Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is among the most exciting, polarizing defensive prospects in recent NFL draft history. Despite his status as a wild card who could either be a major hit or a big bust, the Houston Texans have no better option than Clowney with the No. 1 pick in 2014.
If it were a different team atop the order, perhaps it would be a different story. The Texans have the foundation in place, the proper new head coach in Bill O'Brien and a perfect mentor for Clowney in J.J. Watt to justify selecting the 6'5.25", 266-pound freak of an athlete.
Clowney most recently dazzled at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, with a 4.53-second 40-yard dash as his most notable number. The 21-year-old drew the ire of some when he opted not to participate in several other drills, though.
Whether it was a genuine concern over his apparent hip flexor injury or not is unclear, but ESPN's Todd McShay (subscription required) put it best in providing his take on Tuesday:
To be honest, none of that really matters to me. I don’t think he did himself any favors by throwing in the hip injury comment, but I don’t really think this is going to have any effect whether or not he goes No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans. He showed again Monday in the events in which he did participate why he is the best player in this draft, and the top draft talent of the past two classes.
O'Brien has a no-nonsense approach to coaching that has suited him well, and he's been able to uphold respectability in multiple situations where it was difficult to do so. Take his time with the New England Patriots, working with hyper-competitive quarterback Tom Brady as a prime example. And take how O'Brien had an uphill battle to restore Penn State's football program in the aftermath of a scandal as another.
Think Clowney is going to get away from trying his absolute best in Texas, or get away with any selfish antics? If O'Brien or Watt have anything to say about it, Clowney won't clown around to the ultimate detriment of the team.
Watt plays the part of consummate professional on and off the field, was drafted No. 11 overall in 2011 and has turned into, by many accounts, the most dominant defensive player in the league.
From a talent standpoint, Clowney has even more upside than Watt. With those two athletes screaming in off the edge of Houston's defense, opposing offenses would have a hard time even throwing over them, much less attempting to go at both with multiple blockers.
Clowney himself has acknowledged the potential symbiotic relationship he and Watt would enjoy should he land in Houston and what he'd bring to the locker room, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread:
I love [Watt's] game. He can help me, and I can help him, hopefully. I've watched his game, in situations he gets double teams, triple teams on him, too. That could help me be a bigger factor on that defense...I feel like I have a lot to offer a team. I've got the size, the ability, I'm a great teammate. I'm bringing a lot to help a team out, and I feel like I should be that guy, hopefully.
The idea of Watt serving as a veteran mentor is, admittedly, not an original one. It came from the main man himself—Texans owner Bob McNair.
For the uninitiated or those who need to be reminded, check out what McNair had to say both about the prospective partnership and what he told Watt, courtesy of the Houston Chronicle's Justin Boyd:
Like many of these players that have great physical attributes, they didn’t have to work as hard in junior high school and high school and in college to be a superlative athlete because they have this natural ability. [Clowney]’s not a J.J. Watt. J.J. didn’t have that natural ability. He worked. He developed his. I said, 'J.J., I don’t know what will happen, but if we get Clowney, we want you to instill in him the same kind of work habits that you have.' He said, 'If he’s in the same room with me, then he’ll have them.'
Watt appears eager to embrace the role, so if prospects are indeed evaluated in terms of who the best player on the board is, there isn't much more for general manager Rick Smith to ponder. Smith has a tough decision, but passing on Clowney could haunt him for years to come.
Fox Sports 1's Joel Klatt has heard from a lot of NFL personnel regarding Clowney being the top choice in the draft, and many feel it'll be a huge mistake if he isn't selected first:
If there are question marks about Clowney and his desire to be great, he at least has the edge in every other area over the three quarterbacks the Texans may consider before him.
Magnetic signal-caller Johnny Manziel won a Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M, but his diminutive stature and off-field history—overblown or not—draw cause for Smith to pause. Sentimentality about the hometown hero storyline aside, it's a substantial risk.
Then there's Teddy Bridgewater, a polished prospect out of Louisville but not a player with elite arm strength or prototypical size to absorb punishment at the next level. UCF's Blake Bortles is another option. He has upside yet not a ton of polish—not to mention, he comes from a smaller program.
How are any of those three options any less precarious than Clowney?
Whiffing on a quarterback at the top of a draft doesn't devastate a franchise like it used to thanks to the new CBA, but it'd still be a shame to take the wrong man under center with a potential once-in-a-generation defensive athlete in Clowney on the board.
While it's tempting to choose a quarterback because of how widely praised O'Brien is as a QB guru, Houston has at least a decent short-term, younger option in Case Keenum.
Think about the assets Keenum would have at his disposal in addition to O'Brien's tutelage, a revitalized core of players and the arrival of Clowney in the midst of a new era. A healthy Arian Foster or a formidable platoon of running backs—not too hard to come by in the modern NFL—a strong receiver duo in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins and a defense headlined by Clowney and Watt.
That sounds at least favorable enough for Keenum to scrape by as the starter in 2014. The Texans could shop for a long-term starter thereafter if Keenum isn't good enough, and they would have a developing Clowney in the fold.
Want to pass up that possible, plausible scenario, Houston? You may have a problem if you do.
Note: All combine results courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.