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Takeaways from Last Week – April 14, 2014

April 14th, 2014

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney

It certainly is not the first time it’s been discussed and probably won’t be the last since we still have three-plus weeks to go until the 2014 NFL Draft.

But the biggest question of the Atlanta Falcons’ offseason isn’t whether they are going to be toughened up, but whether or not they are going to pull the trigger and trade for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

And as I wrote back in February, the answer comes down to whether the Falcons feel that they are one potentially dominant pass-rusher away from being back in the Super Bowl hunt versus their desire to plug a number of holes.

But by moving up for Clowney, there is no doubt that the Falcons will suffer some negative consequences in some way, which will be losing the potential to fill multiple roster spots rather than solidifying one.

Ultimately the key to making the Clowney trade worthwhile may not be about what he would bring to the team. From my eyes, Clowney is the “safest” player in this draft.

There is no such thing as a truly safe prospect, as that word connotes a guarantee of success. One just has to look at past “slam dunks” such as Robert Gallery, Trent Richardson or Aaron Curry to know that every draft pick is some form of a gamble.

But Clowney is of such a singular talent, the chances that he busts is pretty low. Certainly not impossible, but low. But there is no guarantee that he will become the dominant player that many expect him to be. Mario Williams is an example of a very good NFL player, but he’s not a dominator. Per premium website Pro Football Focus, only twice in the past six years has he graded out among the top 10 at his position group, either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, as far as their pass-rush grades go. That’s the same number of times that Ray Edwards has in that span.

I’m not suggesting that Williams and Edwards are on the same level with that statement, just indicating that Williams is not on a level with players like John Abraham, DeMarcus Ware or Cameron Wake in that they consistently dominate over multiple seasons.

Clowney could have a long, productive career and not be the transcendent player that he’s expected to be. Or he could completely blow away all expectations and achieve greatness. And that’s the gamble of the draft.

Would you part ways with multiple picks if you knew you were just getting Mario Williams? At first glance, most would say yes. But what if I told you that over the past six seasons there have been 18 rushers that have finished among Pro Football Focus’ top 10 pass-rushers at either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker at least three times, one more than Williams?

What if I told you 30 other rushers not named Mario Williams had two or more seasons finishing in the top 10? Would you be so quick to think that Williams is that rare talent deserving of a team bending over backwards to acquire him? If you do, that might also mean you’d be willing to do so for Brian Robison, Cliff Avril, Justin Houston, Derrick Morgan and Anthony Spencer right?

But sure, maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t care if Williams hasn’t finished in the top 10 on a consistent basis based off some silly website that posts ‘advanced statistics.’ Aaron, you said it yourself that Pro Football Focus is by no means the gospel when it comes to evaluating football. The fact that Williams has 58 sacks, the seventh-most of any player, over the past six years is all I really care about.”

And you’d have a point. While Williams is not a dominator, he’s consistently good. He gives you peace of mind because you know you can rely on him to give you 8 to 15 sacks every year. But is that peace of mind worth parting ways with an extra second and/or third-round pick?

It’s a tough question that ultimately comes down to preference. Do you retain three or four picks that you’d have to part ways with to acquire Clowney and hope to plug three or four holes, versus trading up for Clowney just to plug one? If you hold onto the picks, in all likelihood none of those players will plug their respective holes as ably as Clowney could his.

I don’t have an answer for the question. My personal preference is that I keep the picks. I’d rather have three good players than one great player. The exception to that rule is at quarterback. A quarterback impacts so much about a football team, that it is worth the gamble on greatness at that position.

At the other positions, not so much. Now a dominant pass-rusher probably does come in second-place in terms of ranking the potential impact of a single position or role. And I’d probably also make an exception if said pass-rusher happened to be Bruce Smith, Reggie White or Lawrence Taylor.

But I don’t believe Clowney is going to be on par with those players. He has the potential to be, at least from a pure athletic standpoint, but I don’t think he has the hunger to live up to that potential. The fact that he shut it down this past year tells me that.

Honestly, I really don’t really blame Clowney for basically taking this past year off. I think most people if put in his situation would have done the same. But that only accentuates my point. Most people aren’t Reggie White or LT. They are of a truly rare breed.

Everything about Clowney to me says he’ll be just like Julius Peppers, a player with incredible gifts that didn’t always give 100 percent effort. We’ve now seen Peppers operate for a dozen years, and he’s been very good in that time and may ultimately wind up in the Hall of Fame when his career is over. But 20 years from now, will he be considered a legend like Smith, White or Taylor? Absolutely not.

