From Bust to NFL Star; Jadeveon Clowney’s Journey

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Through five seasons as an NFL starter, Jadeveon Clowney has faced plenty of ups and downs.

Starting off as being labeled as a bust through his first two seasons while he combatted knee injuries, to becoming one of the most intimidating and versatile players in the NFL. That development didn’t happen overnight. Through five years of hard work, Clowney went from athlete to refined pass rusher. He has added multiple moves to his arsenal (jab swipe and pull-down are my favorites) while continuously building upon his hard work.

The Building Blocks

The hit certainly helped Clowney to shoot up drafts boards, but he dominated far before then. In high school, Clowney rose up the ranks, producing highlight films after highlight films. This earned him a five-star recruiting profile and a full-ride at South Carolina. After South Carolina, he entered the draft as a 21-year-old phenom, but with a lot to improve on

His combine statistics demonstrate just how much of an athlete Clowney is.

  • 6’5″, 266 pounds
  • 34.5″ arm length
  • 10″ hands
  • 4.53 40-yard-dash
  • 21 bench press reps
  • 37.5″ vertical jump
  • 124″ broad jump
  • 7.27 three-cone drill
  • 4.43 20-yard-shuttle

His measurables mixed with his performance proved to be one of the best combine showings ever.

Despite being a physical freak, Clowney had some apparent limitations. He didn’t have the bend to get around the edge, nor did he have any respectable moves when attacking a quarterback. Yes, he was bigger, stronger, and faster than most anybody but that doesn’t cut it in the NFL. For Clowney to be genuinely successful, he needed to add moves to his arsenal to be consistent. Analyst Mike Mayock describes him correctly entering the draft, essential dubbing him as a very raw, inconsistent player.

“He’s 6-foot-5, 266 pounds. He’s got 34-inch arms. He ran a ridiculous 4.53 (40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) at 266. He’s explosive. He flashes in every game. When he woke up this morning, he was the most talented (defensive) lineman on the planet. The knock on him is that he’s not always consistent. The criticism is that he flashes explosion, but he doesn’t do it enough. The talent demands that he becomes the best defensive player in the league.” — Mike Mayock (

High praise from Mayock. But, Clowney built off of those criticisms and is starting to become what Mayock believed him to be: (one of) the best defensive players in the league.

At 25 years old, Clowney has built off of those combine records. His journey was never easy, but it’s paying off now. Before the looming mega-extension, there was rookie, injury prone Clowney.


Jadeveon Clowney’s rookie year didn’t go quite as planned. He rehabbed multiple knee injuries… then tore his meniscus. He might have been the fastest, most athletic player on the field, but his game underwhelmed fans expecting a great rookie season.

Clowney wasn’t the polished player that he is today, he was clunky and hadn’t gained any refined skills. On Clowney’s first ever NFL pass-rush (non-preseason), he resembled a very raw prospect.


Trent Williams pushes around Clowney. While Clowney assumes he can beat Williams with his speed. This doesn’t work as he has limited flexibility while rushing around the edge. Nor did he have any specific pass-rushing moves. A theme that repeatedly happened throughout his short rookie season.

The same goes for the next play. Against Taylor Lewan, Clowney was rendered useless. Once again, not producing enough bend and using an inefficient bull-rush on his counterpart.


The label “bust” isn’t taken lightly in professional sports, but that didn’t stop fans from dubbing the moniker towards Clowney.

Clowney’s 2014 stats:

  • 4 games
  • 0 sacks
  • 7 total tackles (5 solo, 2 assist)
  • 3 tackles for loss
  • 0 quarterback hits


After tearing his meniscus in 2014, Clowney came back for a large number of games in 2015 as a much-improved player.

On October 25th, 2015 versus the Dolphins, Jadeveon Clowney produced his first ever NFL sack (in a meaningful game).

Texans fans reveled. Clowney had finally shown up. But, that sack was insignificant in a sense. Clowney won the battle, but he showed he had so plenty of room to improve upon.


While Clowney did get the sack, he won the battle based on his sheer power and speed. Two traits are fantastic for an edge rusher, but they can’t be defenders only means of production.

Clowney bounces off of the left tackle twice, losing the first battle and winning the second off of speed and a bending left arm to kick out the tackle’s arm. The move to get the tackle’s arm out of the way was unique in a sense, but it doesn’t work against quicker, more powerful tackles. This sack proved what we all saw in Clowney at the college level, but didn’t show any true progression with his elusive and power moves.

