NFC South: Jadeveon Clowney

When Jadeveon Clowney sits down with a member of the Atlanta Falcons' front office or coaching staff during his Wednesday visit, the question about his desire is bound to come up.

Critics continue to offer harsh assessments of the South Carolina defensive end despite the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Clowney being the most athletically gifted prospect in the draft. Clowney has defended his work ethic, and one of his former coaches spoke up on his behalf.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward disputed the "lazy" tag recently placed on Clowney by an anonymous NFL scout.

"It doesn't offend me because I know JD, and I know all this talk about JD being lazy and all this talk about him not playing hard, I know all that is motivating him," Ward told in reference to Clowney. "And I know JD because I coached the kid and I recruited him, and that's not who he is. JD plays hard all the time."

There were some doubts about Clowney's commitment after he pulled himself from a game against Kentucky because of a rib injury. There also were questions about Clowney’s conditioning after he reportedly looked tired in the season opener against North Carolina. Clowney finished the season with just three sacks in 11 games.

"People go back to that North Carolina game and say he wasn’t in shape and was tired. People said that because the other three defensive linemen were down on the ground and had their hands down, and JD was standing up with his hands on hips," Ward explained. "That's what seven guys on defense do: They stand up with their hands on their hips. He's an athlete, so he stood up with his hands on his hips. So that made him tired? Not at all. But that's perception. He was down there ready when the ball was snapped. It's all perception.

"Anytime you're as highly regarded as JD is, most people are going to try to find out something that's wrong with you. And that's what the NFL's job is: They're going to try and bring his grade down because it's about paying him. I understand it. I coached in the league [as an Oakland assistant in 2006]. I know how it works."

Ward pointed to practices as evidence of how hard Clowney worked.

"I never had an issue with him. If anything, you had to slow him down," Ward said. "There were days that Coach [Steve] Spurrier would have to tell us to take him off the field or they weren't going to get anything accomplished on offense. And that's the truth because they couldn’t get a pass off on him."

Even if the work ethic isn't an issue, Ward continues to encourage Clowney to raise his level of play in preparation for the NFL.

"My biggest to thing to JD is he's going into a grown-man league and everybody is big and fast in that league," Ward said. "It's not going to be just his talent that's going to help him become a good player there. He's going to have to spend more time studying his opponent, the guy he's going against in that league, in order to beat him. And he didn’t have to do that a lot in college.

"He's going to have to find out what that guy's weakness is and take advantage of it, if he's going to have success in the NFL. And he'll grow into that. He's very highly motivated. He wants to be the first pick in the draft. He wants to be as good as advertised. And there's no question he'll be a great pro."

Clowney defended himself during the NFL combine when asked about Spurrier's assertion that he didn't work as hard as some of the program's other top players from the past.

"I really don't have anything to say about it. It's just opinion," Clowney said in February. "I believe I did work hard. You can pull out any practice tape from last year and you'll see that. That's what I would tell them. I'll tell anybody that. I'm always going to be working hard. No matter where I end up, I'm going to work hard and give the team everything I've got."

For the Falcons to end up being that team, they likely would have to trade up for Clowney. Atlanta currently holds the sixth overall pick. The teams with the top three picks -- Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville -- all seem willing to trade down, while Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered the top prospect in this year’s NFL draft, is scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons next week, according to a league source.

Clowney said during his Pro Day that he was in the process of coordinating a meeting with the Falcons. His visit coincides with another appearance from a top prospect as Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is scheduled to visit Atlanta next week as well.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Newton Jadeveon Clowney shined during position drills at South Carolina's pro day workout.
Clowney has been touted as the No. 1 overall pick -- held by the Houston Texans -- by many draft experts. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say about Clowney in his latest mock draft:

"The Texans really need a QB, and (Blake) Bortles has the highest ceiling of any passer in this draft, but I just think it’s going to be too difficult for the Texans to pass on Clowney. He is the best player in this class and the most naturally talented defensive lineman I’ve ever evaluated, and guys like him simply don’t come around that often."

Clowney recently visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams, and reportedly visited the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. He made headlines this week after a story surfaced about him not doing any other private workouts after Clemson offensive tackle Brandon Thomas tore his ACL during such a workout.

