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Rookie contract hero: What’s next for Jadeveon Clowney in 2019?

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Clowney’s got the talent, but can he be a full time force?

NFL: Houston Texans at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney is a good NFL pass rusher. The problem is, he could be better.

Clowney came into the league in 2014 accompanied by the breathless hype typically reserved for elite quarterbacks. And, with apologies to Michigan tailback Vincent Smith, it was easy to understand why.

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But while Clowney has been a Pro Bowl player for the Texans, he hasn’t reached the ridiculous heights a college and high school career spent as an untouchable prospect promised. Playing on a defensive unit bolstered by stars like J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Benardrick McKinney was supposed to clear the space that prevented opponents from double-teaming him and give him the latitude to be a destructive force on par with Watt, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack.

Instead, injuries — to both Clowney and his teammates — have spread him thin. The former No. 1 overall pick has been stuck at “good” when he’s got the body and brain to be “great.” But Clowney’s rookie contract expires when his 2018 season does, and barring any last-minute deals from the Texans, he’ll be one of the most sought-after free agents in 2019. The only question will be which team thinks it can level him up from Pro Bowler to perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Someone is going to pay Jadeveon Clowney ridiculous money because he is a ridiculous human being

Clowney has been under an enormous microscope since he was named the nation’s highest-rated recruit of all time back in 2010. His 247Sports profile says that the five-star 6’5, 255-pound defensive end played, delightfully, a little running back, which should be all the data you need to make a judgment on his athleticism.

He translated that do-everything talent to the field at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier, saving his best performances for the Gamecocks’ biggest games. He had five tackles for loss in three postseason appearances (including the attempted decapitation of Smith above). In his ludicrous sophomore year, he recorded 23.5 tackles for loss — 20 of which came against Power 5 competition.

That made him an easy pick at No. 1 overall in 2014, just ahead of Greg Robinson (oof) and Blake Bortles (geez). But Clowney struggled to live up to that billing early due to injury. I’ll let Stephen White sum it up for me because, well, I’m not going to do it any better than this:

A jackass offensive lineman cheap-shotted him in that first game and hurt his ankle. Then, at some point along the way, he had an injury to his torso that slowed him down at the end of that season. Come to find out, after the season, that injury — which his head coach had publicly called him out for after a game — ended up being a sports hernia he had to have surgically repaired. Then, he hurt his knee his rookie season and ended up having the dreaded microfracture surgery last spring, a procedure notorious for taking away a player’s explosiveness.

After using all last offseason basically for rehab, Clowney didn’t get much time on the field to actually work on his craft. Then of course, he had a myriad of injuries during last season, culminating in a Lisfranc foot injury that ended his season, but fortunately for him did not require surgery.

Man ... that’s a lot!

But Clowney wasn’t just fighting against injury; he was suddenly up against a class of player he couldn’t just trash with absurd athleticism. He could make plays in spurts — he still managed 4.5 sacks in 17 games his first two seasons — but he needed to refine his technique and add some more strength before adding any kind of consistency to his game. Couple that with injuries and a continually shifting role as a pass rusher thanks to Watt’s own health problems, and you’ve got a steep learning curve even for a 6’5, 270-pound monster.

He made the leap in 2016, his first Pro Bowl campaign. He wasn’t just an edge rusher — he was a player who could rag doll tight ends and break into the backfield to disrupt running plays. He thrived as an outside linebacker who didn’t have to deal with the constraints of lining up with his hand on the ground. Houston found a way to best utilize his speed and power. Getting Clowney, a man with 4.5-second 40-yard dash speed, out in space proved to be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen.

And while his pass rushing is the headliner, his waterbug lateral quickness and ability to shed blocks also made him a multifaceted flood to plan against in the running game. At his best, he can sniff out plays and eclipse the daylight create by opposing blockers with lightning-fast shifts.

2017 built off 2016’s breakout, culminating in career highs in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (21), quarterback hits (21), and forced fumbles (two) in the first 16-game season of his career. But even though he was pushing up against the Mack-Miller-Donald ceiling in terms of his defensive impact, 2018 came without a contract extension.

