Clay Matthews, Jr. – Not Just A Consolation Prize Anymore

When you look at the three of them [USC linebackers] as a group, the one that jumped out to me was Clay Matthews.  He looked like a 6’3”, 245 pound safety.  Fluid hips and caught the ball like a wide receiver.  So when I look at the definition of a first round linebacker, I want a guy that can catch the football and stay in the game on third down, and I think Clay Matthews can.  Mike Mayock, USC Pro Day.

In the last few months, I’ve been championing the cause of Malcolm Jenkins above all other draft prospects.  Other regular Texans bloggers have their personal favorites; some like Brian Cushing, others Michael Johnson, and still others prefer an offensive player like Michael Oher or Chris “Beanie” Wells.  Oddly, the name that gets the most attention as a probable first pick for the Texans is none of those respective favorites; instead, it's Clay Matthews Jr. 

Matthews has become a consolation prize for Texans fans; they simply hope that Rick Smith calls the name of “their guy”, but if he doesn’t Matthews will do.  Everyone that is guilty of this approach, myself included, has grossly underestimated Mr. Matthews.  After yesterday, none of us should make that mistake again.

Matthews, as well as the plethora of other prospective Trojan draftees, performed for NFL personnel today at the University of Southern California’s Pro Day.  I owe BRB a final Pro Day news and notes, which will describe the rest of USC participants’ performances, but for right now we’ll concentrate on Matthews.  That won’t be hard because he put on a show.

Matthews’ stock has risen dramatically in the last year.  In 2008, Matthews received his first chance to start after receiving Special Teams Player of the Year twice.  He made good on his opportunity to start by accumulating 54 tackles and 4 sacks.  That stat line, while impressive, isn’t earth-shattering, but Matthews’ post-collegiate workouts at the Senior Bowl and the Combine were eye-catching. 

Despite his 6’3” 240 pound frame, Matthews ran a 4.62 40 in Indianapolis, tops among LBs.  When it comes to front seven defensive players, most NFL coaches don’t care nearly as much about the entire 40 as they do the initial 10 yard time because it simulates the initial burst needed for pass rushers.  Matthews’ 10 yard dash time, 1.49, was better than what a player with the same 40 time usually runs, which shows that he has the explosion necessary for a pass rusher.  He also showed adeptness at coverage in drills at both the Combine and the Senior Bowl.  Even after those workouts though, he was nothing more than a safety net for the majority of Texans fans.

Yesterday, Matthews improved his 40 time to a 4.57 (10 time unknown) which is marginally faster than his Combine time, but even another 4.62 would have been notable considering he weighed in at 245 pounds, a full five pounds heavier than what he weighed in Indianapolis showing, that he can still easily add muscle to his frame.  He ran positional drills in which he impressed onlookers with his athleticism, including a ridiculous would-be interception in pass coverage drills.

The more I think about Matthews, the more he excites me.  Yes, he doesn’t have much starting experience, but there are a couple of silver linings to that statement.  First of all, he doesn’t have the wear-and-tear that other prospects do entering the draft (like Brian Cushing).  Secondly, Matthews has had an uphill battle his entire career, which has instilled an incredible work ethic in him.  That work ethic, combined with the incredible Matthews football lineage, will help him immensely in the next level.  Also, Matthews scored a 27 on the Wonderlic test at the Combine, which is 8 points higher than the average LB entering the draft. 

Matthews is now my top-rated OLB in the Draft.  He has shown more ability to support the run, rush the passer, and cover TEs and RBs better than any other SLB candidate.  He is still a little small for the position, but if anyone will work to put weight on, it's Matthews.  As stated before, we need a player that will provide significant impact on every down, which will eliminate a lot of players from consideration, such as DEs who would only fill into a rotation at the position.  Furthermore, a DE would likely only help the Texans’ pass rush.  A FS like Malcolm Jenkins, as much as I like him, would only help pass coverage.  Matthews would help both areas, as well as support against the run.

Matthews’ success may present a problem though.  I’m now not sure how far we would be able to trade down and still be able to select Matthews.  While both San Diego and Denver (with the Chicago pick) have other needs besides OLB, they might be tempted to take a player with upside like Matthews.  Furthermore, New Orleans had a strong showing at USC’s Pro Day, including attendance by head coach Sean Payton.  I think it is likely they’ll take one of the three elite LBs. Let’s just hope that they like Brian Cushing or Rey Maualuga more that Matthews.

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