Bus Cook, Clowney’s agent, told USA Today that his client could go through one more abbreviated private workout prior to the May 8 draft.

It is unclear whether Clowney already had a private workout with the Falcons.

Cook also dismissed comments from anonymous NFL teams calling Clowney spoiled and lazy.

"We don't give any consideration to that," Cook told USA TODAY Sports. "None of that has bothered us. It doesn't bother Jadeveon. That's not something that's been asked of me by any of the teams that I've talked to. Just go watch the tape."

If the Falcons truly have an interest in Clowney, they likely would have to trade up for him. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up or down. And during this year’s NFL combine, Clowney mentioned such a scenario involving the Falcons.

"I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney told, "but I hope I don’t fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta -- a lot. They’re pretty good. They’ve got some guys from South Carolina on the team, also. And it’s close to home."

The 6-foot-5-inch, 266-pound Clowney, a native of Rock Hill, S.C., solidified his standing as a top talent with a great performance at his pro day, where he showed the ability to drop into the coverage to go with blazing speed.

The Falcons sorely need help at pass-rusher after finishing tied for 29th in the league last season with just 32 sacks. Although the Falcons are preparing for more of a 3-4-base defensive scheme, the multiplicity they seek on defense would make Clowney a fit regardless.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As he strolled down the hallway moments after addressing a large contingent of NFL combine reporters, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney paused for a moment as he pondered an inquiry about the Atlanta Falcons.

"I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney told, "but I hope I don’t fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta – a lot. They’re pretty good. They’ve got some guys from South Carolina on the team, also. And it’s close to home."

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
AP Photo/Stephen MortonJadeveon Clowney would fit the Atlanta Falcons' need for an impact pass-rusher.
The 6-foot-5, 266-pound Clowney is touted as the most athletically gifted player in this year’s draft class. The Falcons desperately need to improve their pass rush, but Clowney is unlikely to be available if they keep the sixth overall pick.

However, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during the Senior Bowl that he would keep open the option of trading up. He reiterated his stance this week at the combine.

"I’ve said that from Day 1 since 2008 that I always want to have the light on for business," Dimitroff said. "I never want to be one of those teams that people pick up the phone and they quickly throw the phone back down and hesitate to reach out thinking that we’re not going to be straight up. … Whenever you’re able to cultivate trades, it’s about being honest with people in your dealings. And I think that we’ve done a nice job with that. And we’re always going to be open for business."

Dimitroff pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal before, when he surrendered five draft picks in order to move up from the 27th overall pick to sixth for game-changing receiver Julio Jones in 2011. Dimitroff admitted trading up from the sixth overall pick this year would be less taxing.

"Yes, in the top 10, I believe it’s a little easier to move around," he said.

Clowney maintained he wants to be the No. 1 overall pick to Houston, but the Texans could target a quarterback for new head coach Bill O’Brien. St. Louis, with the second pick, and Jacksonville, with the third, both have expressed a willingness to trade down. Rams general manager Les Snead and Jaguars general manager David Caldwell worked under Dimitroff in Atlanta.

As for Clowney, he seems likely to solidify his high draft status with strong workouts at the combine. Defensive linemen take the field on Monday.

Clowney hadn’t met with any teams as of Saturday afternoon because flight issues got him into Indianapolis late Friday night. He said he anticipated running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and boasted that his speed is his greatest asset.

Clowney addressed the issue of his work ethic when asked about South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's recent comments about other players he coached working harder.

"I believe I did work hard," Clowney said at the podium. "You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that. I’ll tell anybody that. I’m always going to be working hard. No matter where I end up, I’m going to work hard and give the team everything I’ve got."

As Clowney mentioned, defensive tackle Travian Robertson, fullback Patrick DiMarco, and defensive end Cliff Matthews are the three Falcons from South Carolina.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith was careful not to single out any one draft prospect as his team prepares to break down players at the NFL combine.

Smith did, however, speak in general terms about the guy touted as the most physically gifted specimen in this year’s class: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

"Well, he’s got the measurables that you’re looking for," Smith said of the 6-foot-6-inch, 274-pound Clowney. "Obviously, we’re all anxious to see him perform here at the combine to validate those measurables. He’s been a dominating player at the University of South Carolina in arguably the best conference in college football."

