Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney leads 2014′s early-impact rookies


Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney’s pass-rushing skills should provide a painful 2014 for opposing quarterbacks. (Pat Sullivan/AP File Photo)

The Houston Texans, quite glaringly, lack a franchise quarterback. They possessed the top overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, creating the temptation for them to try to find such a quarterback even in a draft class that seemed to lack anything resembling a sure-fire prospect at the sport’s most glamorous position.

But the Texans resisted that temptation and took the player in the draft, pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who has the best odds to spend the next dozen or so years making life miserable for opposing franchise quarterbacks. The choice of Clowney gives Houston the rookie with the greatest chance to make the biggest immediate impact league-wide this season.

“They did the right thing,” one rival NFL head coach said during the offseason. “Any of those quarterbacks would have been a reach at No. 1. This kid [Clowney] has the ability to have a Jevon Kearse-type rookie year getting after the quarterback.”

Kearse had 14-1/2 sacks as a rookie for the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Never mind that Kearse never again had that many sacks in an NFL season. Clowney can worry about his encore performance once his rookie year is done. He is well positioned to be a top pass rusher from the moment he steps on the field to open the 2014 season.

He has a unique combination of size, power and speed. He received pre-draft criticism from some analysts for, they said, not being consistent and not being fundamentally sound in all of his techniques. But some of those criticisms perhaps were overstated, with Clowney under intense scrutiny as the player who almost certainly would have been the top overall pick in the 2013 draft if he’d been available.

Clowney won’t even be the focal point for opposing blockers in Houston, with J.J. Watt in the Texans’ lineup. Assuming that Clowney suffers no lingering effects from the sports hernia surgery that he underwent in the offseason and remains relatively healthy, it would be surprising if he’s not among the league’s most productive rookies this season.

Clowney is not the only rookie  in favorable circumstances to thrive right away. There are others.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills

There are no certainties in the NFL draft, and that seems especially true of wideouts taken in its early stages. But Watkins, taken by the Bills No. 4 overall after they trade up, certainly looks like a star in the making. He is earning superlative-filled reviews in the early days of the Bills’ training camp. If quarterback EJ Manuel can develop into a reliable passer in his second NFL season, he could have a big-play rookie receiver at his disposal.

Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions

Detroit getting Ebron at 10th overall could end up being one of the best value picks of the draft. He is a play-making tight end who will create major matchup problems for opposing defenses already preoccupied with wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Ebron stands at 6-foot-4 and ran a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash, the second best time of any tight end at the combine.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns

While a fellow Cleveland rookie, quarterback Johnny Manziel, gets all the attention, Gilbert could have the far more seamless transition to the NFL. It’s not easy being a rookie cornerback, particularly in the most passing-friendly era in the sport’s history. But Gilbert is a solid prospect with the ability to step in and succeed anyway as a complement to the Browns’ Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings

This is very unlikely to be a quarterback class that rivals the 2012 group (with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) for rookie-year exploits. But Bridgewater, after being taken with the final pick of the first round of the draft in May, certainly has a chance to earn playing time, as he vies with Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder for the starting job. And with tailback Adrian Peterson to draw opposing defenses to the line of scrimmage, any Vikings quarterback with a reasonable amount of talent is in position to succeed.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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