Clowney's breakout season a bright spot for Texans

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The 2017 Houston Texans' season will be remembered as a "what could have been" campaign. Flashes of pure brilliance by the squad gave hope to a possible run in a weak AFC this season. Yet, those flashes burned out far too early over the season's proceedings.

The team's star player and icon, J.J. Watt, lasted five sack-less games into the year before suffering a season-ending injury in Houston's Sunday Night Football loss to Kansas City back in Week 5. It's easy to make the argument that no player means more to his city than Watt, but his second trip to injured reserve in as many seasons has his future shrouded with questions no one wishes to ask. Fellow star defender Whitney Mercilus left the front seven behind with a season-ending injury on the same night as Watt.

A savior appeared to ride down from the mountain for Houston in the form of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. No one was more electrifying in the month of October than Watson, who chucked 16 touchdowns in those four weeks. Even his season ended in misery, as the rookie quarterback tore his ACL in practice following a 469-yard effort in Seattle.

Losing Watt was bitter, while Watson's exit was nothing short of hope-depriving. The Texans now find themselves at 4-7 following their loss to the Ravens on Monday night, utterly out of the mix and blankly staring into the mirror for silver linings in their downtrodden march to 2017's finish line.

In its search for hope, Houston need not look any further than pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney. The top overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney finds himself amidst the first true breakout season of his young career. Alongside wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, he's been one of the few season-long constants for this organization.

Clowney's first two seasons were mired by injuries and missed time. He played a combined 17 games from 2014 to 2015 and didn't register his first sack until his sixth game of his second season. The hulking defender started to put it together in 2016 and offered up one of the more disruptive games in a win over the Raiders in the first round of the postseason.

The talent has finally evolved to full form in Clowney's fourth season. Now the last man standing with Watt, Mercilus and other members of the front seven down and out, Clowney has assumed the mantle of the difference-maker in the unit. A player many chomped at the bit to label a bust after his first two seasons has made every doubter look nothing short of foolish week-in and week-out.

Clowney was on the field for a whopping 94 percent of the Texans' plays against the Ravens, and made his presence felt early. The monstrous defender ripped into the backfield in the first quarter to drop Alex Collins for a big loss. It was Clowney's 12th run stuff of the season.

Clowney's disruptive efforts as a run-stuffer have been noticeable. Even when he's not the one delivering the final tackle, he's constantly a part of the effort to blowup rushing lanes.

Of course, one doesn't draft a 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end No. 1 overall just to have him collapse rushing lanes. Fortunately, Clowney delivers as a pass rusher just as much as he does in the ground game. Clowney registered his ninth sack of the season tonight, putting further distance between his previous career-high of six. Despite being the biggest threat to quarterbacks left in the Texans' front seven, he's still a consistent disruptor in the backfield. After adding three more pressures in Week 12, Clowney's 9.7 percent pressure rate ranks 26th among players who average 20 pass rushes per game.

A noticeable difference between this ascendant season for Clowney and those that preceded it lies with how the team has deployed him. In the first 11 weeks of 2017, the Texans assigned Clowney to roam all over the field.

Jadeveon Clowney's 2017 alignment
Left edge -- 140 plays, two sacks, 11 tackles, 5 pressures
Interior -- 45 plays, one tackle, 5 pressures
Right edge -- 320 plays, six sacks, 21 tackles, 19 pressures

His versatility was on full display for the national audience against the Ravens. Clowney collected two of his pressures when lined up at right edge and his lone sack of the night while flying through the middle of the Baltimore offensive line.

Once in the national spotlight thanks to their rookie quarterback, the 2017 Texans are mere weeks from fading into oblivion as the team spirals away from contention. What they'll take with them are memories of Watson stunning the league, a litany of eye-popping catches from All-Pro candidate DeAndre Hopkins and intense feelings of regret that it was all cut too short.

Yet, an offseason filled with introspection should find hope for Houston moving forward. With layers of defenders set to return in 2018 and Watson ready to make up ground in his climb up the NFL's pantheon of young quarterbacks, the team is poised to make a difference next year in the AFC. However, don't forget that in a season full of losses, one building block stayed the course as the season slipped away. Clowney's emergence showed him to be one of the key pieces of this team's future.

Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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