Clowney said he wants to be the No. 1 overall pick, but the Houston Texans, who own the selection, could target a quarterback. The Falcons currently have the sixth-overall pick.

Smith compared the buzz around Clowney to what happened in 2006 when another imposing defensive end.

"Well, I think that he has similar measurables to Mario Williams," Smith said of Clowney. "Mario Williams is, when you talk about the defensive end, he fits the criteria that you’re looking for. And, of course, Mario went on to be the first pick in the draft."

Clowney gets a chance to back up the hype when the defensive linemen go through workouts on Monday.
Atlanta Falcons veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora already stated his desire to remain with the team. At the same time, Umenyiora realizes the Falcons could add a rookie pass-rusher to the mix.

Umenyiora already has an appreciation for two edge-rushers who are set to display their ability at this year’s NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Naturally, one of them is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

"This is a tremendous athlete; a tremendous football player,’’ Umenyiora said of Clowney. "And there’s a guy out of Auburn, Dee Ford, who I think is a hell of a defensive end. He’s a phenomenal pass-rusher. So I definitely think there are a couple of guys who could really upgrade our team.’’

But Umenyiora, a former second-round pick of the New York Giants out of Troy, has been around the league enough to know that some touted pass-rushers don’t always live up to expectations – not to say that will be the case with Clowney and Ford.

"I’ve seen a lot of rookies who were supposed to be good players come in and not do nothing,’’ Umenyiora said. "Or you have a bunch rookies that come in and are supposed to do this and that, and they find out the NFL is a different game.

"You can’t always put all your hopes in someone coming in out of college, especially a team like Atlanta that is built to win now. Then again, I’m just employee No. 50 and I do what I’m told. And I definitely understand all the talk about these young pass-rushers.’’

Umenyiora, who has one more year left on his contract and is set to count $4.75 million against the cap, would be the ideal mentor for any young pass-rusher. The Falcons likely would have to trade up to get Clowney. Ford, who impressed at the Senior Bowl, isn’t likely to be picked in the top 10, and the Falcons currently hold the sixth overall pick.

Two other pass-rushers linked to the Falcons in terms of draft projections are UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack. Although most see them as better fits as outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes, even Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said both Barr and Mack are capable of being successful pass-rushers in 4-3 defenses.

Combine workouts for defensive linemen and linebackers are on Monday.
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.

Here’s something for Atlanta Falcons fans to get excited about: Todd McShay’s latest mock draft.

The ESPN draft expert released his first-round projections Insider Wednesday, based on the current draft order. And which player does McShay have the Falcons taking with the fifth overall selection? Believe it or not, it’s the guy plenty of Falcons diehards desire: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

In an interview in November, McShay told me that Clowney’s down year was more a result of unfairly high expectations. McShay wasn’t as quick to criticize Clowney’s work ethic as others have been.

"That doesn’t take away from him being, physically, the most dominating player in the draft," McShay said.

So why does McShay believe Clowney will be available at No. 5? Probably because the Houston Texans, with the No. 1 overall pick, need a quarterback, as do the Oakland Raiders at No. 3. The St. Louis Rams, with the No. 2 pick, already have dominant pass rush led by Robert Quinn and Chris Long. And the Jacksonville Jaguars, at No. 4, always seem to make the wrong choice.

The Falcons definitely need to revamp their pass rush, as they currently rank 24th in the league in sacks per pass attempt.

Here's McShay’s commentary on Clowney and the Falcons:

"The Falcons are in dire need of an edge rusher, and in this scenario they'll get one in the form of our No. 1-ranked prospect in the draft. There's something of a gamble involved with Clowney in that his motor ran hot and cold toward the end of the season, but he isn't a bad kid and he has the potential to develop into a double-digit sack guy, a three-down lineman and a dominant player overall. I see a lot of Julius Peppers in him; Peppers hasn't always given the best effort, but I don't know of many teams that wouldn't want him. Clowney's a tremendous value if he drops this far; if it weren't for the number of QB-needy teams picking ahead of Atlanta, he'd go earlier."