Ja-PAY-veon Clowney?

Jayson Braddock on Dec. 13, 2018

“With the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select: Jadeveon Clowney.”

I was onboard with the uttering of those words. It may have come as a surprise to some, seeing how the months leading up to that selection were marred by rumors. We all remember Peter King’s “F.O.R.S.” (Friends of Rick Smith) statement in which he said that the former Texans General Manager loved Khalil Mack and that Mack would be the selection.

Others turned their attention to a multitude of quarterbacks, whether it was young-gun, local-Texan phenomenon and Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, or the new and flashy Carr. After the Texans selected David Carr with their first ever NFL Draft selection in franchise history, they had the opportunity to select his younger brother, Derek. This was never going to happen. The Carr's wanted to take a different path, while the Texans seemed fearful of purchasing another lemon.

The Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewaters and Jimmy Garoppolos of the world received a lot of run as well. The fact of the matter was that Rick Smith knew all along that the pick was going to be Jadeveon Clowney if he didn’t receive a king’s ransom for the number one pick overall. Smith had already put the plan in place at the NFL Draft Combine to try and build as much value in the number one pick, in hopes of landing a “Ricky Williams-type draft day trade package.”

Who could blame Rick Smith and the Texans? I had spent the four previous months enamored with the freak that was Jadeveon Clowney. Being from the Palmetto State myself, I started following Clowney’s high school career early on. He was unlike anything that I had ever seen, truly a freak of nature. His high school film, which has since become legendary, made my heart race and my mind run. Who was this giant playing offense and flying around on defense?! He quickly rose to the #1 high school prospect and signed with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Clowney was a force in college but there were rumors of a questionable motor. We all remember Clowney flying behind the back of Taylor Lewan of Michigan and destroying a poor child by launching airborne like something out of Dragonball Z, planting the kid six feet under with his helmet.

Texans fans and even we in the media got excited about the possibility of Jadeveon Clowney playing with JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Who could stop this pass rush? I thought at the time that Khalil Mack was great but that Clowney could be the best ever. I shrugged off concerns about maturity and motor. In my mind, the Texans made the right selection.

The NFL Draft will humble everyone. We each study and try to get an understanding of a player’s skill set and how it transitions to the next level. What kind of guy is the young man? Does he love the game of football? Is he a student of the game? Does he want to be great?

These are all questions that you hear thrown around routinely at draft time. Everyone knows these questions but it’s difficult to find the answers. Sometimes a kid turns out to be exactly who you think he can become. Other times, injuries, passion, scheme, coaching, front office, family and/or friends can knock a prospect off the straight and narrow path to greatness.

As much as I loved Clowney coming out and I believed in his potential, I always reassess to see if I missed or hit on a prospect in the hope of continuing to develop as an evaluator. I’ve had to eat crow so often with misses on prospects that I’m thinking of becoming vegan.

The Houston Texans need to reassess who Jadeveon Clowney is now, as his fifth season with the franchise that drafted him winds down. Clowney signed a four-year contract worth $22.2 million when he signed with the Texans in 2014. When the last collective bargaining agreement was put into place, the NFL had fifth-year options added to the contracts of first-round picks—meaning that any player that was drafted in the first round could have a fifth year extended if the team decided to pick up the option.

Since the new CBA was put into play, none of the first three players to go first overall saw their fifth-year option. Each of them received a new contract either before the fourth or fifth year.

2011 - Cam Newton - Extended before 5th year

2012 - Andrew Luck - Extended before 5th year

2013 - Eric Fisher - Extended before 4th year

2014 - Jadeveon Clowney - Playing out 5th year option

Players drafted after Jadeveon Clowney in the first round that have been given lengthy contracts instead of the fifth-year option:

3rd overall - Blake Bortles

5th overall - Khalil Mack

6th overall - Jake Matthews

7th overall - Mike Evans

11th overall - Taylor Lewan

12th overall - Odell Beckham Jr.

