One game certainly does not a definitive opinion, or a first-rounder for that matter, make. And so, while the initial reviews for South Carolina defensive end and Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney were decidedly mixed following the Gamecocks’ opening victory over North Carolina on Thursday night, NFL scouts figure to keep avidly scrambling to games to assess first-hand the player that many feel will be the first guy off the board in the ‘14 draft.
If there were two disappointing elements to Thursday evening’s game, suggested one general manager who watched the college opener on television, it was that North Carolina directed so few plays at the South Carolina star, and that Clowney was obviously in less than optimum condition. The GM noted early Friday morning to NFP that he wants to check on how serious was the stomach virus that Clowney allegedly battled during the week, as late as Wednesday. In fact, the GM, who reminded that he can’t discuss underclass players for attribution, planned to phone South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, whose postgame remarks indicated that he wasn’t overly pleased with Clowney’s shape.
“Was it that (illness) or was he just out of shape?” the general manager queried rhetorically. “I mean, he chased some plays at times, but even on TV, you could see he was (winded) too much. Maybe it was the North Carolina (fast-paced) offense at times. It’s early, and we’ll see (Clowney) a lot of times before it’s all said and done, but it’s never too early to start asking questions about a guy. I want to know what was going on.”
Clowney's performance last Thursday night raised a couple of questions for some NFL scouts.
Perhaps the biggest positive: That Clowney, who could become only the third defensive player in 20 years to be the top pick (joining Mario Williams in 2006 and Courtney Brown in 2000) demonstrated the ability to move around on the line, to align at both end spots and even at nose tackle for a couple snaps, and to totally impact a game plan. “I don’t care what people say about the game, he’s still so strong and so quick,” said UNC left tackle James Hurst, who along with right tackle Jon Heck, had to block Clowney most of the night, and who might be a first-round pick himself. “He’s a handful. Maybe two handfuls.”
An area scout who attended the game and who was driving back to his home when reached by NFP on Friday, acknowledged that Clowney wasn’t as dominating as he had hoped. “But he showed flashes and, when he wasn’t ‘gassed,’ although that was a little disturbing, he ran around the place,” the scout said. “It wasn’t a great game, no. But what’s that saying about how you never get a second chance to make a first impression? That’s (manure). There’s going to be a lot of eyes on him every week and we’ll see how it shakes out. He’s still a great player.”
With 13 sacks in 2012, and 21 in his two years in college, Clowney probably projects as a right end in the NFL. But he is even stronger than his 275 pounds – stouter against the run that he’s often credited with being, and not just an up-field, edge defender – and could flip to the strong side at times or even to tackle in third-down situations, to create more advantageous matchups. Scouts are eager to see those diverse skills.
+AROUND THE LEAGUE
*Not exactly a ringing endorsement, right, from Washington State coach Mike Leach, who was brutally realistic during a national radio interview last week about how former Cougars’ starter and undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Tuel might fare if he starts for the injury-ravaged Buffalo Bills in next Sunday’s opener against New England? But the ever-candid Leach was fair in citing Tuel’s 4-22 record as a starter and certainly in reminding folks about the lack of stability with which he played his college and high school careers.
“He knows the passing game, has played in a system where he had to make good decisions, so I don’t think those things will affect him,” Leach said later. “But even if he was a (first-round pick), it would be hard going out there in your first game.”
Tuel could become the first undrafted rookie to start in a season opener since the common draft was implemented in 1967. By comparison, Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, was the first rookie quarterback outside of the first two rounds to start an opener since Kyle Orton, a fourth-rounder, opened for the Bears in 2005.
*Suffice it to say that the biggest news of the NFL’s past few days, the $765 million settlement of the 4,000-plus concussion-related lawsuits brought against the NFL, is still being viewed with a jaundiced eye by past players in general and the plaintiffs in particular. Most of the players, of course, aren’t attorneys and will have to have the details of the settlement explained to them. Several of the affected players were, on Friday, in fact, working to set up conference calls, either with their attorneys or NFLPA officials, to explain to them the legalese of the settlement.
“It will probably take a few days for the dust to settle and everyone to digest what’s in there,” said former tailback Dorsey Levens. “People can talk about so-called ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this thing. But there probably aren’t any real big winners.” According to the settlement, awards to plaintiffs will be capped at about $5 million, but it is very likely that only the most severely affected players, and those able to substantiate football-related head trauma, will get anything even close to that.