By this time, his teammate J.J. Watt had the “jab’n’go” move mastered at the time, while his draft rival Khalil Mack started to develop the “long-arm punch.” Clowney didn’t have the arsenal of moves that the top edge rushers had. He was fast, but he was clunky. There were improvements in his technical skills, but early on much of that didn’t translate to the box score.

Just a couple months after his first career sack, Clowney started to show that he was developing into something more than just an athlete.

Notice this sack on Tyrod Taylor. Clowney is sitting on the edge as a linebacker alongside J.J. Watt. The player assigned to Clowney was tight end Chris Gagg. This was an example of how a team should NEVER try to block Clowney with a tight end.


Watch Clowney use his left foot to jab to the outside of the tight ends frame. This move forces Hagg to move his hands to the corresponding position. In a flash, Clowney runs back inside to not allow the end to gain any sort of leverage. Instantly, Clowney uses his left arm to keep Hagg a respectable distance away from him, enabling Clowney to shoot the C gap.

Once Clowney is free, no quarterback is safe. Tyrod Taylor indeed wasn’t. As Clowney gets the sack in 2.34 seconds. Despite being one of the most nimble quarterbacks in recent NFL history, Taylor didn’t stand a chance. Clowney explodes to the quarterback to get the effortless sack. A play that was a testament to his work ethic, showing that he can use his hands and feet to get past blockers.

2015 Seasons Stats:

  • 13 games
  • 4.5 sacks
  • 40 total tackles (27 solo, 13 assist)
  • 4.5 sacks
  • 8 tackles for loss
  • 8 quarterback hits


After the 2015 season. Clowney still had a lot of work to do. Yes, he could attack weaker or slower blockers with his shear athletisism and progressing hand and footwork. But, he still could not beat the technically sound tackles off of the edge.

In 2016, he needed to show that he could beat blocks using more than his speed, size, length, and improved bend. Basically, he needed to develop his foot and handwork. Unsurprisingly, he did just that.

While Clowney could still beat a lot of players with a bull-rush (see the clip below). He showed that linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was teaching him something new.


First, let’s look at this disgusting bull rush that he used to shed a double team by a guard and center. Clowney appears to look more flexible on this play. Using the bull rush, he is able to outmuscle both Quinten Spain and Ben Jones. He disengages with his right arm while also using his left to throw Spain onto the grass.

The bull-rush is one of Geno Atkins Clowney’s best moves. As it should be. His size, speed, and power are too much for most offensive linemen to handle. But, he becomes so much more than his exceedingly better bull-rush in 2016.

Watch him set the edge against the Vikings on this play. The Vikings are running an obvious rushing play, a 31 formation (3 backs, 1 tight end). The play is a counter play that was directly focused on stopping Clowney. But that doesn’t stop him from wrecking the play.

The offensive line shifts to the right side, so the left-side back (No. 83) is tasked with sealing the edge with a block on Clowney. Clowney quickly figures this out and stops it by springing to an almost full stand to shake the first block, then shifts back down to shed the second. The second dip down was to drop the pulling right guard’s block. Clowney does this so fast that he had gained momentum by the time he went back down the right guard was knocked to the ground. In only four steps (and some change) the play is neutralized thanks to Jadeveon Clowney.


What Clowney does so well here would not have occurred during his rookie or sophomore years. When Clowney identifies the pulling guard, he immediately lowers his body to brace for impact. Lowering his body resulted in him being able to knock the guard to the ground effortlessly then focus on the running back. Once Clowney sheds that block, he points his hips towards the running back, which enables him to hone in that momentum to make a bone crackling tackle on Matt Asiata for a one-yard loss.

By now, we know that Clowney can set the edge and win a lot of battles with his athletic and physical abilities. But, he still hadn’t shown that he can disengages blocks at an elite level. Yes, he used his hands more than ever and was able to bend around an edge at a higher level. But, he wasn’t doing it consistently.

By the end of 2016, his game starts morphing into a new monster that offensive linemen, quarterbacks, running backs, and coaches hadn’t seen before. He starts getting technical, using his momentum, increasingly better motion, and physical play style to wreak havoc. In the last three regular-season games that Clowney played in 2016, he recorded three sacks.

The playoffs are where Clowney showed the nation that he wasn’t a bust.

Although Clowney didn’t get a sack during the Texans 2016-17 playoff journey, he might have been the most impactful player on that team. He pressured quarterbacks constantly, making them throw passes they never wished to throw.


This pressure against Conner Cook starts to show Clowney’s improvements. Clowney makes a fool out of left tackle Menelik Watson (No. 71) here. He is just too quick and powerful to guard at the point of his career.

