In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Professional Football Jadeveon Clowney is a far different beast than *South Carolina Highlight Reel Jadeveon Clowney*. But he remains a beast -- he just needs to stay on the field for everyone to realize it.
The sports media hype machine built up Clowney in 2013, then tore him down during a 2013 Heisman campaign that wasn't. Injuries destroyed his rookie season in Houston in 2014, culminating in microfracture surgery. Durability was again a big problem in 2015, yet he quietly piled up impressive tape over 13 games. Clowney already has proven he's an above-average NFL starter. This season, he's set up to be so much more.
Why Clowney is on the list
Players don't get drafted No. 1 overall -- or appear on prime-time shows -- for their run defense. That's why Clowney's emergence last season as a world-class run stopper was slept on by the masses. Clowney doesn't shed blockers; he tosses them.
Clowney's snaps on NFL Game Pass reveal he had a much bigger impact than box scores showed. The 6-foot-5, 266-pounder flashes uncommon strength and aggression to push blockers backward. He sets the edge like a man 25 pounds heavier. He pursues the ball from a play's back side with a zeal usually reserved for guys who get the "hard hat" or "lunch pail" cliché treatment from announcers. (The ultimate sign of grittiness: You wore a hard hat while carrying a lunch pail.)
When asked to occupy two blockers, Clowney can hold opponents at bay like he's Vince Wilfork. Don't even try to send a tight end his way: He will embarrass the worst of them and regularly beat the best -- just ask Rob Gronkowski. His Week 14 showcase against New England was instructive. He also displayed the quickness to get around a double team on the way to two sacks of Tom Brady.
ProFootballFocus' numbers support his underrated campaign, ranking him second among 3-4 outside linebackers (behind only Khalil Mack) as a run defender. He finished sixth in "stop percentage," a sign that Clowney was making stuffs near or behind the line of scrimmage.
Perhaps Clowney's biggest problem, aside from injuries, is one of false advertising. He was billed as a pure pass rusher who would terrorize quarterbacks and take pressure off J.J. Watt. Instead, Clowney has looked like James Harrison just before his prime. Teams now fear running left at Watt or right at Clowney. He's too disruptive to be denied as a run stopper, but not yet polished enough to finish plays by getting to the quarterback.
Even Clowney's position feels misleading. His outside linebacker listing ignores how often he has his hand in the ground as a 4-3 defensive end. He even occasionally lines up as a defensive tackle and looks comfortable rushing from the inside, too quick and powerful for opposing guards. The trick has been staying on the field to show off that power.
Obstacles he'll face
Clowney signed his rookie contract on June 6, 2014 and underwent sports hernia surgery exactly six days later. A near-biblical plague of maladies followed. Clowney missed time as a rookie because of a concussion, a torn meniscus and ultimately the right knee injury that required microfracture surgery and sent him to IR with just four NFL games under his belt. He showed surprising explosiveness early after returning to the field last season, then subsequently missed time with ankle and back injuries. He missed the Texans' playoff loss with a Lisfranc sprain in his foot.
"When he's been on the field, he's been pretty disruptive, pretty impactful," Texans general manager Rick Smith said earlier this offseason, per the Houston Chronicle. "It's just that he has suffered some injuries, which you would hope is that he's already had as many as he needs to have, right?"
Translation: I didn't make a bad pick. I've had bad luck. (That partly ignores the nagging injuries that Clowney had during his final season in college.)
Clowney isn't kicking off "Making the Leap" because we think he's due for better luck. There are positive signs he's adjusted his approach. Once "frustrated" with his ability to fight through injuries, Texans coaches have lauded Clowney's professionalism more recently. Clowney enjoyed his first healthy offseason, getting necessary practice time to improve his technique with a "determined" attitude, according to Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel.
Clowney's injury history remains a red flag, but we chose to focus on the flip side. Clowney was a quality starter and played 13 games with very little practice time. Now he just needs to work on those pass-rush moves.
Expectations for 2016
The explosive first step is there. The power is there. When Clowney rushes the passer, even veteran tackles often are jolted backward. That's why Clowney recorded 22 hurries in only 300 pass-rush snaps, according to PFF. Clowney needs to fine-tune those pass-rush moves to disengage from blockers and finish plays, something that showed up while he totaled 4.5 sacks in a six-game span from late October to mid-December.
That's what the hot-takesmen of the world miss about Clowney. The film shows that he gets after it. He's the rare player whose athleticism pops off the screen, making opponents looking slow and silly in comparison. Perhaps Professional Football Clowney isn't so different after all.