Jadeveon Clowney is a football player in the fall and a television character in the spring. In the fall he flattened opposing players for South Carolina. In the spring we wonder if he cares enough about the sport.
Clowney is one of the NFL draft's players of interest, facing the kind of scrutiny we usually reserve for potential spouses. Turn on ESPN or read your favorite draft guru, and you get a front-row seat for The Clowney Show. He loves the game; he loves it not. He is a once-in-a-generation athlete; he is a once-every-series loafer.
This would be interesting if Clowney's mythical draft stock had risen and fallen dramatically in the past few months. It has not. On a good day he is the likely No. 1 overall pick. On a bad day he is the likely No. 2 pick. Even if he sprains an ankle running away from a police officer sometime in the next few days, he will still be chosen in the top five.
The problem with the NFL draft used to be hype. Now it is antihype. We examine one or two prospects a year so thoroughly that we inevitably find flaws, and then we discuss the flaws so exhaustively that they seem larger than they are. In our 24-hour nonnews cycle, every overreaction has an equal and opposite overreaction. It's not enough to say that Clowney is the best talent in the draft, but he hasn't mastered his position. We must say he has as much talent as anybody else in NFL history, but he is wasting it.
On April 22, ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said that Clowney "is actually atrocious ... not a very good football player." Hoge has also said that Johnny Manziel has "bust written all over him"—which, if true, would give Manziel the most ironic hipster tattoo ever.
These are the kinds of things a man says when the cameras are on and he has to say something. If Clowney, a consensus first-team All-America in 2012, is "not a very good football player," what does Hoge think of, just for an example, last year's Purdue Boilermakers?
The most striking aspect of this spring's Clowney Show is that it is so different from last spring's Clowney Show. A year ago intelligent people were seriously debating whether Clowney should skip the 2013 college season, since he would obviously be a top draft pick when it ended. Why risk injury? He had nothing to prove. We all knew how good he was.
Clowney always said he would play for South Carolina his junior year, but that was the football player talking. We control the television character. So he played, but his sack total dropped to three from 13 in 2012 as he battled injuries and double teams, and ... hey, plot twist! He doesn't care! If he did, he would have dominated every play. After all, we knew how good he was.
If you are interested in nuance, you might have noticed that Clowney was only 20 years old last season, or that if he always got by on talent, it's because he could. His raw ability is that impressive. You might point out that in this era of advanced stats, it's silly to rely on something as unpredictable and unreliable as a sack total. In 2001, Michael Strahan set the NFL single-season sack record with 22½. In 2000 he had 9½, and in '02 he had 11. Was Strahan twice the player in '01 that he was in '00 or '02? But nuance will probably not get you on TV.
Like most elite prospects, Clowney can be a star in the right system, with proper coaching, unless the brutality of the game turns his knees into coleslaw. Are there doubts about him? It's the NFL draft; there are always doubts. The worst charge against Clowney is that he does not really love football. America will forgive many character flaws, but not that one.
If you ran an NFL team instead of a TV show, you might humor Clowney's critics and ask, What if they are right? What if Clowney is in fact "atrocious" at football but is still such a physical freak that he earned first-team All-America honors as a 19-year-old?
I don't know about you, but I'd want that guy on my team when he learned how to play.
The problem with the NFL draft used to be hype. Now it's antihype. It's not enough to say Jadeveon Clowney hasn't mastered his position. We must say he's wasting his talent.
Who is the most overrated player in the '14 NFL draft?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED