In Roger Goodell’s grand quest to occupy our minds every waking hour of the entire year — and our REM sleep cycles, too — the NFL draft is being staged in the middle of May. And, football addicts that we are, millions of viewers are ignoring the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs, major-league baseball games and regular prime-time TV programming to tune into the NFL’s annual reality show. The draft is about manufacturing the game’s future stars for a multi-billion-dollar industry, even if no one is entirely certain they’ll be stars.
Jadeveon Clowney, for instance.
With deep breaths from down Houston way, he was taken No. 1 by the Texans, which immediately positions Clowney to become a historic colossus of some sort. Given his explosive ability and spectacular combination of size and speed, he’ll either be one of football’s great pass-rushers or one of the game’s all-time busts. Rarely have we seen a first selection with such a wide range of possibllities. The potential for risk may be larger than the chance for reward, and judging by the tears drip-dropping down his face as he hugged Goodell for much longer than it takes him to reach a quarterback, Clowney burns to discredit the skeptics.
“I grew up the hard way. A lot of people said I never would be anything,’’ Clowney said. “I kept telling myself I’m going to be something great. I’m going to be a Hall of Famer one day. I’m ready to live up to it. No matter what people say about me, I’m gonna approach this game and take it to the next level.’’
He’d better. The Texans passed on Khalil Mack, whose versatility might have been the better fit in their 3-4 scheme and who now goes to Oakland as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, assuming such honors are possible in Oakland. And the Texans passed on a major need at quarterback, where Blake Bortles would have been an ideal project for the new head coach, passer guru Bill O’Brien, but instead heads to Jacksonville, where Bortles can try proving the Texans wrong twice a year. They passed on explosive receivers, 12-year offensive linemen and, of course, Johnny Manziel, the local legend up there on the Houston-area billboards, paid by fans imploring the Texans to draft him. They’re banking on Clowney teaming with J.J. Watt and forming a wrecking crew under the tutelage of Romeo Crennel. They’re counting on Clowney to show more passion and interest with millions of dollars in the bank than he did as a junior at South Carolina, where it was widely acknowledged he took the year off when he had little money in his pocket. They don’t even play a defensive system conducive to his abilities. Does this make sense, using him as a standup outside linebacker on early downs and as a defensive end the rest of the time?
They’re hoping his otherworldly skills trump the doubts. It’s up to Clowney.
“Man, I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life. Bill O’Brien told me, `I’m sticking my neck out for you. You’ve got to stick out your neck for me,’’’ Clowney said. “I’m here to prove a lot of people wrong. A lot of people have been doubting me.’’
Shame on us. In the 493 days since New Year’s Day of 2013, we’ve gone from (a) discovering Clowney to (b) marveling at the way he separated Vincent Smith’s helmet from his head to (c) viewing the viral video a few zillion times to (d) learning how to spell and pronounce his first name to (e) touting him for the Heisman Trophy to (f) watching him wilt in South Carolina’s August humidity to (g) hearing Steve Spurrier doubt his work ethic to (h) removing him from Heisman consideration to (i) wondering if he intentionally took the college season off to protect his body and draft status to (j) questioning if he has the desire and passion to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to (k) seeing him blow away the scouting intelligentsia with his speed and size at the combine to, in the end, (l) concluding that few football players ever have been blessed with the overwhelming entirety of his awesomeness.
So we’re back to where the media charade began, full circle, when he was blowing up Vincent Smith and freaking out Jon Gruden in the bowl game. Except now we’re also aware of Jadeveon’s celebrity crush. “Rihanna, yeah, Rihanna. I’m coming, girl,’’ Clowney said on draft eve.
What people want to know is whether he wants more out of life than a pop star. My guess — and guessing is what everybody is doing here, from Mel Kiper Jr. to the Houston Texans to the peanut gallery inside Radio City Music Hall — is that Clowney aches to shut us up and become one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers. I could turn this into a debate on why college players should be allowed to enter the draft after their second seasons, but now that the big night has arrived, we should be assessing whether Clowney will transform the game or make Warren Sapp look like a bigmouth savant. “My grandfather taught me something a long time ago. He said, `You will never get more money by doing less work,’” the Hall of Fame defensive lineman said, per the Houston Chronicle. “I look at Jadeveon Clowney’s (game) tape and I don’t see a guy that is playing the game with his hair on fire, making plays, running up and down the field sideline to sideline, doing all of the things. That’s the real issue with me: What else is he doing not waking up? The next job you have is rushing the quarterback, young man, getting ready for the NFL. If you wake up every morning and you’re not ready, prepared to go out and do the things you have to be to be a (defensive) end, outside linebacker, a pass-rushing specialist. What else is there?”
If Sapp was alone in his harsh commentary, he’d be making big news. But those words have been uttered by many, and, as an NFL Network analyst, Sapp is paid to blow buzz-worthy opinions out of his ass whether he’s sincere about them or not. What no one mentions is that Clowney did have legitimate injuries last season and was dealing with defenses that triple-teamed him and forced other South Carolina defenders to make plays. NFL personnel bosses are paid handsomely to ignore the noise and locate the truth. In Houston, O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith are on the clock now … for the next several years.
“It’s been crazy, everybody telling you when you’re going to go in the draft. What your weakness is, what your strength is,’’ said Clowney, who didn’t know he was heading to Houston until seconds before the pick. “There’s a lot of criticism against all the players. It’s just something you’ve got to take on. I think I work just as hard as anybody.’’
The Texans will have hell to pay if Manziel defies his first-round death spriral and becomes a star. Never mind that any team taking Clowney is gambling the way they’d be gambling on Manziel. These questions have been batted around for months. Finally, we get answers.
“I get to learn from J.J. Watt and build my game up,’’ Clowney said. “Hopefully, I can take a lot of pressure off him, and he can take a lot of pressure off me, and we can meet at the quarterback.
“I’m just overwhelmed. To be the No. 1 pick, man, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world.’’
Houston took him Thursday night. Rihanna did not. I think he’ll survive the slight, but about that neck he’s sticking out for Bill O’Brien … it better not get chopped off.