The case for Clowney
When the Houston Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney with the 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft expectation for many were that he would slide in opposite all-pro defensive end J.J. Watt and immediately wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines and ruin Sundays for quarterback across the league. A string of bizarre and untimely injuries coupled with lingering questions regarding Clowney’s work ethic stemming from his Junior season at South Carolina have left fans and analysts questioning his NFL future. As of week 17 of the 2015 season Clowney’s NFL stat line reads as follows; 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 6 passes defended in 17 games. Hardly an awe-inspiring resume for a number 1 overall pick, especially when compared to number 5 selection Khalil Mack’s 153 tackles, 19 sacks and 3 forced fumbles (Something of a sore subject in Houston). With two seasons under his belt and public opinion split between bust and future pro-bowler what is fact, fiction and what does the future hold for the South Carolina native?
In December 2014 it was revealed that Clowney had undergone dreaded micro-fracture surgery to repair the damaged meniscus in his injured knee many feared the worst. Micro-fracture has proved to be a career killer for some and a grueling rehab for all, many questioned if he had the drive or discipline required to return after such an invasive surgery. With expectations for Clowney’s return ranging from mid-season 2015 to the beginning of the 2016 season doubts began to swirl as to if Texans general manager Rick Smith made the right choice passing on quarterback prospects Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater. Off-season reports from within the organization of Clowneys diligent rehab which were largely dismissed as coach speak proved to be validated when he returned for week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs notching 4 solo tackles and 1 for a loss.
While Clowney has not evolved into the game wrecker that his draft position would suggest, to call him a bust or even a replacement level player ignores what he has put on film when healthy. The Texans defense bled yards against screens, sweeps or just about anything that moved the ball outside of the hashes last season. At times Clowney seemed like the only member of the defense that acknowledged that bubble screens exist, he would move from one side of the play to the other tossing offensive linemen aside with horrifying ease on his way to making the play. He has shown an ability to use his strength and size to negotiate his way through gaps and find the ball carrier without allowing himself to be washed out of the play. His pass rushing potential still flashes though at times but he showed an over reliance on brute force rather than technique, specifically when rushing from the edge. Too often he would put his head down and bull-rush blockers only to find himself watching the play unfold from behind the quarterback, a common mistake for young pass rushers. As the season progressed so did his pass rush ability, more and more he found himself facing double teams allowing J.J. a clear path to the quarterback oftentimes arriving a step after Watt. He showed an ability to go 1 on 1 with the best offensive linemen in the league and make any tight end blocking him look foolish. God help any running back tasked with stopping him.
Clowney will be going into training camp healthy for the first time as a pro this year, with a full off-season of strength and conditioning work under his belt. This paired with J.J. Watts back injury and uncertainty of availability to start the season the stage has been set for Clowney to become the kind of dominant force he was in the SEC. He has overcome injuries, proved his dedication in rehab and not let the crushing weight of expectations crumble his resolve. This ultimately will be the year that defines him. No more excuses. The pieces are set. The opportunity is there. Its time to find out if he will become the player has been billed as since high school, or another story of wasted potential.
I’m not betting against him.