While the team exercised his $12.3 million fifth-year option, talks between the two sides on an expensive, multi-year contract fizzled out despite a promising start. Clowney was expected to reset the defensive player market before starting his 2018, but offseason knee surgery and 18 missed games in 4.5 seasons kept the two sides from seeing eye to eye. Talks between the two sides broke off in July.

The impasse between Clowney and the Texans in terms of contract talks isn’t a product of the their salary cap. Houston has $16 million in space still in 2018 and is slated to have more than $68 million next spring, even with Demaryius Thomas’s non-guaranteed $14 million on the books. With Deshaun Watson creating around $20 million of surplus value thanks to his rookie deal (Clowney, to his credit, has been good for about $7 million in bonus production this fall), the team is in good shape to fit a couple massive contracts under the cap in 2019 and beyond.

Instead, Houston is waiting to see if Clowney can stay healthy before backing up the Brinks truck for him. If the club isn’t convinced, it can always keep him in the fold on a one-year deal that would greatly benefit the Texans, albeit briefly.

What’s Clowney gonna cost one enterprising team in 2019?

There’s still time for the Texans to pencil Clowney in for next year and beyond, even if that’s by way of the franchise tag. The Texans could keep him under the one-year designation for an estimated $17.9 million depending on how the top five salaries at outside linebacker shake out next offseason. That’s expensive, but the multipurpose pass rusher is capable of outplaying that deal.

The questions he’ll face are whether the Texans will be willing to give him the long-term contract he deserves, and whether he’ll get Khalil Mack money in the process. Mack turned out to be the player to whom all other defenders look up when it comes to contract negotiations. He inked a six-year, $141 million deal after his trade to the Bears that included $90 million in guaranteed cash — $20 million more in practical guarantees than Miller got in 2016 and $3.1 million more than Donald had received one day earlier.

So will Clowney command more than Mack? The good news for Clowney is that pass rushers get paid. The bad news is he’ll have some competition on the market next spring.

The 2019 free agent pool is slated to include young(ish) double-digit sack recorders Ziggy Ansah and Demarcus Lawrence, who are both playing out franchise tags in 2018. Less expensive veterans like Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Brian Orakpo, Clay Matthews, Bruce Irvin, Dante Fowler, Michael Johnson, William Hayes, and Shane Ray will likely be available as well. If Clowney hits the free market, teams in need of pass-rushing help who aren’t interested in shelling out $20 million+ annually won’t have trouble finding cheaper (but less effective) help.

This, along with his injury history and lack of a consistent top gear — he’s never had double-digit sacks in a season, but is on pace for 11 this season — are all arguments against a record-setting contract. And they’re all good ones; Clowney isn’t the kind of wrecking ball disruptor Mack or Donald are. Yet.

But some team, if not the Texans, is going to believe it can coax that kind of performance from a player who is still improving and who is, if his measurables are to be believed, still a long way from hitting his ceiling. The best version of Jadeveon Clowney is a player who can wreak havoc along the edge, collapse rushing lanes like a mudslide, and use his pterodactyl length to swat down passes and strip ballcarriers with impunity.

If Houston doesn’t use the franchise tag to keep him in 2019, he’s looking at a deal in the neighborhood of six years and $135 million with $81 million guaranteed.

That’s Aaron Donald money with a little extra protection for buyers in case of injury. That’s a lot for a player whose career high is 9.5 sacks, but it makes sense. Even if Clowney hasn’t had an Donald kind of impact yet, you don’t have to squint very hard to see how a player with his strength and athleticism can get there with a few subtle tweaks.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 11:

Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants (152 total yards, 3 TDs in win over Buccaneers)

Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens (150 pass yards, 119 rush yards in win over Bengals)

Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs (215 receiving yards, 2 TDs in loss to Rams)

Jared Goff, QB, Rams (413 yards, 5 total TDs in win over Chiefs)

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Washington (13 tackles, 1 forced fumble in loss to Texans)

Kyler Fackrell, LB, Packers (3 sacks in loss to Seahawks)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett

Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt

Week 5: T.J. Watt

Week 6: Saquon Barkley

Week 7: Darius Leonard

Week 8: James Conner

Week 9: Marcus Peters

Week 10: Mitchell Trubisky