In truth, if you’ve been a Falcon fan for long enough, you’ve been through this song and dance before. It is no different than when we moved up to get Michael Vick in 2001. Vick was expected to be a transcendent talent that was going to change the way the quarterback position was played. That expectation did not come to fruition.

That’s one of the reasons why I have been less than enthusiastic about supporting the Falcons trading up for Clowney throughout this offseason. But the point of this article is neither to condemn the possible trade for Clowney, nor endorse it.

Nobody really has a clue about how it will turn out, including myself. The Falcons could keep their draft picks, and wind up drafting three or four nondescript players. Or they could get three or four players that put the franchise back on a path to a Super Bowl. They could trade up for Clowney and he could be that transcendent player that puts Peppers and Mario Williams to shame. Or he could just be a solid, productive player that never sets the world on fire.

The point I’ve spent a considerable number of words getting to is there there is going to both a give and a take regardless of the decision the Falcons make.

At this time, I believe the Falcons will move up to get Clowney. And regardless of how Clowney’s career plays out, what will ultimately decide if that is a good decision is how the team utilizes the picks it manages to retain.

I’m expecting that to move up to the second overall spot where the Falcons could take Clowney, they’d have to give up second, third and fourth-round picks. Based off the traditional draft trade value chart, this year’s second (37th overall) and fourth-round (103rd overall) picks would amount to 618 points, which coupled with the sixth overall selection would equal 2,218 points. That leaves an additional 382 points needed to sweeten the pot to merit the second overall selection. That would be the rough equivalent of the 52nd overall pick, which is the 20th selection in the second round. Thus, if the Falcons managed to be a wildcard team in 2014, their second-round pick in 2015 would be enough to make up the difference. But I could imagine the Falcons opting instead to give up a conditional third-round pick from their 2015 pool of picks instead. That condition would likely be based on Clowney’s production in 2014 (based on sack totals, games played, or a combination of both) that could potentially make that third-rounder into a second-rounder if Clowney has a big rookie season.

This of course is purely speculative on my part, but it’s sort of the vicinity of what I think it’d take to get Clowney.

That would leave the Falcons with just their third-round pick (68th overall) and compensatory fourth-round pick (139th overall) in the premium rounds of the 2014 draft. The chances they get stud players with those picks is very low. As my post last week illustrated, only five players drafted in the third and fourth rounds between 2007-09 turned into A or B-level (i.e. blue or red chip) players after five years. That represents only 2.3 percent of the players drafted in those rounds over that span. In fact, getting a C-level player in those rounds is going to be very hard, as only 47 (or 21.7 percent) of third and fourth-rounders turned into solid starters or better after five years.

And ultimately if you’re going to look back with negativity at the Julio Jones trade from 2011, it was this inability to hit on the picks we kept that would be the argument why that trade was a bad one.

The Falcons traded a first, second, and a pair of fourth-round picks in 2011 and 2012 to move up to get Jones. They managed to retain a third in 2011 that turned out to be linebacker Akeem Dent, and their top two selections in 2012 were offensive linemen Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes.

There’s a very good possibility that none of those players will begin the 2014 season as starters. All three are on a path to becoming D-level players, and possibly Fs if they wash out of the league between now and 2016.

Compounding that problem is that the team’s draft record under general manager Thomas Dimitroff outside the first and second rounds isn’t particularly good. It would be one thing if every year the Falcons were drafting multiple players like Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann and Corey Peters in rounds three through seven, but they simply are not.

It’s rather simple, if the Falcons whiff on the picks they manage to keep in any Clowney trade, then it really doesn’t matter how good a player Clowney is. Julio Jones doesn’t cover up for the fact that Dent, Konz and Holmes aren’t particularly good. Nor does he mask the fact that the Falcons let three much better players in Curtis Lofton, Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo walk to get those guys on the field.

If the Falcons surround Clowney with players like DeCoud and Peters with their kept selections, then the trade will work in their favor. But if those kept picks turn into additions like Chevis Jackson and Lawrence Sidbury, then the trade is doomed.

So in the end, perhaps the biggest question of the offseason is not whether the team will trade up for Clowney. Because whether the Falcons move up, stay put or move back in the first round, there is a very good probability that whoever they wind up with is going to be talented player that has a good chance of turning into a pretty good NFL player.

But the bigger question is going to be as we get deeper in the draft, are the Falcons going to find similar success?

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