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Is Clowney The Next Lawrence Taylor Or Aundray Bruce?

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The bad decision to select draft bust Aundray Bruce haunted the Falcons for years. History may repeat itself if Atlanta picks DE Jadeveon Clowney and he continues on the same path to mediocrity. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
The bad decision to select draft bust Aundray Bruce haunted the Falcons for years. History may repeat itself if Atlanta picks DE Jadeveon Clowney and he continues on the same path to mediocrity. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

April marks the 26th anniversary of the 1988 NFL Draft, which was notorious for teams waiting until the third round to select quarterbacks. It’s also the anniversary of the biggest mistake in Atlanta Falcons history. The team used the first overall pick to nab Aundray Bruce, a defensive end who starred at Auburn. Never living up to the hype, Bruce went on to become the eighth largest bust in the history of the draft, according to Bleacher Report. History may repeat itself if Atlanta decides to trade up for the rights to select the controversial freak of nature Jadeveon Clowney. He and Bruce both share two key traits - experts labeled them as the next great pass rusher while also questioning their lackadaisical effort on the field. If Clowney doesn’t improve his work ethic soon, then he too will join Bruce in the pile of draft busts.

Draft insiders once dubbed Aundray Bruce “the next Lawrence Taylor”. After all, he was making highlights at Auburn, just as LT did at the Meadowlands. His first claim to fame came in 1987 against Georgia Tech when he picked off three passes and made ten unassisted tackles. Bruce went on to be named to the 1987 All-SEC and All-American teams. He also took home the 1987 Citrus Bowl MVP trophy.

On the other hand, there were some early signs of Bruce possibly cracking at the pro level. Some questioned his work ethic in college and his ability to grow into a leadership role. Bruce was a jokester on campus, and there were many instances of his nutty exploits. For example, Thomas George of The New York Times reported that the Auburn superstar “once took his 22-inch machete and ran yelling through a group of 500 high school cheerleaders at a clinic, wildly waving the knife and sending the frightened cheerleaders scurrying and screaming”. In addition, he would take tires off cars of Auburn freshman, chase the coaches while in the nude with a machete, and shoot arrows while talking to SEC officials about agents.

On top of all of those pranks, Bruce admitted to not giving it his all on the field.

'When the opponent is weak, I have a tendency not to come with it as hard,” the former All-American stated in a New York Times article. “I try to do just enough to make it obvious that I'm the better player, and then I save the rest for the games I know will mean most.”

Still, Atlanta picked Bruce with the first overall pick in 1988. At first, he really looked like he had a shot to walk in Taylor's footsteps. He ended his rookie campaign with 16 starts, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 70 tackles. But fans soon realized that Bruce wasn’t even a great starter, let alone the next great pass rusher. His production started to decline after his first season and by 1991, he played so poorly that he only started two games and recorded no relevant defensive stats whatsoever. In fact, the only contribution he made in his last season as a Falcon was making one catch for 11 yards. Bruce spent his last season playing linebacker and saw spot duty as at TE as well. Meanwhile, his immaturity continued to haunt him, as he got slapped with two paternity suits and was arrested for pulling a BB gun on a pizza delivery driver. Even though he went on to play seven more years as a member of the Oakland Raiders, Bruce failed to live up to the hype because of his poor work ethic and goofball nature.

26 years later, Atlanta is in a similar position. Whether they trade up or not, they have the chance to select a pass rusher that is a “once-in-20-years-guy”. The freakish athlete from South Carolina is even called “a meaner, nastier version of Julius Peppers” and  “the next Lawerence Taylor”.

The latter moniker sounds familiar, doesn't it? 

Like Bruce, Clowney is coming into the draft with plenty of hype and highlights. Despite his 6-6, 266-pound frame, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds (which is as fast as some of the wide receivers and running backs), jumped as high as 37 feet, five inches and jumped as long as 124 inches. All three are the best among DE prospects. Clowney shined even more at his pro day, performing well in his position drills.

By his sophomore season at South Carolina, he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy race and was unanimously named to the All-American team while winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the Ted Hendricks Award as the best defensive end in the nation and the 2012 AT&T All-America Player of the Year Award. Clowney was also a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Lombardi Award. He ended up tallying 54 tackles (23.5 for losses), 13 sacks, two batted passes and three forced fumbles.

But Clowney saved his biggest feat for the 2013 Capital One Bowl, where he tackled Michigan RB Vincent Smith so violently that he stripped the runner of the ball and his helmet. That play became an instant Youtube sensation, and eventually earned him an ESPY Award for the best play of the 2011-12 season.

As much as the football world is rooting for him to become a great pass rusher, people can't ignore the same two traits that dogged Bruce throughout his collegiate and professional career - poor work ethic and immaturity. The good news is that Clowney never admitted to slacking off. Sadly, his own head coach called him out on his lukewarm practice habits instead. Steve Spurrier knows how it feels to be a top prospect because he was once one himself, and turned out to be a bust. I understand why he would be skeptical about Clowney’s future in the NFL.

In addition, Atlanta fans can't forget Clowney’s forgettable junior season with the Gamecocks. It is true that he struggled with injuries and ailments throughout the season, but he still managed to start 11 games and only recorded three sacks. That’s 75 percent less than his 2012 totals. Injuries and double-teams are some of the excuses for the drop in sacks, but others speculate that he may have taken a vacation and not played hard to avoid further injury, knowing that he would be a top pick this year. Also, Clowney did receive two speeding tickets in one month during December of 2013. Even though he wasn’t as troublesome as Bruce, I can still see similar danger signs from Clowney.

If he is selected by the Faclons, I hope he can stay out of trouble and improve his work ethic. Perhaps he really can become the next great pass rusher and join the ranks of Peppers and Taylor.

Otherwise, Clowney may instead wind up becoming the next Aundray Bruce - another draft mistake.