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Clausen enters NFL Draft; is he a fit in Buffalo?

The Buffalo Bills are back to work on the practice field today, but with news scant and the team not very interesting to begin with, it's still, unfortunately, more intriguing to ponder future iterations of the Bills than the current outfit. Naturally, we're going to be taking a brief field trip from talking about the Bills this afternoon - these Bills, anyway - and instead focus on the bigger news of the day.

Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen has announced his intentions to enter the 2010 NFL Draft. [Mocking the Draft]

Playing quarterback for the New York Yankees of college football, Clausen is one of the most highly-debated prospects in the nation simply because of the golden helmet he wore at Notre Dame. The 6'3", 226-pound junior was college football's second-highest rated passer in 2009, and given the fact that his head coach, Charlie Weis, was recently fired by ND, his declaration for next April's draft is not anywhere near surprising.

The natural thought process for Bills fans at this point is something along the lines of, "Hey, Buffalo's quarterbacks stink, and a new regime will, of course, want a new quarterback. Is Jimmy Clausen the answer?" Time will tell, but fans shouldn't dismiss him as a potential remedy to the team's longest-standing personnel issue out of habit.

Clausen the player
Clausen, as mentioned, measures in at 6'3" and 226 pounds, but it wouldn't surprise me - nor Rumblings draft guru Der Jaeger - if he measured in shorter than that at next February's NFL Combine. He doesn't look too tall on film, though he's certainly tall enough where his height won't be a huge problem for him. He's packed on a lot of weight over the past three seasons at Notre Dame, and while he's still skinny, he's thick enough to absorb hits and stay strong in the pocket.

Clausen's arm isn't elite - you won't be wowed by the velocity on any of his throws - but it's strong enough where he can hurt a defense at all levels of the field. He's pretty accurate and is able to put a nice touch on short and immediate throws; he can squeeze the ball into a tight window, too. He's a playmaker with his arm, but he's very much a pocket quarterback; he's mobile enough to roll out and pick up the occasional first down on a scramble, but his legs are decidedly not a weapon for him.

Where Clausen has distinct advantages over many of the other quarterbacks that will be available next April is in the fact that he's played - and excelled - in a pro-style offense, and that he's an elite decision-maker. As a sophomore in 2008, Clausen completed 60% of his passes and had a 25-17 TD-INT ratio. Those numbers increased dramatically as a junior, when he completed 68% of his passes and had a 28-4 TD-INT ratio. As Mocking the Draft notes in the story linked above the fold, three of Clausen's four interceptions came on tipped passes. The kid didn't make many mistakes in his final year in college.

Clausen was 16-19 at Notre Dame. In his junior season, Notre Dame finished 6-6, but of those six losses, the Irish scored at least 21 points in all of them. Their two biggest losses on the season were 7-point losses to USC and Stanford. He struggled in three games, but still tossed four touchdowns in those games, and in a win at Purdue, he played through a tough injury to his foot. Clausen played with grit as a junior, getting banged up behind a rather mediocre offensive line, yet he still started every game and put up elite numbers.

The big questions surrounding Clausen
Clausen is consistent mechanically, but he's not perfect. He's got a bit of a windup, and he's kind of slow and almost lethargic in his drops - though the ball always comes out quickly. Again - he's not fleet of foot, and he'll need a little work in his drops, in my opinion. His tools are not elite, but they're very good - and in a quarterback draft class that has been slightly overrated, Clausen's well-rounded physical and scheme attributes will likely get him drafted a touch higher than his skill and potential probably dictate.

People have, in the past, questioned Clausen's maturity and mental fortitude. He grew up in California and had tremendous hype as a high school product, and while he struggled mentally early on because of this, he grew a bit as a leader in South Bend. Through tremendous adversity and ridiculous expectations, Clausen has flourished and, perhaps more importantly, gotten better each season. He's rallied the troops for some thrilling late-game performances - in both victory and defeat. His transition to the NFL might not be immediate, but given what he's already experienced, I find it highly unlikely that the NFL game will faze him.

You'll also hear plenty of arguments that Clausen worked in a system that accentuated quarterback stats, and that he was surrounded by top-flight talent. Both are true. Weis has always had productive quarterbacks, wherever he's been, and the likes of Golden Tate (who also announced his intentions to go pro today), Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph gave Clausen tremendous skill positional assets to utilize. His numbers may have been inflated because of both factors, but the bottom line is that Clausen still had to make the throws, and more often than not, the ball was exactly where it needed to be.

I've heard the "Notre Dame quarterbacks bust, just look at Brady Quinn" argument too many times to adequately express my true level of frustration toward it. If a quarterback can play football, I don't care if he went to Notre Dame or if he went to South Central Montana State. Clausen has proven that he can play, and he's done it against pretty solid competition. That's all that should matter.

The bottom line on Clausen
I view Clausen as a fringe Top 10 talent that, ideally, would be picked somewhere between the first 10 and 20 picks in the draft. He's not an elite prospect, but he's good enough to build a franchise around. He's not a sure bet - very, very few prospects are, and none of them are quarterbacks - but there's definitely some energy to be excited about surrounding Clausen.

I question just how much distance he has to close between his current level of play and his true 'potential' as a prospect. That is, I'm not sure how much better he can get. That'll happen when you play nearly flawless football at Notre Dame. I think he can make slight gains in technique and obviously in experience, but I don't think he's capable of playing near-perfect football at the NFL level.

I worry a little bit about his willingness to lead, too. He's got kind of a Tony Romo vibe about him, in that when he's on, he's elite, and when he's not on, you question whether or not he's really the guy to head up your program. I'd be very hesitant to plug him in as a rookie starter - particularly in Buffalo - because if he took some early hits and lost confidence behind a porous offensive line, I'd have serious doubts as to whether he'd have the mental fortitude to get through the rough patch. If he starts off hot, however, I think he'd end up being fine, and more able to work through the low points of the game.

The bottom line is that the Buffalo Bills desperately need a franchise signal-caller. Jimmy Clausen is a franchise signal-caller. I'm not advocating that the Bills do whatever it takes to get him next April, but there's little doubt in my mind that he's capable of leading a consistent, productive NFL team down the line. It's way too early to draw lines in the sand, but Clausen is good enough - and the Bills will be picking high enough - that Clausen needs to be on your radar if he wasn't already.