Wary HOFers respect Clowney's talent

Among NFL Hall of Famers, there is no consensus on whether Jadeveon Clowney will be a success. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

CLEVELAND -- Potential No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney exhibits the physical gifts necessary for him to ascend to the level of the men sporting the gold blazers and strolling the floors here at the IX Center for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest.

That’s the only consensus you’ll find among Hall of Famers regarding Clowney, who is widely considered the most physically talented prospect of the 2014 draft class. Yet he's also someone who could turn out to be an NFL also-ran type of player -- or worse, a bust.

“I wouldn’t take Clowney [with the No. 1 pick],” Vikings Hall of Famer Chris Doleman said. “And if you have a young team, it’s going to be hard to control someone who doesn’t want to work. He needs to be on a veteran team that says, ‘Look, rook, this is what you’re going to do, not what you got to do, we would like you to do, but what you’re going to do.’

"Clowney has great measurables. But the thing you can’t measure is his will. If you give a lazy man, and I chose that word, $30, $40, $50 million, whatever [the first pick] gets, you think he’s going to work harder? He’ll be like, ‘This is great, I’ll get through this first contract and I’m good.’ Great player, but you can’t turn it on when you want to. Every one of these guys from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there was no quit in him.”

Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter called Clowney a “once-every-20-years type of athlete.” Yet with every glowing word comes the cautionary “but” as a preface for the other side of the equation.

“His game tape doesn’t necessarily match up with his overall athletic ability,” Carter said. “Anytime a guy can run 4.4, 4.48, 4.45 at the combine electronically, he’s very, very explosive. With those types of dimensions, you wonder whether he is gonna have the work ethic or desire to one day be like a Reggie White, like a Bruce Smith. Or is he going to be someone like Jevon Kearse, who had a good career, not a great career; or someone considered a disappointment like Aundray Bruce? [Bruce had] tremendous athletic ability but not necessarily the technique or the careers of a Reggie or a [Smith].”

The concerns are warranted. After Clowney generated 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2012, his production as a senior slipped to three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

Nagging injuries likely played a role. But there was also speculation of a lackadaisical approach to the game, while some even questioned whether Clowney was merely preserving his health as a senior at South Carolina for the eventual move to the NFL.

“I think Clowney is [worthy of being taken No. 1 overall], yeah,” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. “There are questions about him as far as how hard he plays all the time. But I’ll tell you what: When he does play, there’s not too many better.”

So while Hall of Fame defensive linemen such as Dan Hampton and Fred Dean say they’d draft Clowney with the No. 1 pick, some draft analysts use phrases such as “lazy in techniques” or that Clowney “disappears for stretches” of games.

Despite those knocks, some have wondered whether Clowney could be the second coming of Hall of Fame pass-rusher Lawrence Taylor.

Taylor’s former teammate, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, says to hold off on showering praise prematurely.

“Lawrence is the best defensive player that I’ve had the opportunity to play with or against. For someone who has not stepped on the pro football field yet ... and believe me, there’s a world of difference between college and pro. When you’re at the pro level, you’re playing more games. You’re playing at a higher rate of speed. It’s more intense,” Carson said. “You’ve got to be able to play every play. Lawrence played every play. I think the comparison between him and Lawrence Taylor is ludicrous. As Carl Banks has already said, there’s only one Lawrence Taylor. I played with him, and he played full speed every play. I’m not quite ready to put Mr. Clowney into that role of being another Lawrence Taylor, not yet.”

Maybe Clowney will turn out to be more like Aundray Bruce. It could happen.

The top pick of the 1988 NFL draft out of Auburn, Bruce played 64 games (34 starts) for the Atlanta Falcons, who signed him to a five-year contract worth $5.1 million. Similar to Clowney, Bruce possessed near off-the-charts physical attributes (6-5, 255 pounds, 4.53-second 40-yard dash). But for whatever reason, things never panned out for Bruce, a linebacker whom the Falcons -- in an effort to salvage their investment -- tried playing at defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end and even receiver.

Bruce lasted four years with the Falcons and spent time the last seven years of his career with the Raiders. He finished his career with 32 sacks over 11 years and never made the Pro Bowl.

Might a similar fate await Clowney?

“That’s all waiting to be seen,” said Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. “Has [Clowney] reached his potential? Did he have to have to do whatever he did in college, or was he able to get by with what he had? Now going into that next level, who will be able to bring out the best in him? Who will be able to make him reach his potential because we all know he has it.

“People can say what they want about that sort of stuff because that can change. It depends on if he’s with that team where he can have that motivation and hunger that he wants to win the Super Bowl or he wants to be the best. There are a lot of things that play into this.”

Indeed. But there’s no question in a league now driven by quarterbacks, the best way to neutralize their impact is to pressure them often. Hampton believes “the No. 1 thing in the game is a quarterback who can’t be stopped,” and that Clowney truly is “your quarterback stopper.”

“I’ve seen Clowney on tape ...” said Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Ham. “But you’re not on the level of pro football. Not that he won’t be outstanding. Talentwise, he’s a phenom. I’ve seen the 40-yard dashes and the 275 or whatever he weighs. In pro football, you have to bring it every play. I’m sure there’s going to be question marks about that. I’m sure he was double-teamed a lot at South Carolina, but you can beat double-teams. That’s probably one of the questions [the Houston Texans] have if they don’t take him No. 1.”

There seem to be many. What’s unquestionable is that before Clowney’s arrival at South Carolina, the Gamecocks had never won more than 10 games in a season. In each of Clowney’s three years as a Gamecock, the school posted 11-2 records.

Surely Clowney contributed heavily in many of those victories.

“Every team I’ve ever played with, we’ve never had a losing season. Never,” Clowney said. “Before I got there, I watched them lose. Not just here, back in high school, middle school. I was like, ‘Man, that ain’t going to be my team when I play on that team.'”

Dean, a former 49ers defensive end who was enshrined into the Hall in 2008, sees in Clowney “a lot of me when I played” in terms of quickness and explosive power. “I know he’s stronger than you could imagine,” he added. Harris sees those attributes in Clowney, too. But in terms of comparing the defensive end to players of yesteryear, “everybody has to stand on their own,” which is why he’s “kind of anxious to see how that’s gonna play out [with Clowney] in the NFL.”

Carter, meanwhile, “wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to move up to draft Clowney.” But in assessing Clowney’s future, Carter made it a point to toss in the former South Carolina star’s name with a mix of Hall of Famers, a bust, and a player in Kearse, who produced a very good but not great NFL career.

“I mentioned all four of those guys for a reason, because he’s comparable to those guys athletically," Carter said. “But there’s something about Bruce and Reggie that set them apart from the rest.”

Will there be something about Clowney that puts him in that class?

“Clowney is just one of those guys who, if everything was in a perfect world, he has the skill set like no other,” Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson said. “But a lot of guys that come through this league have a skill set like no other. If he keeps improving each and every year, he could be wearing a yellow [Hall of Fame] jacket. And those are the guys you’re shooting for. At the end of the day, I think you have to take somebody with that skill set thinking and hoping that your coaching staff can get the best out of him.”