Caught in a draft: Jadeveon Clowney

Over the course of the next five days, we’ll look at the top 5 draft prospects the Atlanta Falcons are likely to consider if they maintain the sixth overall pick or trade up – Jadeveon Clowney, Jake Matthews, Khalil Mack, Greg Robinson, and Taylor Lewan – through the eyes of people who know them the best.

Although there has been a lot of discussion about the Falcons possibly moving up from No. 6 to No. 1 in the NFL draft to corral coveted pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, that scenario appears to be a slim possibility – unless the Houston Texans are willing to surrender the pick for a bargain-basement of a price.

Regardless, here’s the case for pursuing Clowney, as presented by his defensive coordinator at South Carolina, Lorenzo Ward, who previously defended Clowney’s work ethic.

Sign of maturity: Some NFL personnel folks looked down on Clowney for recording just three sacks in 11 games during the 2013 season.

Ward, of course, viewed the situation differently.

``I thought he matured more as a player this past season because he didn’t have the success that he had as a sophomore,’’ Ward said. ``The reason was everybody was double-teaming him. People were chipping with backs. People were taking the tight end off the ball, creating a two-back look. No matter where we moved him to, he got double-teamed. And he was a team guy. I think he grew up as a person because he wasn’t having the success that he was used to having.’’

Check the film: If an NFL executive or coach were to ask Ward for film that displays Clowney’s unique abilities, there are a couple of games Ward would suggest. And neither involves Clowney’s famous big hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl as a sophomore.

``Well, if you want to go back to this season, I would probably have to say the Tennessee game but I feel like the offensive tackles from Tennessee were pretty good,’’ Ward said.

``I would even be safe to say the [Capital One] bowl game against Wisconsin this past year because they had big, physical offensive linemen. People don’t even know this: JD came to me during the Wisconsin game because we were slanting a lot, because I thought we could beat them with our speed and quickness. He said, ``Coach Ward, when we’re slanting, all they do is wash us. Let’s just play technique. And that’s when the game really turned around. In the second half, we stopped slanting them. We lined up and played technique and kick their butt.’’

Steady progress: Ward saw growth in Clowney, particularly from his freshman to sophomore seasons. ``From when he first came in, he definitely learned some technique and fundamentals,’’ Ward said. ``He worked on what he did best: He’s got that great first step inside. His progression was similar to what our motto is here: Work on your strengths and defend your weaknesses. So I think he grew each year he was doing that.

``His knowledge of the game from the first to the second year made him a better player. He had a big second year. They knew about him, but they didn’t know him. I think that’s why everybody tried to block him one-on-one his second year and saw that they couldn’t.’’

Scheme-friendly: Many wonder if the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Clowney would be a good fit for the Texans with the first overall pick since he would have to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Even the Falcons are moving toward more of a 3-4-base look.

Ward is confident the transition will be seamless.

``He’s worked on it in Charlotte,’’ Ward said. ``The Houston Texans, if they pick him, he’s going to have to stand up and play outside linebacker. And you can tell he’s been working on standing up and playing with his hand off the ground. He’s doing what it takes to put himself in position to play that.

``Can he make the adjustment? Easily. JD can do anything. No question I understand why people ask that because you’re talking about a guy who put his hand in the dirt and didn’t [stand up] in college. I would have put him in those situations in college, but I decided to I didn’t want to lose my job. My boss would have looked at me cross-eyed.’’

Tuesday: Jake Matthews