Right out of the gate Clowney comes attacking with his signature left-foot jab. That jab creates a full frame for Clowney to work with him. What he does with that wide frame is a testament to his improved hand motions. He lets the tackle put his arms out to force the tackle into thinking he has the block on Clowney.

Watson was fooled. Clowney brings his arms around the tackles arms, enabling him to pinch the tackle’s arm together, creating absolutely no leverage to sustain a block. After that, Clowney gets away, points his hips towards the quarterback and nearly creates a strip sack.

**Don’t try that move at home kids. Only the gifted such as Clowney can accomplish that.

In the next week, Jadeveon Clowney shows Tom Brady that he was going to terrorize the AFC.  He didn’t sack Brady, but he was able to hit him twice and make a tackle in the backfield. He attacked the Patriots like Lawrence Taylor — without mercy.

Before getting to the clip, it should be noted that in his third year in the NFL, the Texans started getting creative with how they use Clowney. Blitzing him through the A, B, and C-gaps, while using him as a stand-up linebacker, a 3-technique defensive tackle, out wide-9, and of course as a 5-technique. If you don’t understand what I just said here is a more simple way of phrasing that: he played every position in the front seven.


This play against the Patriots during the 2016-17 divisional playoffs shows off Clowney’s diversity. He starts on the edge on a balanced defensive line then shifts over to become an incognito MIKE linebacker. After that, the play is pure: shoot the B-gap and hit Brady.

Clowney doesn’t show many technicalities here other than improved timing and footwork. He times the snap flawlessly shoots through the gap and uses his built up energy to knock down guard Shaq Mason. Most players can’t run that play like he does, but Clowney is so fast and big that it works.

Despite not getting the sack, Clowney does an excellent job of creating immediate pressure off the play-action forcing Brady to throw a bad pass that sails out of bounds.

2016 season stats:

  • 16 games played (14 regular season, 2 playoff)
  • 55 total tackles (43 solo, 12 assist)
  • 17 tackles for loss
  • 19 quarterback hits
  • 6.5 sacks
  • 1 interception
  • 1 forced fumble


In 2017, Jadeveon Clowney started to build off of his strong 2016 season. Then defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel began to use the linebacker (that he groomed) the same way that Romeo Crennel did. Moving Clowney all over the defense to keep quarterbacks guessing, which worked.

Clowney improved throughout the year and solidified himself as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.


Clowney begins this rush as an outside linebacker Out of the gate, Clowney uses his signature left foot burst to force himself around Solder — already an excellent start to the play. That burst gives Clowney the outside leverage he needs to make his move.

Solder is able to recover pretty well, but Clowney beats him to the punch.

I imagine that it’s very hard to beat Clowney to the punch. He’s so fast and has such long arms that he often wins the battle. He wins here after Clowney gets his hands on Solder, with correct leverage.

When Solder finds himself on Clowney, he loses his balance from the combination of his first move and Clowney’s leverage. Performing an almost WWE movement, Clowney rips Solder to the ground like he is a stuffed toy and gets to Brady. That move that he uses is an improved development of a “pull-down,” which I will get to later.

Jadeveon Clowney had a lot of excellent plays in the 2017 season, but the one that stood out to me most was a tackle for loss on Thomas Rawls against the Seahawks during week eight.


The tackle starts with Clowney setting the edge on the offensive left side of the field. When the play begins, Clowney immediately uses his left foot jump to send the tackle crashing in towards him. Knowing that the tackle should instantly fall if there were nobody in front of him, Clowney forces just that. He does so by slightly moving his right foot out off of the left foot jump, then uses his hands to guide the linemen to the ground. To finish off the play, Clowney aligns his hips with the running back and leaps to make the tackle once Russell Wilson passes the ball to the back. This type of play was unfamiliar to Clowney earlier on, but his game had improved so much that it became a regular thing for him.

In week 12 of the 2017 NFL season, Clowney had the opportunity to show off his new moves and playstyle against the Ravens on Monday Night Football. And boy, did he impress.

If you aren’t convinced of Jadeveon Clowney’s new blend of pass rushing moves, flexibility, power, speed, and size in one complete product, this next play should convince you.


Clowney starts as the 3-technique (defensive tackle) on a four-man rush disguised as a 6-man blitz. What Clowney needs to do here is get past both the left guard and the center, which he does, in seven steps. Seven steps.

First, Clowney uses a quick jab swipe move to quickly disengage from the left guard’s block. Second, he uses a double punch to sweep the center off his feet. When the center recovers, Clowney pins him into his body with his left arm then focuses on Joe Flacco. Clowney is able to change direction so fast that the center goes flying. After that, the sack became a cakewalk as he hunts down Flacco to punch him into his teammate.

