By Casan Scott – Baylor University
Jadeveon Clowney is thought of as a “once-in-a-decade” or even “once-in-a-generation” pass rushing talent by many. Once the top rated high school talent in the country, Clowney has retained that distinction through 3 years in college football’s most dominant conference. Super-talents like Clowney have traditionally been gambled on in the NFL draft with little idea of what future production is actually statistically anticipated. For all of the concerns over his work ethic, dedication, and professionalism, Clowney’s athleticism and potential have never been called into question. But is his athleticism actually that rare? And is his talent worth gambling millions of dollars and the 1st overall pick on? This article aims to objectify exactly how rare Jadeveon Clowney’s athleticism is in a historical sense.
Jadeveon Clowney set the NFL draft world on fire at this year’s combine when he delivered one of the most talked-about combine performances of recent memory, primarily driven by his blistering 40 yard dash time of 4.53. Over the years, however, I recall players like Vernon Gholston, Mario Williams, and even Ziggy Ansah displaying mind-boggling athleticism in drills. But if each year a player displays unseen athleticism at the combine, who is really impressive enough that we deem them “Once-in-a-decade?”
To attempt to quantify how uncommon Jadeveon Clowney’s athleticism is, I probability ranked the most impressive individual drills and overall workouts of 82 defensive ends over the past decade. I applied a Weibull ranking of all 82 players’ 40-time, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, shuttle run, and 3-cone drill. What I saw was that Clowney’s 40-time was indeed VERY rare and truly “once-in-a-decade.” However, his overall combine performance shows that he wasn’t all that different from even the top DE prospect last year. Below I list 6 high profile picks from recent years plus Jadeveon Clowney and there combine results (Table 1) and associated ranks (Table 2) among the class of 82 defensive ends:
Table 1: Raw combine results for 7 high profile DEs.
Table 2: Probability ranking out of entire class of 82 for each combine drill and cumulative combine workout.
Jadeveon Clowney’s 40 yard dash time registered in the 99th percentile of the class. Likewise, his leaping ability and shuttle run were in the 90th percentile; this is truly elite lower body explosion. However, his height, weight, bench press, and 3-cone drill were average to below average rankings within the class. This lowered his average rank for the combine to 66. For comparison, Mario Williams had the highest overall average ranking at 83, and Ziggy Ansah actually shared an average ranking of 66. In the chart below, we see where Clowney’s average rank places him throughout the DEs scoring average ranking of 40 or better for the entire group of 82 (Figure1):
Figure 1: Average Probability Rank for cumulative NFL Combine performance
This is actually pretty impressive company. Among the players ranked ahead of Clowney, JJ Watt is one year removed from NFL Defensive POY, while Margus Hunt is a world class track-and-field athlete. Of the players ranked below Clowney, Chandler Jones is a member of possibly the most athletic family in sports (see Jon and Arthur Jones) and Robert Quinn led the NFC in sacks last year.
For a prospect like Jadeveon Clowney, many superlatives are thrown around. There are videos on YouTube® of Clowney anchoring his high school 4×100 meter relay team. Everyone remembers his helmet-projecting hit against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. We saw him display unseen speed during his 40 yard dash in February. But across all combine drills, he performed quite similarly to Ziggy Ansah from last year’s draft. So, how rare a prospect is he exactly? Although he did run faster than nearly everyone his size in the past 10 years, his overall workout was merely as good as last year’s best. By creating Probabilistic Distributions, we can see that there is convincing evidence that Jadeveon Clowney is undeniably an elite athletic specimen, but not exactly “Once-in-a-decade.”
…And does this athleticism ensure anything for his future in the NFL? My next article will aim to uncover what significance, if any, the combine plays into predicting a defensive end’s production in the NFL.
Feel free to contact me at Casan_Scott@Baylor.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org for any comments, questions, or advice. I’d love to share any methods, coding, etc. to anyone interested.