At 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds, Peppers was so impressive in Carolina that he once rushed the quarterback in a game against Arizona, pivoted and ran 30 yards downfield to tackle Cardinals running back Marcel Shipp on a play that started with a screen pass. "Pep brought instant credibility to our team," said Buckner, who was a defensive tackle for the Panthers from 2001 to 2005. "He was an elite player, and Coach [John] Fox and [defensive coordinator Jack] Del Rio wanted to build a team from the inside out. Pep made all three spots on the defensive line better just because of all the attention he received."
Buckner added that Peppers' mental makeup was an underrated aspect of his game, saying, "If you have a bad game as a top pick, you have to be able to handle the criticism, and Julius could do that. He'd have years where he would have double-digit sacks and people would still say he wasn't doing enough." Clowney will surely face similar expectations if for no other reason than he's already heavily scrutinized at South Carolina. He's been knocked this season for taking plays off, allegedly telling Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier on game day that he was sitting out with an injury and producing underwhelming numbers (he has two sacks this season after amassing 13 in 2012).
One NFC general manager said Clowney does look "like a player who is playing around the edges to avoid getting hurt," but the AFC scout said some of the jabs at Clowney are unfair. "He does take plays off, but a lot of guys do that," the AFC scout said. "He also doesn't have any legal issues. The big thing with him is that he's used to being on his own program because that's probably how Spurrier got him in the first place."
"You go back and look at recent drafts, and most high picks that were busts didn't fail because of talent," McShay said. "Eight out of 10 times, it was a character flaw or injuries that hurt them. So everybody will do their due diligence on Clowney and try to unearth some things that have come up in this process. If it was a different prospect, those same [personnel types] would just check off the boxes because they'd know the player could handle things [maturely]."
The good news for whichever team picks No. 1 is that it will have plenty of time to do that homework on Clowney and Bridgewater. There's also a decent chance that its needs will be so apparent that the choice will be obvious or that another player will enter the conversation. That said, there's also more time for second guessing, overthinking and concerns about public reaction. As Casserly said of Williams, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Texans who's now with the Buffalo Bills, "The city of Houston never forgave Mario for being the first pick in the draft.
"I've heard people say that you can afford to make mistakes [with the top pick] because the money is different now [with the rookie salary scale]," Casserly said. "But I don't believe in that because it still comes down to taking a player you need. When you look at it that way, you wouldn't make any different decision. You still put the same amount of pressure on yourself, and you still can't afford to make a mistake."