll welcome him to come play for the team if he wants to," Spurrier said. "If he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to." Spurrier clarified his comments Tuesday, saying Clowney's rib injury was "diagnosed later, and obviously we all handled it poorly."
The suggestion that Clowney "doesn't want to play" may bring extra scrutiny from NFL front offices. It's possible Clowney is protecting his future earnings by being cautious with his health – something that is understandable considering how much money is on the line – yet work ethic is something NFL executives will be gauging between the end of the college football season and the draft.
For now, doubts about Clowney are still in the minority. One NFL personnel executive told USA Today that "no one will care" about Clowney's issues this season. And another NFL scout told Yahoo Sports that Clowney "looks like a pretty damn good college player to me."
Clowney will in all likelihood be a superlative NFL combine participant. He says he ran a 4.3 40-yard dash over the summer, which is incredible for a pass rusher. Even in his less commanding performances this season, he has exploded into the backfield on most downs with both his speed and strength. Offenses purposefully throw and run away from him, even though Clowney has lined up on both sides of the line and at nose tackle. We haven't seen the sacks or forced fumbles many expected heading into the season, but to say he's a factor on most plays is an understatement. He is as much of a disruptive force as Ndamukong Suh – a second-overall pick – was at Nebraska. Suh has had his issues both on and off the field, yet few if any believe the Detroit Lions made a mistake drafting him so high.
So although there are growing concerns about Clowney's future as a pro, the biggest fear may still be the fear of passing on him.