Clowney became the player that you see today in 2017. He was a candidate for Defensive Player of The Year and became the clear #1 pass-rusher in Houston, yes, over J.J. Watt. His game wasn’t clunky, it was smooth, yet powerful. It was the Jadeveon Clowney that the Texans wanted to see for a number one overall pick. It took time, but with Clowney’s work ethic and the Texans patience, he became a terror for offenses all around the NFL.

2017 Season Stats:

  • 16 games
  • 59 total tackles (41 solo, 18 assist)
  • 21 tackles for loss
  • 21 quarterback hits
  • 9.5 sacks
  • 2 forced fumbles
  • 2 fumbles recovered
  • 1 touchdown


Through the first half of the 2018 NFL season, we have seen another step in Clowney’s progression. He didn’t take the massive jump like he did from 2016 to 2017, but, he is a noticeably better player.

Clowney looks more fluid in his motions than before and has beaten people with finesse rather than just his pure power. Combining the traits of a sharp edge rusher with his athleticism has paid off, as Clowney has to be a Defensive Player Of The Year contender alongside Watt, Mack, Donald, and others.


This was Clowney’s first sack of the 2018 season. He is lined up as a defensive end in a nickel package. He starts off the rush with the same jump out of his left foot, then bends towards the tackle. Essentially that bend towards the tackle lets Clowney gain all the leverage he needs to win.

Once Clowney is on top of the tackle, all he needs to do is deflect his block, and he does so efficiently — locking the tackle’s arms in place to use his arms to swipe them down (another variant of his pull-down move). He does this entire pass rush while showing improvements in two things: his bend off of the edge, and using his hips to guide the rush.

This next play is another showcase of his ability to play anywhere on the field. We’ve seen Clowney’s ability to blitz as the MIKE before, but, in 2018 he is doing so better than ever.


Instead of bull-rushing beating the guard with power, Clowney gets chorographical with this play. Dancing with the guard to force him to guess which gap he will blitz through. Once the guard shifts inside, all Clowney has to do is use his jab-swipe move to move him out of the way for an easy sack. He beat the guard in less than one second on this play. Showing his speed, and strength but also his newfound finesse moves.

One of my favorite moves that Clowney has begun to showcase is his “pull-down” move, which I have mentioned multiple times. The move sounds precisely like what it is.

At 6’5″ Clowney is one of the bigger pass-rushers in the NFL, which helps him perform this move. The move itself isn’t fair when you combine Clowney’s speed and strength. Aaron Donald uses a very similar move to make him so dominant, but it’s not quite the same. Donald is 6’1″ so he pops his arms up to avoid quicker, bigger guards.

What Clowney pulls the move off well. By forcing the blocker to get lower by using a downward motion, then popping back up to put his arms over the blocker’s arms. All Clowney has to do at that point is pull down the linemen’s arms to throw him to the ground.

Sounds simple, the only problem: you have to be as twitchy and strong as Clowney to pull it off as often as he does.

Below, Clowney makes this move to perfection. He uses the left foot jump to simultaneously get lower than the tackle and to square up to the tackle. The tackle is far too slow to defend this, and by the time he has his arms on Jadeveon, they are submerged by Clowney’s arms. This is a swift move that Clowney can do so well due to his stature and athletisism.


While Clowney is an excellent pass-rusher, I believe he is best used as an edge-setter against zone runs. Below, Clowney performs his signature jab-swipe move with his left arm punching to get to Chris Ivory. We have seen this move used by Clowney multiple times, but by 2018 he has perfected it. Getting to Chris Ivory (and tackling by his dreadlock) in only 2.05 seconds.


2018 Season Stats (through 7 weeks)

  • 6 games
  • 20 total tackles (18 solo, 2 assist)
  • 9 tackles for loss
  • 10 quarterback hits
  • 4.5 sacks
  • 2 fumbles recovered
  • 1 touchdown

Before the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was a surefire first overral pick for the Texans. He was a reliable tackler and a physical freak of nature. When he finally played, fans began to realize that Clowney wasn’t the terror they expected him to be. He needed a lot of work. The Texans and Clowney had to remain patient and work hard to evolve him from an athlete to a skilled pass rusher. And they did just that. In 2018 the Texans are reaping the benefits as Watt and Clowney have created one of the best pass-rushing tandems to ever be seen on an NFL gridiron. Now it’s time for both Clowney and Houston to reap the benefits of their hard work and perseverance.

-Avery Duncan

Stats provided by:


Videos produced by:

NFL, NFL Game Pass


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