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2011 NFL Draft: So You've Drafted Adrian Clayborn

Congratulations, Tampa Bay fans! You're made the wonderful decision to draft Adrian Clayborn! Like any responsible prospective selector, you're no doubt filled with questions about your new draft pick. We here at Black Heart Gold Pants will try our best to answer any questions you might have.

Is this Adrian Clayborn guy any good?  Funny you should ask that around these parts.  Ultimately, there isn't that much disagreement about whether or not he's any good (he is), but rather how good he is (or can be).  If you'd asked us this question a year ago, the answer would have been an unqualified -- and unanimous -- "hell yes, he's really damn good."  That's when he was coming off a breakout junior season: 70 tackles, 20 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, Orange Bowl MVP, 1st-team All-Big Ten, and a smattering of second-tier All-America honors.  He was also at his best in Iowa's biggest games; he basically single-handedly swung the Penn State game in Iowa's favor with this play and he wreaked so much havoc on Georgia Tech's vaunted flexbone attack in the Orange Bowl that they were reduced to just running away from him in the second half to get any semblance of an offense going. He was even sublime in a losing effort, notching 12 tackles, 3 TFL, and a sack against Ohio State in a 27-24 OT loss in the de facto Big Ten Championship Game.  

A year ago the world was his oyster and Iowa fans were thinking big things -- like Ndamukong Suh-level big things -- for Clayborn in 2010.  And then the 2010 season happened and Clayborn ended his Iowa career with neither a bang nor a fizzle but a prolonged "meh."  His numbers were down across the board -- 52 tackles, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks -- and though he earned 1st-team All-Big Ten honors and even more All-America love than he did the year prior, it was tough to shake the thought that he was earning those plaudits more on name value than on the basis of on-field accomplishments.  There was no shortage of potential theories for Clayborn's diminished impact in 2011 -- increased attention from offenses, more chipping from fullbacks and tight ends, injury (he was the victim of a particularly nasty-looking chop block in the Wisconsin game, although neither Clayborn nor any Iowa source ever acknowledged that as the source of any damage to Clayborn), strategic changes to cover up for the diminished capability of the linebackers behind him (i.e., more responsibility in edge containment and bottling up the running game), lack of effort, coasting on past accomplishments -- and, as is so often the case, the true answer is probably a mixture of all of the above.  

Regardless, he was nowhere near as dominant in 2010 as he was in 2009; if the enduring image of his 2009 campaign was the sensational punt block-and-return against Penn State, the enduring image of his 2010 campaign might sadly have been the shot of him on the sideline, sucking wind, near the end of the Northwestern game.  Ultimately, that's an unfair characterization of Clayborn -- while it didn't reach the heights Iowa fans dreamed of, he didn't really have a bad season (nor was he the only Iowa lineman to put to disappointing numbers; Iowa returned all four defensive linemen in 2010 and only one -- Karl Klug -- put up better numbers in 2010 than 2009) and he's still a very talented NFL prospect at defensive end.

Wasn't this guy a potential top 5-10 pick a year ago?  What's he doing loitering in the 20s?  Well, see above for the long version; the Reader's Digest version is that his stock was sky-high a year ago after an incredibly dominant performance in the Orange Bowl and it tumbled a bit in the face of worse-than-expected numbers in his senior season.  Honestly, his stock was probably a bit overinflated at that point, but the multi-million dollar question remains: who's the real Adrian Clayborn, the guy who was, quite literally, a game-changer in 2009 or the guy who was solid but not as spectacular in 2010?  Good question!  If we had a good answer, we'd probably be making bank as an NFL talent evaluator and not slaving away in the blogmines.  That's a roundabout way of saying... we have no idea.  But production (or rather, his diminished production in 2010) is the reason his draft stock went a-tumbling a bit this year.  Well, that and a certain pesky arm thing...

Wait, what about this arm thing?  Funny story -- seriously, you're never going to believe this -- but Clayborn's kinda sorta been ripping shit up in college with one good arm.  

Holy Richard Kimble, one arm?  That's insane!  Yeah, it really kinda is, but before you go scratching him off your big board because, hell's bells, there's just no way you're drafting a one-armed defensive end, it's not really as bad as it sounds (promise!).  He was born with Erb's palsy, a disorder which caused nerve damage in his right arm; even now he's unable to fully extend that arm and he has a more limited wingspan than many other elite defensive end prospects.  While that's certainly a potential red flag, it didn't seem to slow him down too much in the Big Ten and there are some mammoth (and very skilled) offensive linemen in that league.  Some coaches even see the arm issue as potential (slight) positive:

Others, like one coach strongly interested in him, actually see a plus in what he's overcome. "It shows what kind of guy he is, to have overcome that,'' the coach told me. "I love him. I love everything about him.''

To compensate, Clayborn has developed very strong hands and forearms so he can disengage from blocks quickly. Even though he doesn't have the kind of explosive first step that some pass rushers do, he does have the ability to make it around the edge quickly. Scouts see an effort player who uses his leverage and skills learned at Iowa to overcome whatever weakness he has in his right arm and shoulder.

So is that his punching arm?  Oh, so you heard about that, huh?

