In the rare moments in which the NFL talking heads temporarily ran out of things to say about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the two other biggest talkers of this seemingly never-ending draft season have been a pair of defensive ends — and for very different reasons.
Jadeveon Clowney has been in the national spotlight ever since he set foot on South Carolina’s campus as the nation’s top recruit, and it shone brighter this season as both professional analysts and amateur armchair quarterbacks alike looked for flaws in his game and in his personality.
Clowney had just three sacks this season as offenses often double-teamed him and frightened quarterbacks fled from him as if he were on fire. But despite those underwhelming numbers, the ones he put up running around in spandex at the scouting combine are proof of his potential.
“[He is] a generational physical talent, a guy who has exceptional physical skills and the ability to bring immediate impact and create consistent matchup problems,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. recently wrote.
The other pass rusher making headlines was Missouri’s Michael Sam, though it was not because he was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year after recording 11.5 sacks. Sam announced in February that he is gay, leading to speculation that it could affect his draft stock.
“I really do believe his stock will be built mostly around what he can become as a football player,” Kiper wrote in February.
While one is expected to be a top-three pick and the other is projected to be a Day 3 selection, where Clowney and Sam land surely will be major story lines during the draft.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
While there is minor debate about whether he fits best as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, most argue that Clowney has the potential to be a very good NFL player (the others are probably just arguing for the sake of arguing). Clowney will be long gone before the Vikings pick at No. 8.
Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
A local product who blossomed at for the Gophers, Hageman has size, strength and off-the-charts athleticism for the position (he was a highly-touted tight end prospect coming out of high school). Despite a couple of minor off-the-field incidents, Hageman should be a first-round selection.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Relatively undersized at 6-1 and 285 pounds but extremely disruptive, this physical freak has been compared to Geno Atkins, who thrived under Mike Zimmer’s watch in Cincinnati. Donald had 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss before impressing at the scouting combine.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
In a draft class that is supposedly devoid of edge rushers behind Clowney and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Ford has a good chance of cracking the first round, too. He had 10.5 sacks in his senior season, but there are questions about his size and ability to defend the run.
Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina
Even after racking up 11.5 sacks last season and testing well at the combine, Martin is flying under the radar. A raw prospect with a juicy blend of height, length and athleticism, he is the kind of later-round project that could make a defensive-minded coach like Zimmer salivate.