Following his sack of Matt Ryan on Saturday, Jadeveon Clowney held up the his index finger high in the air for all to see. The gesture potentially serving as a gentle reminder of where he came from to get to that point.
Leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, there were differing opinions on Clowney's future in the league. Early on in his career, Clowney has been as advertised after being the No. 1 pick by the Houston Texans.
Among the surprising rookies in this year's class, Clowney has created buzz with his play on the field. The former South Carolina defensive end made a huge impact yet again on Saturday when he finished with consecutive plays for losses in the Atlanta Falcons' backfield.
Clowney has made his career thanks to his athleticism, which was on display against the Falcons. While it's only a preseason game, it's clear the talented lineman has a chance to explode this season.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com provides his thoughts on Clowney's performance:
Jadeveon Clowney just destroyed Antone Smith, then pulled Sam Baker’s pants down. Matt Ryan didn’t have a chance.— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) August 17, 2014
Prior to the second preseason contest, Albert Breer of NFL Network passed along his observations:
1) Jadeveon Clowney has come as advertised. His combination of athletic traits jumps out, even among pro athletes. Next to Watt = Scary.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 14, 2014
As for those contrasting opinions, they haven't gone away either.
While some heralded Clowney as the best player in the draft, Merril Hoge of ESPN was not sold. The former Pittsburgh Steelers player said Clowney was "not a very good football player" among other criticisms.
Hoge wasn't the only critic. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp called out his work ethic. Following just a few preseason games, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated no longer believes anyone should question his passion and drive:
Lot of people got paid (and airtime) on the Jadeveon Clowney not-loving-football narrative. Seems like he's loving it this NFL preseason...— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) August 18, 2014
Now in the NFL, even opponents are downplaying the emerging star. Antone Smith—yes, the Falcons running back who was crushed by Clowney—wasn't impressed by him, per Matt Hammond of Sports Radio 610 (via CBS Houston):
“Just a guy,” Smith said of Clowney. “I don’t see anything special. He’s just a guy. He’s a guy who plays defensive end. He plays pretty good. Made a good play.”
That's an interesting response from a player who was left on his back by Clowney.
Though one of the players getting blown up by Clowney wasn't wowed, the rookie was happy with his showing. The 21-year-old spoke about his play against the Falcons, via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
It means a lot, man. Trying to help the team out, you know, do my part and rush the quarterback and make plays for the team.
... I just tried to get back there. I just had my eyes on him at first and then once I flew off, kept my eyes on that quarterback, tried to get a strip sack.
No, Clowney hasn't started a meaningful game in the NFL with the Texans. He also hasn't silenced all of his critics, but he's on the right track.
Last season, Sheldon Richardson won the Defensive Rookie of the Year with 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and 78 total tackles. Across from Watt, Clowney has a chance to exceed five sacks and be a difference-maker, thus entering his name into the discussion for the award.
Here's a look at some projected stats for the explosive end:
What is the ceiling for Clowney in the NFL?
With his supreme athleticism and ability to disrupt offenses in the backfield, Clowney will make an impact this season. Across from Pro Bowler J. J. Watt, the former Gamecock will continue to develop and wreak havoc in the AFC South.
As teams prepare for the dynamic tandem, finding any weaknesses will continue to baffle coordinators. Though the hype building around him is enough to make any rookie crumble, Clowney will thrive for the Texans defense.
If early evidence is an indication of the future, expect Clowney to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate all season. Having a veteran voice in his ear and the talent to give Watt less attention, Clowney will be a factor every week for Houston.
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