13th overall - Aaron Donald

16th overall - Zack Martin

20th overall - Brandin Cooks

(Sammy Watkins signed in free agency and did not have his fifth-year option picked up)

Some fans have been puzzled by Clowney not receiving the extension. I for one am grateful to see the Texans possibly correcting an issue that has plagued them throughout their existence. The Texans have loved to extend “injury-prone” players or have refused to move them when they could see the decline coming. The NFL is just like the stock market in some ways. Or, for the lesser dignified like myself, it’s like the old Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler”....sing with me now: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

The Texans have chosen to “hold ‘em” in the past, or even worse, go all-in despite seeing the decline. Matt Schaub, Brian Cushing, etc., etc., etc.

The dilemma for the Texans to pay Jadeveon Clowney or not has multiple layers. It’s not as simple as “he’s trash, don’t pay him” or “he’s a freak, you have to pay him.” He’s a unique individual, personally and professionally. There’s a case to be made that Clowney can flourish in the NFL as a pass rusher, but after five years in Houston, I don’t believe it’s with the Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel regime.

Over the last year I’ve expressed my views on why I would not sign Clowney long-term in Houston and how they can stretch this out to their benefit, but first the Texans need to figure out if he’s more valuable to them on the team or as an asset to acquire other talent and/or draft picks.

Clowney is a big kid. His bubbly personality is contagious. He’s easygoing and seems to just wants to have fun and be relaxed. Bill O’Brien is more of the hush-hush type, preferring not to let anything out as it could benefit the enemy. Even today, I saw a comment from the Texans’ press release in which Clowney made a carefree response to a reporter’s question asking for the keys to defending a mobile quarterback:

Clowney said: “Everybody rush to the level of the quarterback and try to press the pocket. No fly-bys, no opening up of lanes up the middle. Just try to push the pocket and not run him out and make him throw from the well. That’s what we’re going to try to do this week.”

Again, nothing unusual, we’ve heard it all before; but this is the type of minor comment that O’Brien has come down on Clowney for in the past. You get the feeling that anytime someone walks into O’Brien’s office and starts a sentence with “Jadeveon” or “Clowney,” sitcom music starts, and OB asks, “What did he do now?”

The Texans were so worried about the maturity and development of Clowney that they cut ties with DJ Swearinger. Yes, I realize Swearinger could never cover outside the box, but they invested a second-round pick in him and he plays his role well. Swearinger is also among the top five in active consecutive starts and games played for safeties in the NFL.

It was the comments and the off-field bumps and bruises that got Swearinger escorted out. Remember Swearinger’s pit bull biting Clowney’s arm and breaking the skin a few years back? Remember Swearinger talking about the crappy turf at NRG, and that being the reason Clowney got injured, early in his career with the Texans?

They removed Swearinger, and another former Gamecock, Johnathan Joseph, became the new big brother, guidance counselor if you will, for young JD. Joseph is great for Clowney, but no one can pull out Clowney’s greatness except Clowney, and I’m afraid he doesn’t want it. It was a similar question that was asked of Mario Williams after his rookie contract expired and he signed for a huge payday in Buffalo.

Jadeveon Clowney has still yet to receive a double-digit sack season, and he’s in year five. At first the issue was that JJ Watt was healthy but Clowney wasn’t. Then Clowney was healthy and Watt wasn’t. But what’s the excuse for this season? Watt is back to getting double-teamed, and Clowney still only has seven sacks on the season with three games to go.

Even Mario Williams had 14-sack and 12-sack seasons in Houston before his 6-year rookie deal ran out. Mario suffered health issues at the end of his run in Houston, and the Texans were wise enough to not pony up the major money needed to keep him in town.

In year five of the Clowney experiment, does he look like a $20 million pass rusher? Does he play to Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald’s level? The answer is a simple no.

The Houston Texans have had the number one overall pick three times in franchise history. In each of those drafts (2002 - 2006 - 2014) there was a choice between the freakish pass rusher from the Carolina college or another talent. With their three number one overall picks, the Texans passed on the wrong Carolina kid and selected two guys that didn’t have the elite motor.

