It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Houston Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney wasn't regarded as a potential failure. (Of course, the Texans helped contribute to that situation by leaking unkind things on their end.) Instead, he was supposed to be an anchor of the best pass rush in the NFL. Paired with all-galaxy defensive end J.J. Watt, Clowney was supposed to, in the words of USA Today's Tom Pelissero, "present a matchup problem unlike any other."
It turns out that Watt himself is actually a matchup problem unlike any other. He is off to one of the best starts to a career a defender has seen in decades and is a worthy MVP candidate in a sea of above-average quarterbacks. The only matchup problem Clowney provided in his freshman campaign was his size versus the various trainer's tables he laid down on.
Clowney played just 146 listless snaps with the Texans in 2014—all the while fighting a knee injury he sustained in Week 1—before going on IR. Then, to put the cherry on the poop sundae, the injury he tried to fight through could be fixed only with microfracture surgery. Microfracture has a tendency to sap the strength and speed of the world's top athletes at best, and at worst has the potential to be a career-ending surgery.
According to Texans general manager Rick Smith, Clowney has not yet begun putting weight on the injury. That seems to be pretty much on track with the basic timeline laid out in general recovery timelines on the Internet, which, as we all know, is the most reliable source for medical news.
Mel Kiper re-graded the 2014 draft classes last week, dropping the Texans from an A-minus to a C-plus. However, he wasn't ready to give up on Clowney, saying, "I realize people are lining up to call [Clowney] a bust and a wasted No. 1 overall pick, but it's simply way too soon." I stand with Mel on this one, and since his hair gives him extra height, he may almost stand as tall as I do.
But there's a difference between calling Clowney a bust and saying the Texans should necessarily rely on him in 2015. The nine-month (optimistic) timetable the Texans are working on would have Clowney step on the field for training camp, but that says nothing about his football shape, his integration into the scheme or his role. Much as the Texans eased linebacker Brian Cushing back into the fold in 2014 after his slightly less devastating broken leg, I think it's fairly obvious that Clowney won't be rushed into a full-time role right off the bat. And that's assuming there are no setbacks.
That leaves the Texans with a big problem, as their pass rush without Clowney last season was Watt and...uh, well, more Watt.
|Texans Pass Rush 2014: Watt and non-Watt|
|Player(s)||Sacks||Hurries (PFF)||QB Hits (PFF)|
|Other Houston Defenders||17.5||130||53|
|Source: Pro-Football-Reference, Pro Football Focus|
Depending on your point of view of how repeatable Watt's 2014 season is, the Texans either need to buffer against any possible drop-off or can improve the defense even more with a boost. (Heart: Watt can do whatever he wants, always. Brain: Watt is almost certainly due to regress somewhere.) Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, forced into Clowney's role, could provide only minimal production. Fellow outside linebacker Brooks Reed, another poor pass-rusher, is an unrestricted free agent. The depth chart after them provides only UDFAs and waiver claims.
The Texans have spent a steady stream of draft picks on pass-rushers this decade, only to watch them either flame out or walk away. Mercilus and Reed were the successors to Mario Williams and Connor Barwin. The successors to Mercilus and Reed were supposed to be Clowney and, perhaps, Trevardo Williams or Sam Montgomery. We've seen smoother successions in history. Like, for instance, the Russian Revolution.
The Texans don't often wander from their mantra of "Draft, Draft, Draft." The last time they spent real big bucks on an outside free agent was when they snagged cornerback Johnathan Joseph from Cincinnati. I do think it would be prudent for Houston to sign a proven pass-rusher this year, though, as I doubt Mercilus is a Texan for the long term.
|Potential FA Pass Rush Targets|
|Player||2014 Snaps||Sacks||Hurries (PFF)||QB Hits (PFF)|
|Sources: Pro-Football-Reference, Pro Football Focus|
Again, I don't think it's wise to count Clowney out for the long term. The talent was going to play either way. Clowney could lose a step and still be a serviceable No. 2 pass-rusher in my book.
But the Texans have to see the gaping wounds on the outside and think about 2015, not just the Imaginary Future World that the front office seems to believe in, where injuries always heal properly and everything turns up peachy keen. Case Keenum wins the Super Bowl in Imaginary Future World.
To that end, a stopgap could go a long way in deciding how competitive this team is in 2015. The Texans don't necessarily need to go to the top of the line here—seeing how the market settles is probably prudent. But winning seasons aren't made on announcers feverishly introducing Jason Ankrah and lauding how fast he looked in training camp. The Texans' pass rush stable could use a few more horses, if only to keep things rolling until Clowney can come back.