Pop in a highlight tape of Da'Quan Bowers' junior season at Clemson, and it's easy to see why, as recently as January, he was considered a possibility for the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Of course, it's also easy to understand why Bowers actually went fifty-first when the draft finally rolled around in April, falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two-thirds of the way through the second round. Postseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus and lingering concerns about the long-term condition of his knee made it hard for teams to pull the trigger on Bowers with such a valuable commodity as a first-round pick, despite his elite talents.
It was, in the end, a risk-reward pick for the Buccaneers, who desperately needed to inject life into their pass rush, as evidenced by their first-round selection of Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. But, oh, the potential reward – the likely reward, the Buccaneers feel – is huge, and it's all there in that highlight tape.
"His tapes speak for themselves," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You're talking about a guy who played the whole season and was arguably a top-10 pick."
What becomes clear through film study of Bowers' 15.5-sack season in 2010 is that this is not a pure finesse player. Buccaneer fans will not grow weary watching Bowers race upfield again and again, trying to rely solely on his speed to get around the opposing blockers and get to the quarterback. Bowers knows the quickest way to the quarterback is often through his opponent, and he is adapt at getting low off the edge, getting leverage on the blocker and using his long arms to push him off balance and out of the way. In such instances, he maintains his speed as he slips by the blocker and fairly engulfs the quarterback with his 6-4, 280-pound frame. Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik calls Bowers a "speed-to-power" player.
After leading the nation with his 15.5 QB takedowns last year, Bowers won both the Hendricks Award, given to the nation's top defensive end, and the Nagurski Award, given to the top defensive player overall. Fresh off these accomplishments, and with no worries yet about his knee, Bowers was an obvious candidate for Carolina's pick at the beginning of Round One. High-ceiling pass-rushers are almost as coveted as franchise quarterbacks on draft weekend.
In the first iteration of Mel Kiper's mock draft, posted in mid-January, Bowers was slotted as the fourth overall pick, to Cincinnati. Even in March, after the NFL Scouting Combine and with campus Pro Days in full swing, fellow ESPN analyst Todd McShay had Bowers going sixth overall to the Cleveland Browns. According to McShay, that in itself was a surprising fall for Bowers, and only because of the knee concerns. McShay said Bowers had the "power, quickness and instincts to be an every-down end in the NFL."
Buccaneer personnel men agree. They also believe he will be playing in 2011 and for many years afterward, or they would not have made the selection.
"We feel like he's got a lot of production in him," said Dominik. "Here's a young man that's going to work his tail off to be the best he can be, no matter if he was drafted number one overall or 51 overall. He was going to provide the same emotional effort into becoming the greatest football player he can be.
"You're going to see the work ethic in this young man, you're going to see the drive in this young man, you're going to see the character in this young man on and off the football field that's going to give him every opportunity to succeed as long as possible."
Not surprisingly, the whole January-to-April transition in his draft "stock" was disappointing for Bowers, who has no worries about his future and is ready to get to work as soon as he can. He called the first two days of the draft "crazy long," and a bit grueling, but he greeted the phone call from the Buccaneers that Friday evening as good news.
"The knee is fine; it's getting better every day," he said. "I'm just ready to come to Tampa, get with the rest of my teammates and get ready to win a championship. It's all about teammates and teamwork and I'm ready to start building a relationship with those guys. I'm just glad for the opportunity that Tampa Bay gave me. I want to show them that they made a great pick and that it wasn't a mistake to pick me."
Obviously, the Buccaneers felt fortunate to find a player of top-10 value at their pick in the second round, and most draft pundits retroactively agreed that the Bowers selection brought immense value in the second round. There could be a fringe benefit to Bowers' long wait, too. The South Carolina native didn't oversell the 'chip-on-the-shoulder' angle of being passed up until #51, but did admit to being "motivated" by the circumstances. The Buccaneers may have just added an elite talent who comes in with the same sort of hunger to prove himself that an undrafted free agent would have.
"It's the 'come-from-the-bottom' type of reaction that I got from him," said Morris. "That's kind of how our team starts and what we're built off of. I believe Micheal Spurlock talked about that last year, and it's no different than his coach. [The media] doubted me, too. Just keep doubting Da'Quan and let's go out there and win together."
Dominik said the course of Bowers' rehab will determine whether or not he is on the field in Week One of the season. The general manager made it clear the Bucs won't rush Bowers, instead basing their decisions on how best to make the young man's career as long as possible. Still, it's clear that both the player and the team believe he will be making plays sooner rather than later.
"I'll be ready to get on the field whenever they need me to," said Bowers. "Whenever they say, 'Da'Quan, we're ready for you to hit the field,' that is when I'll hit the field running. That may be at two weeks, or that may be at two months, but whenever they let me go, I'm going."
And when they do, the Buccaneers could end up with one of the most talented defensive fronts in team history. The high-water mark for the franchise in terms of the defensive line obviously came in the late '90s and early '00s, when Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice were two of the most feared pass-rushers in the entire NFL and the likes of Marcus Jones, Greg Spires and Anthony McFarland provided strong support.
The Bucs would be thrilled to find their pass rush returned to the level it found in 2000, when it set a team single-season record with 55 sacks even before the 2001 arrival of Rice. On paper, it has the talent to get there, given that Clayborn and Bowers will be joining the Bucs' first two strong D-Line talents from the 2009 draft, Roy Miller and Kyle Moore, also remain, making the rotation both talented and deep. Never before in team history has the team devoted so many premium draft assets to the defensive line in so short a time.
And in terms of getting to the quarterback, Bowers has the talent to potentially emerge as the most productive of the bunch, though Clayborn will surely give him a run for the money. In addition to his sack total last fall, the very active Bowers also had a nation-leading 26 tackles for loss, plus 20 quarterback pressures and 74 stops overall, a high total for a defensive end.
"I think I bring a great amount of talent to the front line," he said. "I was always known as a pretty decent pass rusher; with the help of the coaches there, I can only get better. That's why I'm looking forward to getting with the staff and working on my craft and being the best pass rusher I can be.
"It's going to be exciting. They have those great guys. Gerald McCoy's there, they just drafted AC in Adrian Clayborn and [now] myself, we're all just going to combine and just give them everything we've got. We're going to be the young guys that try to take that team to an NFL championship."