Jadeveon Clowney’s impressive preseason suggests the 2014 No. 1 overall selection will finally live up to the pick this season. Here are five reasons why the Houston Texans defensive end could have a breakout season.
1. He’s healthy
The pass rusher’s freakish talent isn’t in question, but this is the first time since his NFL debut that his body isn’t limited by an injury.
Critics were quick to think “bust” when he missed 15 games due to a series of injuries over the last two seasons. His rookie year basically ended in his first NFL game, when he suffered a torn meniscus that eventually required microfracture surgery.
He looks like a different player now. The 6-foot-5, 266-pound pass rusher with 4.53-second speed in the 40-yard dash is continually shoving blockers backward in preseason. He bull-rushed New Orleans’ Andrus Peat to get to Saints quarterback Drew Brees for a sack and 14-yard loss. Clowney added another tackle for loss in that game, and then had three more solo tackles last weekend against Arizona.
“I feel great,” Clowney said. “I feel good. That’s the best thing about this. Coming through this thing, I’m feeling great heading into the season.”
In his last four games of 2015, he had 15 tackles and 3 sacks. Unlike many pass rushers, Clowney is also reliable against the run because blockers can’t knock him off a spot, and he has the speed to chase down ball carriers. He had games with 8 and 7 tackles last season.
All of his 4.5 career sacks came in 13 games last season. If he stays healthy, it’s not a stretch to expect double-digit sack numbers in 2016.
2. He won’t draw many doubles
Although defensive end J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is mending from offseason back surgery, his eventual return mandates teams must account for him and can’t use two blockers on Clowney.
Opponents constantly double Watt, yet he still makes plays. As a result he makes his teammates better. Should Watt miss time, Clowney will get more plays as the designated pass rusher. And like Watt, Clowney can line up at different spots — as an outside linebacker or defensive end — to take advantage of mismatches.
“I just like to play whatever they tell me,” Clowney said. “I try to be disruptive and make plays. … I’ve always got things to work on.”
Opponents also must account for Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who had a career-high 12 sacks last season. If Watt and Mercilus are attracting the most attention, who is lining up against Clowney?
3. There’s more than just power
Clowney has been disruptive with mostly power moves, not yet relying upon his speed and displaying rip, swim and spin techniques.
“If he can keep running them over and getting sacks, maybe one move will be good enough,” defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. “You know, everybody in this league is pretty good. He’s going to run into some guys where he’ll have to use some alternative stuff and he has that in his repertoire. He’s been working on it. We’ll keep working and see how good he can become.”
Clowney says he’s still perfecting the other techniques, which suggests it’s a matter of time before he evolves into more of a complete player.
“I still got to get the feel on some of them,” he said. “I get a lot of push in the pocket. Once I get there, I got to get to the quarterback and start getting rid of my guy, and then get to the quarterback.
“I’m getting better. I’m improving. I’m not there yet. I can get the work in. I’m looking forward to the season.”
4. He should feast in AFC South
The defending AFC South Division champions play six games against the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, three teams with shaky offensive lines.
If Clowney is lining up on the defense’s left side, that likely means he’s going up against the Colts’ Joe Reitz, the Jaguars’ Jermey Parnell and Titans rookie Jack Conklin. Those 1-on-1 matchups should provide plenty of opportunities.
The Texans are 9-3 against AFC South opponents the past two years.
5. Foes will need to pass
After winning the division with stingy defense and adequate offense, the Texans upgraded the offense with quarterback Brock Osweiler, running back Lamar Miller and wide receiver Will Fuller, among others. Expect Houston to score more points.
If the Texans are playing ahead in more games, that turns loose Clowney and the other pass rushers. When offenses are forced to become one-dimensional, that benefits the defense.
The Texans’ 24.7-point preseason scoring average ranks third in the NFL. Last season, they managed just 21.2 points, which ranked 21st.
Factor in more offense with a defense that ranked fifth in sacks (45) and seventh in points allowed (19.6) last season and it stands to reason the defense will benefit.