As for the NFL, whose tab probably will approximate $1 billion by the time all the legal fees and other ancillaries are included, will pay out the settlement over 20 years – half in the first three years and the other half in the subsequent 17 years. The payments, which will be divided equally among the franchises, essentially amount to about 10 percent of revenues.
RG3 looks to be all systems go for Washington's Week 1 opener against Philadelphia.
*The cautionary suggestion by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews – the man who repaired the injured knee of Robert Griffin III and who opined late in the week that the Washington Redskins might be prudent to use their star quarterback a bit differently in his second season – likely won’t prompt head coach Mike Shanahan or offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to start tearing pages from the playbook. But it’s notable that, after a few early games in 2012 in which Griffin was subjected to a lot of hits (like in the Sept. 23 matchup with Cincinnati), the Washington coaches did cut back substantially on the number of zone-option plays in the game plan. Within a week or two, in part because of Griffin’s prodding, they were added again. But the Redskins were leery, even before RG3’s knee injury, that they perhaps need to protect him a bit better.
*Chicago first-year offensive line coach Aaron Kromer might not have the most difficult job in the league, but the 13th year NFL veteran (who also served as the offensive coordinator and was the interim head coach in New Orleans for the first six games last season) has got to rank near the top in terms of assistant coaches who will be confronted by daunting tasks in ’13. Of the four offensive line starters from the team’s opener last season, all but center Roberto Garza are no longer with the club. With the departures of J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, the Bears’ two tackle starters, Jermon Bushrod and rookie Jordan Mills, are newcomers. The top three tackles weren’t even in camp for the full time with the Bears a year ago.
One of the first things new coach Marc Trestman identified as an area that needed to be dramatically addressed was the offensive line. How quickly the remaking takes shape for an offense that a year ago statistically ranked 28th in the league remains to be seen. Bushrod, signed as a free agent and at the recommendation of Kromer, will help. But in Mills and right guard Kyle Long, the club’s first-round pick, the Bears will start an all-rookie right side of the unit. Kromer is regarded as one of the top line coaches in the game, but he’s got his work cut out for him.
*When four-year veteran Aaron Curry announced his retirement last Wednesday at the age of just 27, only three days after a third team in 22 months (the New York Giants) had given up on him, it reminded for about the zillionth time that the draft is hardly an exact science. After all, as the fourth overall selection in the 2009 draft, the former Wake Forest standout was supposed to have been one of the surest things in that year’s lottery, a smart, instinctive, playmaker, and future Pro Bowl defender. It also refueled some discussion about the difficulty some linebackers have making the jump to the NFL.
For every player like Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Kerrigan or Brian Cushing, there are first-rounders such as Rolando McClain or Vernon Gholston or Ernie Sims, guys who wash out despite several attempts with multiple teams. Or others such as Larry English or Jerry Hughes, who still haven’t progressed much.
“It’s not a big ‘reach’ position, like quarterback or defensive line is at times,” lamented one veteran NFC personnel chief. “But the instincts you see in college don’t always transition as well (to the NFL). Curry was never the player he was supposed to be.”
Even though the position has declined some in importance, linebackers are still expected to be difference-makers, not just run-stuffers, and Curry’s playmaker skills in college never transferred to the NFL. In 48 games (39 starts), he wasn’t a big sack guy (5.5 sacks) and, while he showed some coverage ability (12 passes defensed), he never had an interception. Said the scout: “He was off the charts (as far as football intelligence), but that just wasn’t enough, really.”
Stafford is one of the few early selections from 2009 to make a mark in the NFL.
*The retirement of Curry also magnified how pedestrian the 2009 first round looks in some ways. Although there have only been four full seasons since the draft, 10 of the 32 first-rounders have played for multiple teams and three, including two of the top 11, are now out of the game altogether. The first pick that year, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, is a standout. But tackle Jason Smith (No. 2) has been with three teams, been traded once, and cut twice in the past six months. Defensive end Tyson Jackson (No. 3) has registered only five sacks in four seasons in Kansas City. Curry (No. 4) is out of the game and quarterback Mark Sanchez (No. 5) is fighting for a starting job. Tackle Andre Smith (No. 6) has started 30 games the past two seasons for Cincinnati, but battled weight problems early in his career. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 7) has been mostly disappointing and is with his second team. Obviously, the ’09 first round produced big-time players such as Clay Matthews, but injuries have derailed a few players from the first stanza of that year, and there were, frankly, some bad projections as well.