2002:

#1 Overall - David Carr (Houston Texans)

Passed on Julius Peppers out of North Carolina (4th on all-time sack list - 158.5 career sacks)

2006:

#1 Overall - Mario Williams (Houston Texans) -- From North Carolina State

2014:

#1 Overall - Jadeveon Clowney (Houston Texans) -- From South Carolina

Who is Clowney as a defender for the Texans?

I’ve said over the last few years that Jadeveon Clowney is one of the most dominant run defenders. For this article I took a look at Pro Football Focus to see how they had Clowney graded as a run defender. He ranked 10th overall per their evaluations. What’s more, here’s the company he keeps among the top run defenders are big nose tackles, defensive tackles and traditional 3-4 defensive ends:

  1. Damon “Snacks” Harrison
  2. Akiem Hicks
  3. Aaron Donald
  4. Calais Campbell
  5. Jurrell Casey
  6. Michael Pierce
  7. A’Shawn Robinson
  8. Lawrence Guy
  9. Kenny Clark
  10. Jadeveon Clowney
  11. Stephon Tuitt
  12. Eddie Goldman
  13. Davon Godchaux
  14. Arik Armstead
  15. Mike Pennel

Pro Football Focus goes on to rate Clowney at 69.7 as a pass rusher. For comparison purposes, Dee Ford who made news at his and Clowney’s combine by comparing Clowney to a “blind dog in a meat market,” has the 2nd highest grade as a pass rusher at 91.7, behind only Aaron Donald’s 94.1.

As is the case with Clowney, Dee Ford is playing under his fifth-year option. Both players are attempting to put their best foot forward in a contract year to secure that next major pay day. Here’s how their stats compare this season:

Clowney table 1.png

Clowney’s Career

Jadeveon Clowney surprised a lot of people by coming back from microfracture surgery and having the type of career he has had to this point, while dealing with nagging injuries.

2014 - His rookie season was limited to four games

7 tackles 3 TFLs 0 QB Hits 0 Sacks

2015 - Clowney was able to play in 13 games

40 tackles 8 TFLs 8 QB Hits 4.5 sacks 6 PDs 1 FF

2016 - Clowney played in 14 games that season

52 tackles 16 TFLs 17 QB Hits 6.0 sacks 2 PDs 1 FF

2017 - Clowney played in all 16 games last season

59 tackles 21 TFLs 21 QB Hits 9.5 sacks 2 PDs 2 FFs 2 FRs 1 TD

2018 - Clowney has played in 12 games this season

34 tackles 12 TFLs 15 QB Hits 7.0 sacks 2 FRs 1 TD

How the Texans use Jadeveon Clowney

When Mike Vrabel was the Texans’ linebacker coach, he gave exceptional one-on-one coaching to Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. Clowney started to play with leverage and technique and was developing. After 2016, Clowney started regressing as a technical pass rusher and has since reverted back to his flaw of depending on pure athleticism, strength and explosion. Mercilus took Vrabel’s teachings and flourished, until he had the setback with the torn pec last season.

In 2015 and 2016 (Vrabel LB Coach 2014-2016) Whitney Mercilus combined to have 19.5 sacks and 27 TFLs. In his other 5 NFL seasons combined, he only has 22.5 sacks & 27 TFLs.

The Texans now seem to play to Clowney’s athleticism, and don’t look to utilize him as a pure pass rusher, as he’s lacking. The Texans like to move Clowney as a chess piece. He can line up at inside linebacker, bounce around and then shoot the A-Gap against less mobile centers and guards with shorter arms. This causes instant pressure up the gut and everyone clamors, “DID YOU SEE CLOWNEY!” But it’s fluff, and not a sustainable attack.

We often hear analysts compliment the ability to move Clowney, but more recently it has appeared as a strategy to hide Clowney from attacks to his edge. If you go back to the most recent Texans-Titans game, you’ll notice Mike Vrabel attacking Clowney’s side. He does this for the same reason the Texans don’t line Clowney and Watt on the same side often. They play what some NFLers call “hero ball”. As great as JJ Watt is and as dynamic as Jadeveon Clowney is, they both like to attack without regard to the holes they leave behind them. This brings a further issue to light with Clowney, as teams know that he will get out of position and leave a huge void. Even if he gets thru, they realize he’s a poor tackler that will routinely not finish.

