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Published: Monday, 4/19/2010

Draft experts debate Clausen's pro potential

Clausen Clausen
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The fate of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen will surely be a part of the drama that unfolds later this week during the first round of the NFL Draft.

"Of all the quarterbacks I've studied, he's probably the most ready to step in," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said during a conference call with writers. "He's LeBron James; he's Michael Jordan. With the game on the line, he wants to make the difference."

Jaworski may have been a bit over the top with his LBJ and MJ references, but he's not alone with high praise for the ex-Irish standout.

Still, Clausen is generally ranked second, in a coin flip with Texas' Colt McCoy, both trailing Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, in most experts' analysis of the top-shelf quarterbacks.

The exception would be Mel Kiper Jr., the guru of the college draft who's set to work the event for the 27th time for ESPN.

He has had Clausen No. 1 on his quarterback chart since the discussion began.

"Jimmy is a true competitor," Kiper said. "I would take him very high in the first round. People who don't like him can't give me a reason why they don't.

"His arm strength may not be John Elway-like, but it's very good. It's good enough. Everything Bradford didn't do in terms of [playing under] NFL conditions, Clausen did - taking snaps, commanding a huddle, looking down that gun barrel, while not playing on a perfect team. And from September on he played with an injury that would have sent most guys to surgery or to the sidelines.

"I have a very high grade on Sam Bradford, but I give a slight edge to Jimmy."

Jon Gruden, a former NFL head coach now on ESPN's staff, also was impressed with Clausen's ability to play through a right big toe injury that needed postseason surgery.

"He's a tough guy," Gruden said. "A lot of guys would have sat out with that injury. It wasn't just turf toe, there was ligament damage in there and it was painful. I really liked that he played through it. His football pedigree is probably as good as any three-year junior that has come out in a long time. He understands progressions, he understands situational football, he understands NFL passing concepts, and he's done it under center."

About the only unknown regarding Bradford, who suffered two shoulder injuries in a six-week stretch last season, is that he did not play in a pro-style offense at Oklahoma.

Clausen did so at Notre Dame under the tutelage of past - and now present - NFL offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Not only did he play through the pain in his final season, he improved statistically every year despite an offensive line that struggled in pass protection. In 2009, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,722 yards and 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Four straight season-ending losses to the likes of Navy, Pitt, Connecticut, and Stanford cost Weis his head coaching job, but took little luster off Clausen's performance, which capped a 60-touchdown passing career.

Of course, that's small potatoes next to Bradford, who had 86 touchdown passes in his first two seasons before missing nine games last year. He too is coming out a year early and has a height advantage over the 6-foot-3 Clausen.

"It's like standing next to

Vinny Testaverde," Gruden said of Bradford. "This is a big man, every bit of 6-5 and closing in on 240 pounds. He is really an imposing figure. I love his stroke. He can get it out of his hand quick. He can zip it and he's got touch."

Jaworski went a step beyond Testaverde. "When I look at Sam Bradford, I see a guy like Troy Aikman, a statuesque guy who can stay in the pocket and throw the football."

Nobody questions Bradford's intangibles. That's not the case with Clausen. Another ESPN talking head, Todd McShay, was quoted as saying Clausen lacks leadership skills and maturity.

"Maturity issues maybe were there when he came out of high school, but they're not there and haven't been there of late," countered Kiper.

Quarterback is the glamour position in the NFL and in its draft, so there's no lack of opinion and analysis. Sort through it all, and it figures Bradford will go No. 1 to the St. Louis Rams and that Clausen and McCoy will go next in that order.

A mock draft published yesterday had Clausen going 30th overall to Minnesota, but it's hard to imagine Cleveland, Oakland, Buffalo, and Jacksonville, resting in the 7-8-9-10 spots, all passing on a likely franchise quarterback.

Plus, who knows the dynamic in Pittsburgh, with the No. 18 pick, as Ben Roethlisberger's character stock continues to plummet?

We haven't even mentioned the Tim Tebow saga. Most experts feel that a team has to be convinced the ex-Florida star can eventually start at quarterback to be worth even a second-round pick. Others project him to play another position, anywhere from H-back to tight end to a situational wildcat-type quarterback.

Teams are always searching for a "sleeper," a Tom Brady-type who rises out of the late rounds, and Jaworski's candidate for that role in this week's draft is Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton.

There is so much interest in the position that Kiper is already looking ahead to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.

"I would say it's etched in stone," Kiper said. "It's going to be [the University of Washington's] Jake Locker. You can mark that down."

First, though, we have to mark down everything that happens this week.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.


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