COLUMBIA - Two weeks before the NFL draft begins in New York City, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. only sees one possible outcome.
Jadeveon Clowney is first. All other prospects are fighting for second.
"To me, he's the No. 1 pick whether he's with the Houston Texans or somebody else," Kiper said Wednesday on a conference call. "I don't know how you can take anybody over Clowney. . He's a once-in-every-20-year guy."
The former South Carolina defensive end has outlasted an onslaught of criticism, starting early in his final season with the Gamecocks.
His numbers dipped. Clowney's three sacks as a junior were 10 fewer than his sophomore season. Fans and media alike scrambled to explain how a player so physically dominant could do so little in the stat sheet. Over time, the popular choice was to criticize Clowney's work ethic, something that has stuck this offseason.
Kiper said he doesn't see any validity to the criticism.
"I didn't see the lack of hustle, I didn't see the lack of effort," Kiper said. "I saw a guy who plays hard 90 percent of the time. The 10 percent of the time he didn't, nobody would because you're not going to chase a play to the other side of the field when you have to play four quarters (and) teams are throwing the ball as much as they're throwing the ball in college football these days.
"I don't see any (other) defensive end out there the last 20 years that's been blocked by three guys on a regular basis, and that's because he's a great player."
While Houston has the first pick in next month's draft, Kiper isn't convinced Clowney will be playing for the Texans next season.
In a previous mock draft, Kiper had University at Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack going to the Texans with the top pick, despite rating Clowney the superior player. Kiper said Mack fit Houston's scheme better, while Clowney may not find a natural position in its 3-4 system.
Kiper has Clowney going No. 1 in his most recent mock draft released last week, but he said Houston still has to decide whether it can maximize the defensive end's skills.
"If they think they can get the most out of Clowney - and that's not by dropping him into coverage, it's by going after the quarterback exclusively - then draft him," Kiper said. "If you're going to make him a multi-dimensional outside linebacker or defensive end, I think that's not utilizing him properly. It just depends on how they're going to scheme-fit him.
"They've gotta figure it out, that's their job. If they want to pass on that, trade down and get a quarterback - take (Blake) Bortles or take (Johnny) Manziel - they could do that. I think what you're going to find in this draft is (first-year Texans coach) Bill O'Brien - like all coaches and GMs - is going to draft players he's familiar with."
O'Brien coached Penn State last season, and he stood on the opposite sideline while Bortles led Central Florida to a 34-31 win in Happy Valley. Bortles completed 20-of-27 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He's a pocket passer with prototypical size, the kind of player that flourishes under O'Brien's tutelage.
If the Texans opt to trade out of the No. 1 spot - one legitimate scenario, though unlikely - Kiper said a team would have to offer several valuable assets, including multiple high-round draft picks.
"It costs a lot because you're going after the best player and the best defensive end in the last 20 years in Clowney," Kiper said.