The Jadeveon Clowney conundrum
Numbers say DE worth top pick, but questions linger about what can't be measured
Here is what we know about Jadeveon Clowney:
He stands 6-foot-5¼. At the NFL scouting combine, he weighed 266 pounds.
Clowney has an 83-inch arm span, and his hands measure 10 inches.
At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, exceptional for a man his size. He benched 225 pounds 21 times, not great for a man of his size.
As a freshman defensive end at South Carolina in 2011, Clowney had 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 13 games. As a sophomore, he had 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 12 games. As a junior, Clowney had 40 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 11 games.
In his career, Clowney forced nine fumbles and defended seven passes.
He turned 21 years old on Valentine's Day.
Those measurables, and plenty of others, are indisputable facts. They're data. Value them how you will, but they're an essential part of the field of analytics, and the sports world these days is all about analytics.
But the one thing you can't measure in an athlete is heart. How much does he desire to be great, to be special, to be unique? How much is he willing to sacrifice? How much is he driven by the love of the game? How much will he endure to withstand the pressure?
How much does it all really mean to him in his heart?
Figure out a way to measure that, Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli told a group at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week, and you'll become rich. Pioli wasn't joking, nor was the audience, which was largely made up of business school students who aspired to break into the sports world, laughing.
For all the statistics that are out there, there isn't one that measures heart.
That's the thing that has some scouts, coaches and general managers worried about Clowney. He's got every measurable possible. He was a beast as a freshman at South Carolina and even better as a sophomore. He was such a can't-miss prospect that he likely would've been the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft if he had been eligible.
Clowney is similar in size and playing style to Julius Peppers, who was the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 out of North Carolina. Clowney has a high motor. He is relentless pursuing the quarterback. He is stout against the run.
But there is a gap. There was a lack of production from Clowney last year, when he only sacked the quarterback three times. Clowney's coach, Steve Spurrier, questioned his work ethic. While he ran at the combine, Clowney did not participate in position drills, some of which tested a player's change-of-direction ability, which is not one of Clowney's strong suits.
Given an opportunity to compete in front of NFL scouts and decision-makers, Clowney punted, reportedly because of a hip flexor issue.
Was it the hip, or was it the heart?
Ultimately, that is for the Houston Texans to decide. Clowney is the most talented player in the draft, regardless of position. He physically is a can't-miss prospect. Smart, successful teams operate under the philosophy that you build your team through the draft and take the best player available on your draft board, regardless of position.
That, of course, is easier said than done. Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway told me prior to the Super Bowl that only now, heading into the 2014 draft, does he feel that the Broncos are in good enough shape roster-wise to draft the best player available. It took three years to get there.
If Houston general manager Rick Smith and first-year head coach Bill O'Brien draft for need, they could reach and take one of the quarterbacks -- none of whom should be drafted that high, another general manager told me.
If Smith and O'Brien take the best player available, that would be Clowney.
Through their research, their visits with Clowney, his pro day and a likely private workout at their facility, the Texans will have to try to quantify Clowney's heart. Did his production drop last season because he was trying to preserve himself for his pro career? Was he at all bitter because he wanted to declare for the 2013 NFL draft but couldn't? Was there something else at work between him and Spurrier?
Houston could be a terrific fit for Clowney and vice versa. Clowney would be paired opposite J.J. Watt, who lives his life with the singular purpose to be the best football player he can be. Watt closely monitors what he puts in his body, how he works out and when he goes out. His drive on a team that also includes another hard worker, linebacker Brian Cushing, is contagious.
Watt could be the perfect mentor, teammate and friend for Clowney, who could then flourish on a defense where Watt would draw most of the attention and double-teams.
That decision is Houston's to make, but it would be an easier decision if the Texans had access to the one bit of data that doesn't exist: an exact measure of Clowney's heart.