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Learning curve for Clelin Ferrell reaches second NFL season

Clelin Ferrell is why I loathe the grading of NFL drafts. How can anyone be so certain about such a subjective process? It’s a beginning. Everyone is incomplete.

The only thing worse is when college football programs boast about the number of stars attached to a recruit’s name. Don’t get me started.

Ferrell was assigned four of those astronomical objects entering Clemson as a defensive end. He then made himself into the fourth overall pick by the Raiders in 2019, meaning his play surpassed original evaluation. He needs to do that again.

“I always tell the players — first year you learn as a rookie, second year you better show me something and third year, if you don’t, we have to move on,” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Thursday. “Clelin is right on that line where he’s really showing that he understands the little details in our defense in his second year.

“A lot quicker, a lot stronger, a lot more lean muscle. He looks like a different guy.”

Ups and downs

Interesting that Guenther mentions details. A surface glance of Ferrell’s rookie season would cause you to believe it a sizable disappointment. He totaled 38 tackles, eight quarterback hits and 4.5 sacks. Draft gurus — those supposed spiritual masters who impart wisdom — would conclude Ferrell more than proved the Raiders reached at selecting him so high.

Pump the brakes, sensei.

The 6-foot-4 Ferrell wasn’t great by any means. Wasn’t very consistent. Lots of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, moments of promise and others of underperformance. His rush win rate was among the league’s worst. He was slow to the start the season and yet really strong to finish.

But while his play was affected by a stomach virus that caused him to lose 15 pounds, his numbers were also impacted by when and where he played.

There were a lot of first- and second-down snaps, where one isn’t as likely to compile a high rate of sacks. Ferrell also spent a large chunk of time inside, an edge player having his NFL learning curve expanded. Still, his presence there helped the Raiders become one of the better run defenses in the league. His versatility emerged.

And yet so did some troubling mental mistakes. Ferrell was flagged for seven penalties, all of the pre-snap variety, the result of a total lack of focus.

“Last year was tough coming from college and such a successful program and dealing with different things — whether it was not winning every single game, having to learn different positions and obviously getting real sick,” Ferrell said.“I never listen to what people had to say, even though you know you hear it. You definitely hear it.

“A hater is someone who doesn’t wake up every day and do what you do, but they can speak on something that you do every single day. I just block a lot of that stuff out. I know I had a good rookie year regardless of what anybody had to say about me.”

First, he cares. Robots can block it all out. Human beings can’t. He had a good rookie year if such an assessment is based on adjusting to the NFL game while showing promise between those rough patches. Which isn’t unlike most making the transition.

But now comes the middle section of Guenther’s three-year outline for any player. Ferrell should be better based solely on the shape in which he reported to training camp. He should be motivated by not only his own need for growth, but because competition now includes free-agent and fifth-year pro Carl Nassib.

‘Talk is talk’

It’s inevitable — although shortsighted this early in one’s career — that Ferrell will always be compared to others in his draft class. Even a player on his own team.

Maxx Crosby was a fourth-round pick at defensive end last season and led the Raiders in sacks with 10 while adding 47 tackles (16 for loss) and four forced fumbles. I’m thinking the gurus didn’t forecast such numbers.

Conclusion: It’s not easy to judge Ferrell’s performance after just one season. You’re not deserving of banner headlines for recording a sack in just three of 15 games played, but guys evolve at their own speed. It’s not always lightning fast.

“At the end of the day, talk is talk,” Ferrell said. “I got to go out there and do it.”

See if he can.

Then grade him.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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