Yeah.  What about these "character issues"?  Look, we don't condone violence, but this was a story that was blown slightly out of proportion.  The initial charge was assault causing bodily injury, but he later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and that should say something about the severity of the actual incident.  There's also the issue that during the incident the victim called Clayborn a word that starts with "n" and rhymes with "digger;" again, we don't condone violence, but we can probably all agree that it's really not a great idea to use that word in a heated situation with a 6'4", 285 lb. African-American gentleman.  Beyond L' Affaire du Cabbie, Clayborn's record in Iowa City was pretty much spotless; he didn't even pick up one of the ubiquitous PAULA (possession of alcohol under the legal age) or OWI tickets that are a rite of passage for most Iowa players.  (Although he did pick up a crazed stalkerlady during his time at Iowa; apparently chicks dig the dreads.)

What's Clayborn's strength?  Clayborn is versatile and good at most of the things you typically expect of defensive linemen: contain the edge, shut down the running game, rush the passer, etc.  It's the latter skill that's probably his strongest attribute.  And let's be honest: no one's spending first-round draft picks on defensive ends who are best at sealing off the edge and slowing down running backs.  The biggest knock on his pass-rushing ability is that he doesn't have the biggest repertoire of moves; apart from an occasional swim move, he was a pretty big fan of the bull rush and used it extensively.  The thing is, even if Clayborn's moves came up wanting in the originality department, the truth is they worked more often than not (in 2008-9, at least), even against the best competition.  Clayborn got the better of Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi (likely a fellow 1st-round pick this year) in 2009 and was excellent against Ohio State's very good offensive line.  On the other hand, they didn't appear quite so effective in 2010, so we're back to the "who's the real Adrian Clayborn?" question -- and we still don't have a good answer to that question.

It's impossible to offer unqualified praise for Clayborn's motor after the 2010 season featured way too many shots of him kneeling on the sideline in the fourth quarter, but in general Clayborn had a pretty ferocious work ethic on the field.  Hell, even in the game that's become emblematic of his late-season swoon (the Northwestern debacle), at least one expert (former player personnel executive Gil Brandt) found a play near the end that showed off Clayborn's hustle:

"I just happened to be looking at the (2010) Northwestern game," said Brandt, who spent three decades as the vice president of player personnel with the Dallas Cowboys. "I thought at the end of the game, when the game was on the line, he came from the right side, the quarterback’s backside, and he was really hustling to make a play. I think that’s a good mark when you see a guy late in the year, who’s gotten a lot of accolades — rightfully so — and he’s working hard to be a better player.

"You classify that as a hustle play or a competitive play. That play meant a lot to me as far as evaluating."

Clayborn didn’t get to Northwestern’s Dan Persa on that play. He was a split-second late. Persa threw a touchdown pass that lifted the Wildcats to a 21-17 victory last November.

But that’s not the point to Brandt. What he saw was Clayborn — whose hustle as a senior was questioned in recent months in the NFL draft blogosphere — playing with max effort on the 82nd snap of the season’s 10th game.

There's no doubt that Clayborn is a fairly polarizing figure, both among draftniks and even Iowa fans.  Rightly or wrongly, many Iowa fans feel burned by a 2010 season that fell far short of expectations; as the leader of the defense and the guy who should have been the standout player, Clayborn has felt the brunt of that disappointment.  Maybe that's fair, maybe it isn't.  Despite the diminished numbers, his 2010 efforts have also been praised by many NFL scouts and NFL and college coaches.  Who's right, who's wrong?  Both?  Neither?  Maybe Clayborn's senior season is simply a big, dreadlocked Rorschach test: you see what you want to see.

Will Clayborn be awesome?  Again, we honestly have no idea.  It seems like it depends quite a bit on which team drafts him, what defensive system they're running, and how patient they're able to be with him.  There's been a little chatter that he might be able to play as an OLB/rush end in a 3-4 defense, but that doesn't seem like the greatest idea.  Iowa ran the (very very very) occasional zone blitz with Clayborn, but dropping into coverage is one thing -- covering a tight end is an entirely different kettle of fish and there's no indication that Clayborn would be particularly good at it. He has good speed, but he doesn't have ZOMG THAT'S AMAZING speed.  Ultimately, it seems like he's probably best-suited to playing in the same sort of defensive scheme he played in at Iowa: a base 4-3 defense that requires him to do some run containment, but mostly allows him to rush the passer -- that's what he's best at.  

On the right team, with the right players and coaches around him, there's every reason to think that Clayborn could thrive and become a very productive NFL player.  The current mock drafts have him going to Tampa Bay at #20 (AP), New Orleans at #24 or Atlanta at #27 (CNNSI), New Orleans at #24 or Atlanta at #27 (ESPN), Atlanta at #27 (Sporting News), New Orleans at #24 or Cleveland at #37 (Mocking The Draft), Tampa Bay at #20 or New Orleans at #24 (Nat'l Football Post).  Regardless of where he lands, though, we're really rooting for Clayborn to make it in the pros.  His senior year wasn't the campaign anyone was hoping for -- either for him or the Iowa team -- but he produced a lot of indelible memories in his Iowa career (the images of him tossing a hapless Penn State blocker ten yards before blocking a punt, scooping it up and returning it for a touchdown or of him slamming Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt into the ground repeatedly will linger on in our brainmeats for a very long time to come) and by most accounts he seemed like a genuinely good guy while he was at Iowa: quiet and thoughtful, but also funny at times.  He was a very likable guy who's worked his ass off to overcome certain obstacles in his life (his arm, a rough childhood); we certainly hope he makes it at the next level.

Anything else we should know?  He has a pretty badass dog named Ace, who occasionally helped out with Adrian's media commitments.