*Last week in this space, we noted that San Francisco’s addition of journeyman quarterback Seneca Wallace, who had been released a few days earlier by New Orleans, might not have been a bad under-the-radar move, given the dearth of experience and quality behind starter Colin Kaepernick. Then Wallace – who wasn’t great by any estimation but did offer a proven commodity behind Kaepernick – apparently retired late in the week after shaky camp performances and the likelihood he would not make the roster. Wallace’s agent contended his client did not retire, but just had some issues with the Niners, like playing in the preseason finale with a bunch of guys who weren’t going to make the team.
A team official told NFP that coach Jim Harbaugh construed Wallace’s actions as a retirement. We’ll let the two sides figure out the semantics and Wallace’s future, but the upshot for San Francisco remains the same: Wallace won’t be with the team. As of Friday, that left the 49ers with Colt McCoy and seventh-round rookie B.J. Daniels as the other two quarterbacks on the roster. Neither really distinguished themselves in preseason play, so it will not be altogether surprising if the 49ers keep their eyes open for a veteran to shake loose somewhere. Kaepernick, as cited last week, was a durable player in 2012. Despite operating out of the “Pistol” formation and running 63 times, he wasn’t much dinged, and Alex Smith appeared in just one game (mop-up duty) after Kaepernick seized the starter’s spot. Still, the 49ers appear “all in” in 2013 in their attempt to return to the Super Bowl, and some management people in the Bay Area might want a proven backup.
*Almost as if on cue, with last week’s lead note about Atlanta’s recent inability to draft and develop a pass rusher, sixth-year veteran end Kroy Biermann came up with a big-time pressure outing in the third preseason game. So there is hope that Biermann, who posted five sacks as principally a “sub” player in 2009, might boost a pass rush that is counting on 10-year veteran Osi Umenyiora to supplant the departed John Abraham. Still, one question about Biermann and Umenyiora, both of whom will be asked by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to drop off at times, is how they will react in coverage. With the preponderance of zone-blitz looks around the NFL, it’s not as if the two ends haven’t dropped into the flat or short hook zone on occasion in the past. But their coverage responsibilities will be expanded some this season, and both allowed it is an element on which they’ve worked hard in camp.
Although Sean Weatherspoon is regarded as a decent coverage defender, Atlanta linebackers haven’t been particularly good versus the pass in recent seasons. That partially explains why undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu, one of two free agent ‘backers who figure to make the roster, has been used so much in nickel and dime packages.
“He’s smart, but also has a great feel for the passing game,” Weatherspoon said.
*As usual, there probably won’t be a ton of roster-churning after the final cutdowns are made, but one area to watch in coming days is the offensive line. In discussions with several teams the past week, the area probably mentioned most often by personnel guys as a spot in need of some depth-buttressing was their club’s O-line. Experienced blockers who are whacked could draw some interest. . . . While he has struggled at times, the aforementioned Webb, who started 44 games in his three seasons with the Bears, and lined up at both tackle spots, could merit some interest. There were at least two franchises trolling for potential trades to add a veteran backup tackle late in the week. . . . The Falcons may not make a deal to bring in a more experienced backup to Matt Ryan, and simply stick with the untested Dominique Davis, but the team was at least considering alternatives late in the week. . . . Could the third time (team?) be a charm for former first-round wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.? Could be. His two touchdown receptions against Pittsburgh in the Thursday night preseason finale probably won’t determine his role with his new club. But word is that, in practices, Ginn has demonstrated plenty of quickness and a bit more toughness. And, let’s face it, outside of Steve Smith, it’s not like he’s going up against a sterling corps of wide receivers for playing time. . . . In the franchise’s previous 45 seasons of existence, the Cincinnati Bengals never earned playoff berths in three straight years, a drought the club will attempt to end in 2013. In fact, only once have the Bengals gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and the second year was 1982, a strike season.
+BY THE NUMBERS
*The old adage that every game in the NFL counts for just one-sixteenth of the season is technically accurate, of course. But history indicates that the season opener typically bears plenty of significance beyond just the ol’ one-sixteenth saw. Since the NFL realigned to eight divisions in 2002, there have been 132 playoff teams. Notable is that those postseason qualifiers won nearly 70 percent of their season openers. The 132 playoff clubs from 2002-2012 registered an aggregate record of 90-42, for a .682 winning percentage. The playoff teams combined for seven or more opening-day victories in all but two of the 11 seasons and never had a losing mark in the league’s first weekend.