You would be hard-pressed to find a preseason list for potential breakout NFL players heading into the 2016 season without Jadeveon Clowney being on it heading.
The No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft spent his first two years – and his senior year at South Carolina – largely battling injuries. But Clowney entered 2016 healthy, with time to prepare for the season and everything looked like it was lining up for a big year for the Houston Texans defensive end.
And the former South Carolina star didn’t disappoint. He ranked 10th among AFC defensive lineman with 6 sacks and was tied for third with 40 tackles, all good enough to earn him his first Pro Bowl selection at the end of his first full season in the NFL and a nod on the PFWA All-NFL team.
But what led to the success that saw Clowney turn into the pass-rushing terror the Texans envisioned when they drafted him?
Firstly, he was healthy. Clowney battled a knee injury and had knee surgery in his first season in the NFL. He had a range of injuries in 2015 before a Lisfranc foot injury capped it off. But being healthy at last meant something equally important: Clowney got the chance to go through an offseason, learning Romeo Crennel’s defense better and getting in the technique work to excel. He also came back looking like an even more insane physical specimen after an offseason in the weight room.
Secondly, Clowney, of course, is playing for one of the NFL’s best defenses. Lining up in a front seven that also features Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing and Benardick McKinney – and next to Vince Wilfork – is a luxury. That’s not even taking into consideration that J.J. Watt missed this season. But all that goes to say, Clowney was drafted into an awesome situation to wreak the havoc he finally is in his third season.
It’s how he was used his season that, in part, contributed to his success. After being looked at as an outside linebacker when he was drafted, Clowney moved to defensive end prior to 2016. His athletic ability saw him line up on the edge with a hand in the dirt, but also standing up and playing as an outside linebacker. Both usages allowed him to excel against the run, while also generating pass rush.
Lastly, it just comes back to the raw skill that made Clowney a 5-star recruit out of Rock Hill, S.C., before he became a Gamecock. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s a rare blend of so many skills that make him a force. Those things made him the No. 1 pick and now they’ve made him a Pro Bowler, even though he opted out of playing in the game to rest up before coming back looking for an even bigger 2017 season.