The Cleveland Browns needed to find a starting EDGE this offseason, and after sitting out the initial free agency period, ultimately inked Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal. The former No. 1 pick can provide an upgrade over Olivier Vernon, but only if he can stay healthy.
To say the Browns will miss Vernon is an understatement. His locker room leadership was important, but on the field, he was an excellent player. Injuries did slow him at times, but a healthy Vernon was a fantastic Robin to Myles Garrett’s Batman. A great run defender and productive pass rusher. In fact, after Garrett began to suffer (relatively) minor injuries and contracted COVID-19, Vernon was the team’s best defensive player over the latter half of the 2020 campaign, before a torn Achilles' in Week 17 ended his year.
It was always going to be difficult to find a player to give the team what Vernon provided, let alone to upgrade from him. That task was made all the more difficult when the first wave of free agency resulted in Romeo Okwara, Trey Hendrickson, and Carl Lawson inking massive deals that were out of Cleveland’s price range.
The Browns signed Takk McKinley to a cheap prove-it contract, but starting him was never the intention. A month later, Clowney took his second visit with the team and signed, giving Cleveland their new starter.
Clowney entered the league to much fanfare as the first overall pick in 2014, but has had a relatively disappointing career. Through 83 games over seven seasons, Clowney has totaled just 32 sacks, with three coming in 2019 and zero in 2020.
However, stats don’t tell the whole story with Clowney. Not even close. He may not be an ideal EDGE1, and may not provide an upgrade over a fully healthy Vernon, but he can still be one of the most disruptive complements in the league, provided he is available.
Clowney has routinely graded out as one of Pro Football Focus’s top run defenders, and his pressure totals are consistently among the league’s best.
Injuries have always been and will always be a serious concern with Clowney. He’s missed 29 regular season games and has been hampered in many others. The list is long: sports hernia, concussion, torn meniscus, microfracture surgery, ankle sprain, back sprain, Lisfranc sprain, elbow sprain, knee sprains that required surgery following both the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, another back sprain, patella sprain, hip injury, groin strain, and then another torn meniscus last year.
Clowney at full strength is an excellent player. Clowney at half strength is a good one, but a major step down from a healthy Vernon. He has never been a particularly bendy player, and his string of injuries have only worsened that weakness. It is the main reason why Clowney’s sack totals are so low, despite his very good pressure numbers. He creates disruption and collapses the pocket, but he lacks the ankle and knee flexibility required to turn the corner and finish off those plays.
Run defense is where Clowney really shines. He is great at it, on par with Vernon, and has the explosiveness to take over games, which he has done.
One way to minimize Clowney’s lack of bend is to play him inside as a three-technique defensive tackle. There, he can use his superior quickness and burst to penetrate closer to the ball with the quarterback in front of him.
It’s not something he’s done a ton of (during his opening press conference with the team, Clowney implied that the Tennessee Titans, for whom he played in 2020, told him that they’d be deploying him as a DT quite often, but that didn’t end up happening), but his skillset lends itself well to that role, and playing him inside would allow the Browns to put Garrett, Clowney, Malik Jackson, and Takk McKinley on the field all at the same time, giving them a very fast pass-rush group.
Clowney is a veteran, so it makes sense that he’s a technically refined player. He plays with excellent leverage and uses his hands very well, linking clubs and swipes together. He uses his length extremely well, constantly long-arming blockers and is consistently in control of blocks. It would not be a surprise to see him excel at two-gapping inside because of his power and length.
When watching Clowney, it is clear that he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He favors inside moves significantly, and is more effective doing that than running the arc. Whether it’s a straight bull, a club-rip, or a swipe, Clowney can wreak havoc on guards or tackles cheating outside.
He’s been a star at camp so far, which should come as no surprise. He’s recovered from his torn meniscus, and playing opposite Myles Garrett means offenses can’t afford to consistently double-team Clowney.
Speaking of surprises, Clowney was the 16th-highest-graded EDGE in 2019 according to PFF at 80.8. His grade dropped 5.9 points in 2020, but his tape shows a more effective player than the Seattle Seahawks version. It seemed as if Clowney were healthy for only three or four games in 2019, while that number was higher in 2020.
There is no concern over the level of play that Clowney can provide if healthy; the concern is simply keeping him on the field, and at (or at least near) full strength. If Clowney can make it through the year without suffering a season-ending injury, or being significantly hampered by less serious ailments, the Browns will have one of the most disruptive defensive lines in football. If Clowney’s health does become an issue, the team had better hope its EDGE depth lives up to its potential.