We used to hear it all the time as players in the NFL: It doesn't matter what you did last year. It doesn't matter what you did last month. It doesn't matter what you did last game.
The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" league. Keep producing and you'll keep your spot on the roster. Stop producing and you'll become a JAG (just a guy). You'll eventually have your locker cleaned out as others pass you by.
This seems especially pertinent in regards to Jadeveon Clowney. The South Carolina star defensive lineman held himself out of last week's game against Kentucky because of an unclear rib injury, a decision that has turned some against him and called his toughness and commitment to the Gamecocks into question.
Some have also wondered if NFL teams are becoming more concerned about Clowney - who was the consensus No. 1 prospect last year as a sophomore but couldn't turn pro due to draft rules - and if his draft stock is dropping. With the draft seven months away, it's too early to say Clowney is actually "falling" in the eyes of NFL teams. He's still an elite talent who could be picked No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft.
Unlike a year ago, though, a quality alternative has emerged to challenge Clowney as the first defensive player taken: UCLA linebacker/edge rusher Anthony Barr.
Based on the game tape I've seen recently, if I were the general manager of an NFL team in need of a defensive difference-maker, I would draft Barr ahead of Clowney. It has nothing to do with Clowney holding out against Kentucky or anything that's been said about him since.
I prefer Barr as a prospect because of his versatility, effort and overall upside. Let's break down all three.
Multi-dimensional difference maker
More than Clowney, Barr fits the mold of the new breed of edge defenders (DEs/OLBs) who will be increasingly coveted by general managers and defensive coordinators in the NFL. The new breed must be versatile enough to be effective in up-tempo/no-huddle offenses and athletic enough to counterpunch dual-threat quarterbacks. Even teams that run 4-3 defenses are being forced to also install 3-4 schemes so they can combat new offensive attacks.
Up-tempo/no-huddle offenses are becoming more prevalent in the NFL just as they have in the collegiate ranks. In 2012, New England coach Bill Belichick met with then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly to pick his brain on how to operate a fast-paced offensive machine. New England's plays per game jumped from 67 two seasons ago to 74 last season. Other NFL teams are evolving too. This year, there are already four teams averaging more than 70 plays per game, when as recently as 2010 there were zero.
When offenses operate out of the no-huddle, it doesn't allow enough time for defenses to make substitutions. Defensive coordinators in years past were able to substitute their interior linemen and edge defenders depending on the down, distance and situation. If it was an obvious run down, they could bring in their hefty, stout run-stuffers. If it was an obvious passing down, they could rotate their personnel while the offense huddled and put their speedy, more athletic pass rushers and cover men on the field.
Those days are starting to fade away. More offenses are implementing no-huddle philosophies that put defenses at a disadvantage by forcing them to play ball with whomever they have on the field when the no-huddle attack kicks in. Because of this, NFL teams will covet multi-dimensional edge defenders like Barr more than one-dimensional players like Clowney.
Players like Barr are every-down difference makers who can be effective in many different ways, primarily three:
1) They are big and stout enough to hold their ground and set the edge versus the run.
2) They are strong and explosive enough to put their hand in the turf and battle brawny offensive linemen while rushing the quarterback when it is a pass.
3) Most importantly, they are athletic and agile enough to stand up, play in space, drop into zone coverage and cover tight ends man-to-man.
Check out the next two photos that spotlight Barr's versatility. Here's the first:
You'll see the kind of respect Barr's dynamism brings as a pass rusher (No. 11 in white in the yellow box). You'll see that Utah had three men designated to block him: two offensive linemen and one running back.
This allowed for UCLA's other pass rushers to have one-on-one matchups. Both Keenan Graham (first arrow from left) and Deon Hollins (third arrow from left) were able to put pressure on Utah quarterback Travis Wilson on this play, which resulted in an interception for UCLA.
Here's the second photo:
Notice the respect Barr's athleticism gets from his defensive coordinator, Lou Spanos. Barr is walked out on the slot receiver and on this play he smothered him, forcing the quarterback to go to a different read.
When I watched this clip on tape, I was impressed that the 6-foot-4, 248-pound Barr executed his technique effectively, but I was more impressed with the ease and apparent effortlessness with which he handled this down. This kid is a phenomenal athlete and is extremely impressive when playing in space.
Effort and conditioning
The last thing a GM wants to wonder is whether a player who shows poor effort on film will become even lazier when he gets a big payday after he's drafted.
The worst types of high-round draft picks are those who get "fat cat" syndrome. I saw several players during my nine years in the NFL who fit this category.
When you flip on the tape to watch Barr, it is apparent he is a well-conditioned athlete who plays hard on almost every down. Check out this shot from his last game against Utah:
The play started at the 25-yard line but, as you can see, Barr ran more than 15 yards down the field chasing the ball carrier and finishing the play.
Barr, a senior, has played only 18 games on defense for UCLA after spending his first two seasons as a running back. This guy is like an untouched piece of marble for NFL coaches to sculpt. They don't expect Barr to have refined technique, but that's a good thing.
Rodin and Bernini would have much rather preferred to shape a block of marble that hadn't been worked upon. Sometimes players can develop bad habits if they haven't been trained properly, which can be difficult to correct. This can't be the case with Barr, who hasn't played defense long enough to develop any bad habits.
I compare Barr's inexperience to that of last year's No. 5 overall pick Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah of the Detroit Lions. Ansah was an international prospect who made up for his lack of football experience with raw universal talent.
Ansah, a 6-5, 271-pound physical freak from Accra, Ghana, enrolled at BYU to play basketball, but after failing to make the team two years in a row, he tried football. He had zero knowledge of the game and had never even seen a football game on television. In only one season as a full-time starter at BYU, Ansah had 62 tackles, 13 for loss, and 4.5 sacks. He also had nine pass breakups, one forced fumble and one interception. In his rookie season with Detroit, he has already tallied 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in five games.
Barr is rough around the edges, but his combination of size, speed, power and athleticism give him unparalleled upside and the chance to make an immediate impact in the NFL, like Ansah, while he's still learning his position.
Clowney is great, but Barr's total package would be too much for me to pass up if I had a choice between the two in next year's draft.