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Jadeveon Clowney and the NFL Draft: Lessons from the 1984 NBA Draft

Would the Texans passing on Clowney be like the Blazers passing on Jordan?


I'm not old enough to remember the 1984 NBA Draft (I was a toddler at the time), but I vividly remember it being discussed years later when I watched NBA games as a teen. This was the draft when the Bulls selected Michael Jordan, not to mention the draft in which Naismith Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton were selected. You might imagine that Jordan was the first selected. You would be wrong, though. Jordan was selected third. Olajuwan was selected first, admittedly a reasonable pick in hindsight considering the career Olajuwan had. Olajuwan was utterly dominant in college at Houston and was widely projected as one of the next great centers at the time, which he indeed was. He wasn't the only one selected ahead of Jordan, though. Sam Bowie out of Kentucky was selected second by Portland. Bowie would go on to have a solid but injury-plagued career, and Portland fans are wondering how they let Jordan get away to this day.

Granted, as has been well-documented, the Blazers had their reasons for passing on Jordan. First of all, they were stacked at shooting guard with Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler. What they needed was a center who could help them compete with the Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bowie seemed like a good choice, not a prospect on Olajuwon's level, but a solid-looking player. For his part, while Jordan had been an All-American at North Carolina, it wasn't apparent to everyone that he would end up being likely the greatest player of all time. His athleticism and finishing ability had been underutilized by the conservative Dean Smith, and he wouldn't completely develop his outside shot until later in his career. Another factor militating against picking Jordan was that conventional wisdom in 1984 was that you built a championship contender around a great frontcourt, and particularly a great center. The pressure to do whatever it took to find a franchise center was high. There wasn't much precedence for teams without such a player winning titles prior to the success of the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls in the late 80s and early 90s. And heck, even the Pistons had Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.

Still, many were aware that the Blazers might be making a big mistake. Legendary Indiana coach Bobby Knight, who had coached Jordan at the 1984 Olympic Trials, told the Blazers' GM Stu Inman to draft Jordan. Infamously, when Inman said he needed a center, Knight told him to play Jordan at center. Knight was joking, of course, but the message was clear: Jordan is a can't-miss prospect who you'll regret passing on. It might not have been apparent to everyone at the time, but it was to people who knew basketball. Of course, Knight was right.

This discussion should sound familiar to Gamecocks fans. One of our own is slated to be among the first taken in the 2014 NFL Draft. He is widely regarded as the most talented player in the draft, and some think he could be a generation-defining player at his position. Yet, it's possible he'll drop a few spots because the teams with early picks aren't sure if he fits their needs, and they're not sure if he's as good as many experts say he is because his talents were sometimes hidden in college. Will Jadeveon Clowney be the Michael Jordan of this year's NFL Draft, the guy who falls a couple of spots and goes on to make the teams that passed on him regret it?

The question is a bit presumptuous. In part simply due to differences between the games, it's difficult to imagine any football player revolutionizing the sport like Jordan did in basketball, and it's even more difficult to say, "this is the precise guy who's going to do that." Still, there's a basic lesson to be learned from the Jordan scenario. The Houston Texans have the top pick in this year's NFL Draft, and they're in a position much like that of the Blazers. The Texans have a good defense already, one that got them into the NFL Playoffs in 2012-2013 as a three seed. They have a strong defensive line. What they don't have is a good QB, which is leading many prognosticators to predict they'll take either Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, or Johnny Manziel. Manziel is a favorite among the fans because he's a Texas legend, while Bortles and Bridgewater are more the pro-style QB Texans coach Bill O'Brien is most comfortable with.

While one certainly can't blame the Texans for wanting to address their biggest need, picking any of these three QBs over a once-in-a-generation talent like Clowney certainly has the feel of a pick that could come back to haunt Houston. If there was a player available like one of the Manning brothers or Andrew Luck, then sure. But there's really not a QB like that available this year, and QB prospects below that threshold are difficult to project in the NFL based on their college careers. All three big-time QBs available in this draft have their strengths, but all have weaknesses that suggest they might not pan out. Why not pick the sure thing in Clowney and see if you can find a Nick Foles or a Russell Wilson in the second or third rounds?

Of course, another factor here is that Houston's new DC, Romeo Crennel, has traditionally run a two-gap 3-4 in which the ends eat blocks for the linebackers. Unless Crennel modifies his scheme, Clowney's skills, which are decidedly those of a pass-rushing 4-3 end rather than a space-eating two-gap 3-4 end. This is a very real consideration, and if it's enough to push the Texans away from drafting Clowney, then perhaps they should consider trading the pick. If the decision is either taking one of these QBs with the first pick or trying to figure out a way to get a good QB elsewhere while also stockpiling other picks, maybe the choice is to trade. The value of the number one pick in a year when there's a clear-cut choice for most talented player in the draft is high. If you don't need bodies at that player's position, someone does, and they'll probably kill to get a high prospect. Could Atlanta, for instance, long thought to be an ideal landing spot for Clowney until it played its way out of a top pick in the final weeks of the season, be talked into trading multiple picks for the chance to pick Clowney? Maybe. It wouldn't be a bad trade for either Houston or Atlanta. Atlanta's not going to get a player like Clowney for its defensive line at the sixth pick. Houston might be able to get one of the top three QBs at the sixth pick, although its unlikely considering that while St. Louis may not want to take a QB, Cleveland and Jacksonville are almost certain to do so, while Oakland is likely to be interested in doing so, as well. As said, though, it's unclear that Houston can't get good value at QB with a later pick, and by trading Clowney, it can also rack up a few other picks to use to continue building its roster.

What do all of these suggestions have in common? Houston should be wary of making the near-sighted decision of taking a risk on a QB when it's got a sure thing in Clowney available who it can either take for itself of trade for huge value. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Just ask the Portland Trailblazers.