ST. LOUIS -- A little more than a year ago, if you had offered the St. Louis Rams and their fans the opportunity to draft South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, there's a good chance they would have done it in a heartbeat.
At the time, Clowney was fresh off a dominant sophomore season in which he posted 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. His signature moment came in the Outback Bowl when he leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith with a bone-jarring hit that cost Smith his helmet and eventually won Clowney the ESPY for best play.
The Rams, meanwhile, were pretty well set at defensive end, but not to the point that they would turn down a possible generational talent such as Clowney. Robert Quinn wasn't yet established as a dominant force, valuable end William Hayes was headed for unrestricted free agency, and even fourth end Eugene Sims had only a year left on his contract.
Much has changed in the past year. Quinn became the best 4-3 end in football, Hayes and Sims signed contract extensions, and Chris Long continued to produce quarterback hits and hurries even if his sack total dipped. Clowney's junior season came with questions about his effort, and his numbers dropped precipitously. He finished with three sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. His biggest accomplishment seemed to be making it through the season without a serious injury.
Beyond all of that, the Washington Redskins fell from playoff team to the second worst in football, giving the Rams the No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL draft as the final piece of the 2012 trade that landed them quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Now, believe it or not, the Rams find themselves in a position where Clowney very well could be available to them. If Houston opts for a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, the Rams could face a difficult decision.
The Case For: Although Clowney's final season at South Carolina didn't meet the lofty expectations, he is still widely regarded as the most impressive prospect in the draft. At 6-foot-6, 274 pounds, Clowney has the size, strength and athleticism to step in and play right away. When he's finished with combine and pro day workouts, there's likely going to be little doubt he's the best prospect in the draft regardless of position.
While the Rams appear set at defensive end, there are still plenty of reasons that Clowney in St. Louis could work. Recent Super Bowl winners, particularly the New York Giants, have thrived on the idea that you can never have too many pass-rushers. Those Giants found a way to get all of theirs on the field, and Rams coach Jeff Fisher and defensive line coach Mike Waufle are creative enough to find ways to get Clowney on the field. They could use him at end. They could move him inside in passing situations. He could even potentially stand up as a linebacker in certain pass-rushing spots.
From a financial standpoint, it would represent another fairly large investment in a position where big money is already being spent, but Quinn is going to command a massive payday in the near future. Clowney could provide insurance in case striking a deal with Quinn becomes difficult. The Rams could also have Clowney waiting in the wings should the Rams reach a point where Long's contract becomes untenable.
More than anything mentioned above, Clowney could represent the chance for the Rams to land a genuine difference-maker, something the team simply doesn't have enough of. Aside from Quinn, no player on the current defense or offense would be considered one of the best in the league at his position. There are a handful of guys, such as linebacker Alec Ogletree, who could reach that status, but for now Quinn is the only one. Just because Clowney happens to play the same position as the team's one blue chipper shouldn't preclude the Rams from adding another one, especially if they view him as a notch above the rest of the draft prospects.
The Case Against: Clowney's disappointing junior season raised some legitimate questions about effort and desire. He randomly disappeared for stretches of games, and those who watched him regularly wondered if his conditioning level was where it needed to be to dominate from down to down.
In some sense, Clowney is a victim of his own success. His exciting talent created expectations and hype that would be difficult for anyone to match. He's also had some injury issues, including bone spurs in his right foot that gave him problems during his junior season. For the most part, weaknesses in Clowney's ability is picking nits, though.
The more precise reasons for the Rams not to draft Clowney correlate directly to need. As mentioned, the Rams have one of the best defensive line rotations in the league. Not only are the starters good players but they have depth across the board. While the No. 2 pick from Washington is a bit of a luxury since it didn't originally belong to St. Louis, the Rams still have plenty of needs that could be filled elsewhere.
Picking at No. 2, the Rams could add a top offensive lineman or receiver, areas in which they clearly need help. They could also leverage Clowney's stock to make a trade down and continue to add more valuable picks, potentially landing a top offensive lineman or receiver while picking up extra draft capital.
One could also argue that even if the Rams find ways to get Clowney on the field, his value would be limited in 2014 because he would be on the field only part of the time. For a team that needs to take a big step forward in Year 3 of the Fisher/general manager Les Snead era, they could be better served with someone who can be on the field every down.
The Verdict: Honestly, I can see both sides of this debate. If the Rams reach a point where Clowney checked out physically and was clearly the best player available with a gap between him and the rest of the prospects, passing on Clowney would be a move the team could one day regret. Maybe a trade would land more quantity, but drafting for need over simply taking the best player is often a recipe for disaster.