Last week, Jadeveon Clowney, Ryan Shazier and Carlos Hyde each began their third NFL season. And although all three have been plagued by injuries, inconsistencies and inconclusive results, if Week 1 was any indication they have all broken through and are ready to become stars.
Excessive scrutiny has and will always follow Clowney. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft has been painted as an unstoppable defensive force since the day he arrived in camp. But injuries — he’s missed nearly half of his two seasons with knee, foot and back ailments — and uncertainty over where he fits into the Texans scheme has caused him to flirt with the dreaded “bust” label.
But when healthy he has been an excellent run-stopper and recorded 4.5 sacks in limited action last year. And in Week 1 he repeatedly harassed the Chicago Bears during a 23-14 victory, recording a sack, 2 tackles for loss, 3 hits on the quarterback and 4 total tackles.
“He’s doing what we thought he would do when he’s healthy,” said team owner Bob McNair. “He is healthy now, and you see the way he played. He’s having fun, he’s enjoying it. His teammates are pleased to have him out there on the field with them. He’s going to be fun to watch.”
On the playmaker-starved San Francisco 49ers offense, running back Carlos Hyde is also fun to watch. Like Clowney, Hyde was a star in college and as a second-round pick he entered the NFL in 2014 with the ideal measurables: height, weight, college background, speed, strength. And like Clowney, injuries have stunted his development and suggested he would never live up to the hype.
As a rookie he largely sat behind Frank Gore. But the franchise’s all-time leading rusher left San Francisco for Indianapolis in 2015, and Hyde seemed instantaneously capable of filling Gore’s shoes. In Week 1, Hyde torched a sound Vikings defense for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns on 26 carries. A month later, his 21 carries, 93 yards and late-fourth-quarter touchdown nearly lifted the 49ers to a surprise win over the Giants. But a stress fracture in Week 7 ended his season. Two years into his career and he’d only posted more than 10 rushes in a game seven times: not the ideal résumé for a workhorse back.
That label seemed even less likely for Hyde when he suffered a concussion late in the preseason. But on Monday night against the Rams, he again broke loose in Week 1. His 23 carries, 88 yards and 2 touchdowns sparked a dominant 28-0 win and again revived hopes that Hyde can be the next link in the 49ers’ history of truly great running backs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also have a tremendous legacy at one particular position: linebacker. From Andy Russell to Jack Lambert, and Jack Ham to Greg Lloyd, and Kevin Greene to James Harrison and James Farrior, linebackers have carried the Steelers to Super Bowls for decades. And when the Steelers selected Ryan Shazier from Ohio State in the middle of the first round of the 2014 draft, they saw that tradition continuing on.
Even as a rookie, when the first-team All-American from Ohio State who ran a 4.38 at the NFL combine has actually been on the field he clearly had the tools to excel in coverage, defending the run and rushing the passer. Ankle, knee and shoulder injuries, however, have cost him a total of 11 games in his first two seasons.
There were times last year when Shazier was clearly the best defender on the field, especially in the Steelers’ postseason win over Cincinnati when he forced two fumbles, broke up two passes and recorded nine tackles. And in a Week 1 trouncing of the Redskins, Shazier continued to be a versatile playmaker, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and leading the Steelers with five solo tackles.
That evening proved (unfortunately for him) to be a microcosm of Shazier’s entire career. Late in that fine performance, he injured his knee and did not return. Perhaps he would have or could have gone back into the game, but because the Steelers were crushing Washington he did not. He’s considered day-to-day and certainly could play in this week’s game against the Bengals, but there’s always the possibility that the injury hampers him all season. If it does the Steelers defense will suffer; if it doesn’t and he continues to play like he did Monday night (and stays healthy for all 16 games), he is potentially an All-Pro this season.
There are two common threads with all three of these quasi-stars. They have each been saddled with multiple nagging injuries and they each have tremendous physical abilities. But to quote an old sports adage often attributed to Bill Parcells, “the best ability is availability.” If Hyde, Shazier and Clowney hope to live up to their lofty expectations, their success depends entirely on that availability.