In this two part article, we look at the case for the Houston Texans to draft Jadeveon Clowney, both from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint. In this part I we consider both the need on the defensive side of the ball and the impact Clowney could have immediately in improving Texans D.
With several weeks to go before the NFL Draft, the Houston Texans remain on the clock. It is looking increasingly likely that the Texans will either select University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick or trade down. If the Texans trade down, our Yoni Pollak believes they are likely to select a quarterback A portion of the Texans fan base continues to believe they should select a quarterback in the 1st round; in particular one who played his college ball just up the road in College Station.
“Keep Johnny Football in Texas” highway billboards notwithstanding, the case for upgrading the defense by drafting Clowney is a compelling one. While the NFL may have evolved into a passers league, the old adage that defense wins championships remains true.
The last two Super Bowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks and the Baltimore Ravens, were known more for their defense than their offense. Of the last ten Super Bowl winners, six were known primarily for defense while the other four had underrated defenses.
On the basis of yards allowed per game, the Houston Texans were a top 10 defense in 2013. Observers would be forgiven for being surprised at this fact, as nothing about the Texans defense in 2013 felt top 10. In fact, this is a misleading statistic as it does not take into account opponent starting field position and the impact of a host of bad penalties.
Buddy Ryan revolutionized NFL defenses in the early 1980s with the creation of the “46” defense. The philosophy behind Ryan’s approach was that if you cut off the head of the offense (the quarterback), then opposing teams would collapse. Defenses have evolved since then, in part due to changing NFL rules, however the notion that putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks leads to turnovers or three-and-outs holds true today.
This is where the Houston Texans defense was woefully inadequate in 2013. The defense did not put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, finishing 30th out of 32 teams in the NFL with only 32 sacks; one ahead of the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and a badly beaten up Chicago Bears defense. This compares with 2012 and 2011 when the Texans finished 5th and 6th in the league respectively with 44 sacks in total.
With quarterbacks having plenty of time to pick out receivers, this translated directly into a lack of interceptions. The Texans finished dead last in 2013 with only 7, two behind the Oakland Raiders. In 2012 the Texans finished 14th with 15 interceptions and in 2011, 13th with 17 interceptions.
A defensive front that puts pressure on the quarterback instantly makes a secondary better. The 1985 Chicago Bears defense, arguably the best defense of all-time, had a secondary primarily made up of no names. There are no players from that secondary in the Hall of Fame. One of the cornerbacks (Leslie Frazier) was undrafted. Gary Fencik, the free safety, was drafted in the 10th round. Dave Duerson, the strong safety, was supposed to be a backup. Nevertheless, that Bears team led the NFL in interceptions in 1985 with 34.
Give an average quarterback enough time in the pocket and he will make even a good secondary look bad. A good quarterback with enough time will cut you to pieces. The Texans provided opposing quarterbacks with far too much time in the pocket in 2013. This is particularly damning given that the Texans have one of the premier pass rushers in the league on the roster in JJ Watt.
Watt drew far more attention from offensive coordinators last season who were determined to ensure he did not beat them. This resulted in a decline in his pass rushing statistics. It should have resulted in an increase in production for other members of the defense, particularly the defensive end playing opposite Watt: Antonio Smith. Despite having a clearer shot at the quarterback, Smith managed only 5 sacks in 2013, two fewer than his 2012 total.
Brooks Reed had only 3 sacks, 0.5 more than in 2012 when he played in 4 fewer games. The only Texan who managed a somewhat respectable sack total was Whitney Mercilus who had one more sack than he did in 2012: 7 total. In light of the fact that Mercilus played far more often in 2013 than he did in 2012, however, this looks a bit less impressive.
The presence of an elite pass rusher on a defense like Watt should have a more productive impact on the players around him. To use another example from the Chicago Bears (apologies, I grew up in Chicago), look at the impact that Julius Peppers in his prime had upon joining the Bears defensive line. The DE opposite Peppers was Israel Idonije, an average pass rusher whose best return prior to Peppers arrival was 3.5 sacks in 2008.
Seeing little to fear in Idonije, offenses keyed in on Peppers. The result? Idonije recorded 8 sacks in Peppers first season with Chicago; the same number of sacks as Peppers. The following season, teams had to adjust and account for Idonije more often. His sack total dropped to 5, but Peppers benefited from a bit less attention and recorded 11 sacks.
The impact of Peppers presence on the secondary? In 2009 the Bears had 13 interceptions. In 2010, the season Peppers joined the team, that figure jumped to 21.
Apart from being a skilled pass rusher, Watt is also one of the best in the league at defending against the run. Consequently, there was a noticeable increase over the course of 2012 and into 2013 in teams rushing the ball away from Watt. Again, seeing far less to fear from the remainder of the Texans defense than from Watt.
Despite their overall performance, the Texans have serviceable players on defense, particularly if Brian Cushing can remain healthy. The secondary is good enough to hold up if the pass rush gets to the quarterback more quickly. The front seven is good enough to stop the run if opponents have to respect both sides of the defensive line equally.
The catch is, the Texans need another impact player in the front seven. This is where Clowney comes in. There is no debating that Clowney is a physical freak and has the potential to become one of the most dominant defensive linemen or outside linebacker in the game. The question marks are around work ethic, but let’s put that to the side for the moment.
Imagine that Clowney performs to his abilities in the NFL. Immediately you have a balanced front seven with elite players on both ends. Whether he plays at outside linebacker or at the defensive end spot, offenses are forced to respect and account for Clowney which generates more opportunities for Watt to make impact plays.
This has a trickle down effect, with offenses now having to account for both Clowney and Watt, players like Mercilus have a more direct shot at the quarterback. If Clowney slots in as an outside linebacker, Reed moves inside with Cushing and provides an upgrade in the middle. Everyone in the front seven instantly is better.Similarly, with the pass rush getting to the quarterback much more quickly, the secondary does not have to lock down receivers for as long and becomes better as a result. Quarterbacks being forced to make quick decisions typically means a higher percentage of risky throws and a corresponding increase in interceptions.
Simply put, with a player like J.J. Watt already on the roster, a healthy Brian Cushing at middle linebacker and serviceable parts throughout the defense, the addition of an elite player who plays like an elite player could turn the Texans defense into a genuine top 10, or even top 5 defense overnight.
On the flip side, pass over Clowney and draft a quarterback and what happens? The defense is still most likely mediocre at best. The offensive line is also likely still mediocre at best. It is difficult to envision any quarterback coming into a team like the Texans and having an immediate uplifting impact on the entire team.
Apart from that, the hit/miss ratio on quarterbacks in the 1st round, as covered ad nauseam by many others, is high. Draft the wrong quarterback with the 1st overall pick and it can set your franchise back for years (the Texans already have a bit of experience with this).
Given the choice between taking a quarterback in the 1st round who is unlikely to greatly improve the offense for the next couple of seasons, or a defensive player who could instantly transform the Texans into having one of the best defenses in the league, the choice should be simple.
Yes, there is that niggling issue around work ethic. However, the Texans have to trust that working side-by-side with one of the hardest working players in the game in Watt, and under the tutelage of Romeo Crennel, Clowney can work hard enough to realize his potential and turn into an elite defender. The risk is well worth the potential reward.
Check back in a few days as we look at the potential impact of an improved defense on the Texans offense in Part II of the Case for Drafting Clowney.