Just two years ago, the Houston Texans held the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft. As the draft approached, rumors circulated that the Texans were leaning toward picking defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. There was nothing to hate about the South Carolina superstar. He was the number one player coming out of high school, a first team All-American, and the number one rated prospect in the draft. He had always been number one. His whole life, Clowney never faced questions about his talent. NFL scouts regarded Clowney as a ‘can’t-miss prospect’ and ‘the next Lawrence Taylor’. NFL analyst Mike Mayock lifted even higher praise when Clowney entered the 2014 NFL Draft.
“When he woke up this morning, he was the most talented (defensive) lineman on the planet” Mayock stated emphatically. “The talent demands that he becomes the best defensive player in the league.”
As the clock ticked down and Roger Goodell approached the stage to announce the pick, Clowney held his breath.
“With the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select Jadeveon Clowney. Defensive end, South Carolina.”
Tears coursing down his face, Clowney realized the magnitude of the moment. He was the new cornerstone for an NFL franchise. With that number one pick, the Texans believed they secured the next elite defensive player on a talented team, an athlete with physical capabilities unmatched by most college players. However, with his third season about to begin, the Texans are still waiting for Clowney to reach superstar potential.
The Houston Texans pride themselves on their defense. For several seasons now, the defensive unit dubbed ‘Bulls on Parade’ has clearly been the identity of the team. The Texans draft picks certainly reflect that. Whether it was the Dom Capers, Gary Kubiak, or Bill O’Brien era, the team prioritized the defense. In fact, twelve of the sixteen first round picks the Texans have had in its franchise history have been used on the defense.
The Texans have used these picks as cornerstones of their defense, and many of them panned out well. From future Hall of Famer JJ Watt to Brian Cushing, the draft has certainly been friendly to the defense in recent memory. However, Clowney’s pick seems to be the outstanding anomaly.
So far in Houston, Clowney has failed to live up to the hype, only playing in seventeen of thirty-three contests. Most of that missed time hasn’t been due to talent issues, but rather recurring injuries, two of which were season ending. Clowney’s injuries span all over the body, not even a single issue. Concussions, knee issues, and foot injuries line a list that seems to grow monthly since he entered Houston. In turn, these injuries have stunted Clowney’s overall growth as a player and prevent him from realizing his full superstar potential. His first season, Clowney failed to register a single sack and compiled a stat sheet that read like an undrafted free agent on special teams, not a number one overall pick (4 games played, 7 tackles, 0 forced fumbles, 0 sacks).
Clowney provided promising glimmers of of hope in his second season. In October, Clowney registered his first NFL sack of his career in a blowout loss to the Dolphins. Against the Patriots, Clowney bull rushed and swam past defenders with ease, registering two sacks. When he was healthy, he shined. NFL lineman couldn’t contain his blend of speed and strength, and his energy was matched by very few players on the field. His numbers grew substantially as well, playing in thirteen games and registering 40 tackles, including 4.5 sacks. In these small moments, we’ve seen what he can become: a budding NFL star.
But in a microcosm of his career, just when his career picked up speed, it fell of the tracks due to injury. This time it was a Lisfranc injury, which ultimately forced him to sit out the the remainder of the 2015 season. With such a long list of injuries, it’s easy to call Clowney overhyped and injury prone. The Texans still believe he can become a young star if he’s completely healthy. By all accounts, the coaching staff believes he can be a corner piece of their defense, he has just received some unlucky breaks.
“Look, I think JD has been here for about a year and half. He’s had some unlucky injuries,” Head Coach Bill O’Brien said after Clowney’s injury last fall. “There’s no question about that. I don’t think you can determine a career on a year and a half. I think that this guy’s got a lot of football left in him. I think when he has played, I think he’s played very well.
In an age where we expect immediate performance in the draft, it’s easy to be frustrated with Clowney’s injuries and deem him a bust. As one of the most physically gifted players in the NFL, he deserves criticism. However, when Clowney steps on the field, it’s hard not to be amazed. Even with injuries, his strength prevailed over veteran lineman and his speed allowed him to dominate slower opponents. It’s hard not to fall in love with the prospect of what he can be. You can see the player who dominated in the SEC or exposed the Falcons defense in his first preseason game.
But as time progresses, the clock ticks down on Clowney. This year marks boom or bust. Excuses run out for a man with so much talent and relatively little production. The Texans and the NFL expect better from their young star. Clowney claims that 2016 will be different and that he is finally “100 percent healthy.” If that’s the case, it’s now or never for the young star oozing with athletic ability. For the first time in his life, Clowney faces questions about what player he can be. Maybe that’s exactly what needs.
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Main Photo courtesy of USA Today