Falcons should cast eager eye on Clowney

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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Jadeveon Clowney vowed to put up "amazing" numbers at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis. Well, the Atlanta Falcons better have their stopwatches and notepads ready to dissect his every move.

If the South Carolina defensive end follows through with his promise and blows away the field with his performance, the Falcons would be wise to start compiling their trade proposals to move up in the NFL draft. Whether Clowney tears up the combine or not, he's unlikely to be around if the Falcons remain at the sixth overall spot.

The Falcons sorely need a game-changer along the defensive line after tying for 29th in the league with 32 sacks in 2013. Their lack of consistent pressure made third down seem like going to the free throw line for opposing offenses.

So here comes Clowney, a guy who drew come criticism for not dominating this past season and for picking up a few speeding tickets off the field. That won't cause his draft stock to fall. NFL teams understand the impact this 6-foot-5, 258-pound junior could have on a franchise.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff certainly realizes it.

"Obviously, he is an incredible talent with wild upside," Dimitroff told me recently. "He's going to be a very big contributor on a football team from day one. We all know that. The league knows that. He has the potential to be one of the marquee-type pass-rushers."

Now it's just a matter of going out and clearing up any doubt about Clowney's unique ability. I asked ESPN analyst Bill Polian, formerly the president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, if the Falcons should attempt to maneuver up to grab the guy touted as the most gifted player in this year's draft class.

"I think he's a good player," Polian said of Clowney. "But first off, with trading up, it takes two to tango. People tend to think of the draft as fantasy football. It isn't. It's the real world. You have to have a trade partner. And the price has to be something you're willing to pay.

"And you haven't seen the results of the NFL combine yet or his pro day. Those things are critically important. You have to know how fast he runs. You have to know if he's healthy, because he's had some injury issues. And let's assume that it's true that he's the most athletically gifted player. That's compared to the prospects coming out this year, not compared to the players already in the National Football League."



Indeed, there are plenty of variables the Falcons need to consider before the May 8 draft. Signing a veteran defensive end wouldn't be a stretch, but team owner Arthur Blank seemed to indicate the Falcons wouldn't make a "big splash" in free agency. If that is the case, it's hard to imagine the Falcons targeting top defensive end Greg Hardy, who told me he would go to "any team that will pay me." And Hardy, who had 15 sacks for the Carolina Panthers last season, is going to be paid handsomely.

But Blank's words don't necessarily mean the Falcons will avoid pursuing an impact defensive end in free agency. If Brian Orakpo doesn't re-sign with the Washington Redskins, he'd be a solid option. Falcons fans remember how Orakpo dominated at the Georgia Dome last season. Then again, the Falcons' offensive line made plenty of defensive linemen look like Hall of Famers in 2013.

Let's say the edge-rusher scenario doesn't pan out in free agency and the Falcons land an impact player such as safety Jairus Byrd instead. That's when internal talks about Clowney should really heat up. I would trade up for Clowney instead of selecting top offensive tackles Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson at No. 6, although Atlanta's miserable offensive line has to be addressed in some manner.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney drew a crowd on the field. He'll get plenty of attention at pro day, too.
Dimitroff isn't afraid to trade up. He surrendered five draft picks in 2011 to grab game-changing receiver Julio Jones. Dimitroff also traded picks last year in order to draft cornerback Desmond Trufant.

This is what Dimitroff told me about the possibility of trading up this year: "I always want us, as an organization -- me as a general manager and us as an organization -- to be perceived as a group to pick up and call and make the offer and at least know that we're open to discussion."

Clowney said he wants to be the first overall pick, and he probably should be. But I can't see Houston Texans coach and quarterback guru Bill O'Brien passing on a chance to grab a talented signal-caller at the top of the draft.

Here is another factor to consider in the Falcons' trade-for-Clowney scenario: St. Louis owns the second overall pick and Jacksonville the third. Rams general manager Les Snead and Jaguars general manager David Caldwell both worked under Dimitroff in Atlanta. And both Snead and Caldwell said they would be open to trading their picks. That's not to say Snead and Caldwell would just hand their picks over to Dimitroff, but the familiarity should only help the Falcons' cause.

If the opportunity presents itself to trade up for Clowney, the Falcons probably shouldn't part ways with this year's second-round pick. That might be too valuable in terms of filling an offensive line need. But trading away future picks certainly would be worth it for a Falcons team I believe isn't too far from returning to Super Bowl contention, despite last year's implosion. Clowney fits the organization's desire to get tougher in the trenches.

The Falcons just have to be absolutely certain Clowney isn't the next Courtney Brown, a defensive end who had an unremarkable career after being picked No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2000. All indications are that Clowney will be far from a bust.

Vaughn McClure

ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter

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