Clowney is an exciting, flashy player that will show up weekly on highlights. He’s one of the most talented run defenders, especially for his unique size, weight and flexibility. The problem is, you don’t pay top run defenders $20 million a year in the NFL.

I heard someone say the other day that NFL teams should have had buyers beware with Kirk Cousins because they franchised him, dated him, sweet-talked him, but never put the ring on his finger. Minnesota is finding out now what Washington already knew. Cousins is Matt Schaub. He can put up stats but when the pressure comes and elite teams attack, he’ll fold, every time.

The smart move for the Texans is to try and franchise Clowney out the next two years or franchise him and trade him this offseason. Other NFL teams should learn the lesson from the kissing Cousins in Washington: they’re cute enough to trot around the family for a few years, but they have flaws that prevent you from making the ultimate commitment.

If the Texans went the method of franchising Clowney for two more years, they would then get a freakish pass rusher for the first seven years of his career, either under the rookie pay, fifth-year option or year-to-year franchise freedom. If this is Clowney at his best with the Texans in a contract year with JJ Watt doing JJ Watt things, then what will he be after he gets paid? What will he be after another injury? The ghosts of failed contracts past are crying out to Brian Gaine this Christmas season...ewww, remember Brian Cushing….ewww, remember Matt Schaub. Don’t do it, Brian, scrooge him!

Even if the injuries, lack of production, etc., make you think that Clowney is worth $20 million a year, take a gander at the penalties:

Julie’n Davenport leads the Texans with 14 penalties this year.

Clowney is second with 10 penalties.

No other Texans player has more than five. In fact, the next six Texans players with the most penalties this year still only equal 23 penalties combined. Clowney and Davenport combine for 24. Davenport is a developmental mid-round draft pick. Clowney is the former #1 pick overall that wants Khalil Mack money. Clowney has four neutral zone infractions, three defensive offsides and encroachment to go with his taunting and defensive offsides this season. It’s probably not a big deal, unless the game comes down to getting a stop and getting the offense the ball back, and Clowney draws a neutral zone infraction...d’oh, too soon?

What Clowney could be

While Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t seem to want to reach his max potential and be one of the greatest ever, his lack of production isn’t all his fault. The Texans have had this 6’5”, 290-pound monster with an unusual blend of explosion, agility and power, and they’ve never played him to his strengths. For five seasons the Texans have tried to make Jadeveon Clowney every different thing under the moon, besides what he was always meant to be.

Does anyone remember Jevon Kearse firing out the wide-nine? There’ve been changes to the wide-nine through the years designed to not leave as much of a void behind the ends and asking your linebackers and safeties to completely fill B and C gaps, leaving them more vulnerable over the top. This is Jadeveon Clowney’s home. This is where Clowney should have been his entire career.

The crazy thing is that the Texans have the perfect personnel to execute to Clowney’s strengths. Some of the weaknesses to the wide-nine are already weaknesses to Clowney’s playside. The Texans do allow Clowney to fire out of the wide-nine occasionally, but Clowney is a 12-15 sacks per year defensive end in the wide-nine if that was his every-down role.

Clowney table 2.png

Zach Cunningham and Tyrann Mathieu fill behind Clowney with Kareem Jackson as a safety valve outside of Clowney.

Dylan Cole and Justin Reid backup Mercilus inside with McKinney filling behind Watt / Reader with overflow to B-Gaps.

Texans are deep on the defensive line with Christian Covington and Angelo Blackson. Carlos Watkins was always a three-year project. Next year is big for him. Joel Heath is quality, deep depth. Brandon Dunn can spell Reader.

If the Texans aren’t going to utilize him to his strengths, why not trade him to a team that sees exactly how to execute with him. They would then also take on all of the health risks, concerns about drive and giving away O’Brien’s trusted secrets to the media.

Ja-TRADE-veon Clowney.

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