When the Houston Texans did the obvious thing and took pass-rushing super-prospect Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall, the football-watching world salivated over the prospect of him tag-teaming quarterbacks with J.J. Watt, the NFL's most dominant defensive end.
Clowney, as the other defensive end...
...Oh no, I'm sorry. Clowney, lined up as a linebacker rushing behind Watt, will force teams to overload protection to one side, and...
...Er, as the linebacker rushing opposite Watt...
Just how are the Texans going to use Clowney? What'll happen with the Texans' current talent? Just what will the Texans' new pass rush look like?
"There is little doubt Mack would fit [the Texans] defense better," wrote Pompei. "Clowney is an exceptional enough talent to do well in any front, but in order to maximize his abilities, he probably should be in a 4-3, up-the-field scheme."
Instead, Clowney's going to the Texans, where new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will still use the 3-4 base alignment his predecessor, Wade Philips, used.
Here's how Clowney would have fit into the old Texans front:
Watt, lined up here at left defensive end, is circled in yellow. Clowney, at 266 pounds, is a little light to play right defensive end in this system, but not impossibly so. The right defensive end here is the since-departed Antonio Smith, who entered the league at 273 pounds and now weighs 289, per NFL.com. Smith and Watt were centered by nose tackle Earl Mitchell, now also departed via free agency.
Clowney could have manned either outside linebacker position, but the right outside linebacker is usually the pure pass-rusher in a 3-4. In 2013, these two jobs were held down by Brooks Reed, a 2011 second-round pick, and Whitney Mercilus, the Texans' 2012 first-round pick. Reed is 6'3", 255 pounds; Mercilus is 6'3", 261.
Now you see the Texans' dilemma: They've invested two recent high draft picks in Reed and Mercilus, both talented, developing players—and have lost two out of three starting defensive linemen this offseason.
Surely, the Texans would rather have Clowney develop his body and become a defensive end than push Reed or Mercilus out of a job. According to Texans general manager Rick Smith, they'll cross that bridge when they come to it.
"I fully expect that he will be an outside linebacker initially," Smith said, per Deepi Sidhu of the team's official site. "He’ll start in a two-point stance, but anytime we go into any kind of package, whether it’s a third down package or a packaged predicated on personnel, down and distance, all those things give Romeo (Crennel) the ability to have him put his hand in the dirt and go get the passer."
Here's where things get complicated. Phillips runs what they call a "one-gap" 3-4, where each defender is responsible for one gap in the offensive line. It allows the defensive linemen to penetrate gaps and rush the passer like 4-3 defensive linemen.
Crennel, in the past, has used a traditional "two-gap" 3-4, where the defensive linemen are responsible for two gaps, like this:
This means the defensive linemen need to be bigger and stronger than 4-3 defensive linemen; their job is usually to drop anchor and occupy blockers so the linebackers behind them can shoot up the gaps and either stuff the running back or sack the quarterback, depending. This is why the Texans acquired Jerrell Powe and drafted Louis Nix III, who are both 330-plus pounds—big enough to play a true two-gap nose tackle.
Clowney, at 6'5", 266 pounds, is too small to play defensive end in a two-gap front. Watt is big enough, but his pass-rushing skills would be wasted. Further, the two-gap 3-4 usually deploys bigger linebackers on the inside; Houston's inside linebackers, Brian Cushing and Jeff Tarpinian, are both under 250 pounds.
Now what? The Texans have small linebackers where they need big ones, big ones where they could use smaller ones, entirely wrong linemen up front and a spectacular talent who doesn't quite fit anywhere.
Smith has faith Crennel will figure it out.
“When you talk about a creative mind like Romeo and some of the things he’s done, when you look at his defenses historically and how he utilizes personnel, it really gives us an opportunity to get after the quarterback,” Smith said.
Perhaps Crennel can take a cue from New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and use more multiple, exotic sets up front. Ideally, the Texans want Clowney, Watt, Cushing, Mercilus and Reed all free to get at the quarterback when need be.
Given Smith's comments, it's likely Clowney starts off as a situational right outside linebacker, coming into passing situations and almost always blitzing. Once he's comfortable, it'll be up to Crennel to mix him in with the other linebackers, rotating them, keeping them fresh and keeping offenses guessing.
This is speculation, but the word "initially" in Smith's quote speaks volumes. It's hard not to see Clowney putting on more weight as he matures and develops his body; he could easily evolve into a monster of a 3-4 defensive end.
Imagine a season or two from now, the Texans running a base 3-3-5 nickel with Nix centering Watt and Clowney up front, Cushing centering Mercilus and Reed, and five defensive backs in coverage.
Now that's a terrifying pass rush.