The Houston Texans once passed on Julius Peppers for a quarterback prospect that wasn’t the consensus best in his class. They refused to do it again … and now Blake Bortles, Jake Locker, and Andrew Luck get to deal with the consequences.
ON May 8, 2014, head coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith selected South Carolina defensive end-slash-smasher of worlds Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick in the draft, finally ending months of fan anticipation and media hand-wringing over a pick that (in hindsight) never seemed to be in much doubt — the best talent in the draft went first off the board. We aren’t sure if Houston’s brain trust saw some of David Carr in Blake Bortles, but they probably saw plenty of Mario Williams in Clowney.
Two important consequences came of the Texans’ decision, the latter being the focus of this piece. The first is that O’Brien — one of the game’s preeminent quarterback gurus — punted on the position he knows best, signaling to everyone that none of this year’s big three passers (Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Johnny Manziel) were up to his standards at the top of the draft. Houston appears ready to go into the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the apparent starter-to-be and Case Keenum and TJ Yates fighting for the backup spot, while developmental fourth-round choice Tom Savage licks his wounds in the corner, suffering from an apparent rise up everyone’s draft board only to have fallen back to Earth when everyone remembered he was, well, Tom Savage. The smart money is that the Texans’ franchise quarterback isn’t on the roster yet, so they should be a popular team to mock Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston to over the next 11 months. (My fantasy is that O’Brien is tanking for boy wonder Christian Hackenberg in 2016, but if he could mold Matt McGloin into the Big Ten’s leading passer and an NFL-worthy signal-caller in a matter of one season, Fitzpatrick will probably light up the fantasy football scoreboards and go for 5,000 and 30 these next two years and screw it all up.)
The other result is one every football fan should salivate over — the league’s best defensive player has been paired with arguably the best defensive prospect of the last 30 years.
On the same line. Together. Mere feet away from each other. This is awesome.
With all due respect to Peppers and Williams, Clowney enters the NFL as its most acclaimed defensive talent since Bruce Smith. He’s the first guy I can remember to be the hands-down No. 1 recruit in high school and retain that sort of status in the lead-up to the draft, and Clowney deserved every second of it; the sort of speed and power fit into his 6-6, 274-pound frame should be reserved for a real-life Captain America experiment. Clowney is expected to be a consistent 15-sack force in his prime … and he may still never approach the mind-altering dominance that was J.J. Watt’s 2012 season. That year, Watt accumulated 20 AV — Approximate Value, Pro Football Reference’s summary statistic that is akin to WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in baseball or Win Shares in basketball — the most ever for a defensive player aged 23 or younger. As PFF put it, Watt “set about redefining what is possible at the 3-4 position”, finishing the year two sacks off Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 (while primarily rushing from the interior of the line!) and grading out as their top-ranked run-stopper. Again, he was 23.
And while Clowney may never reach that level of single-season supremacy, at the very least he projects to be a disruptive force that commands a double team on every down. When you remember that Watt is constantly drawing that assignment, and if you get optimistic and pencil in gargantuan nose tackle Louis Nix on that line in a season or two … well, new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is going to have a lot of fun finding ways to free up an ancillary talent like Whitney Mercilus on passing downs. Houston could go from worst* to first in the sack department overnight.
It’s fascinating to muse about what the Texans’ pass-rush could accomplish over the next few seasons — “40 sacks for Clowney-Watt, 50 sacks, hell, all the sacks!” — but it’s important to note that they may not even have the best defensive line of the 2010s**. St. Louis took college superstar-turned-combine warrior Aaron Donald with the 13th pick in the draft and added him to a unit that already boasts Michael Brockers, Chris Long, and Robert Quinn, arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in the league last season. That is a gluttony of talent, a veritable smorgasbord of first-round draft hits that almost won a late October game single-handedly against the eventual Super Bowl champs despite starting Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Clowney-Watt has the chance to be the league’s best duo, becoming the defensive equivalent of ‘98 Cris Carter and Randy Moss, but Nix is far from a sure thing to pan out, and the combined forces of the Long-Brockers-Donald-Quinn front can make NFC offenses look like the beaches of Normandy after St. Louis is through with them.
But that pairing — Clowney-Watt, Watt-Clowney, whatever order we decide to definitively put it in — is the more interesting group to forecast as the number-one talent is cast with the number-one veteran, the effervescent hype meeting established results. Clowney is a mere 21-years-old, while Watt turned 25 last month; they figure to have a lot of time to make some history together.
But who will they be trying to supersede over the next decade? What legendary twosomes lie in football’s past that make it a daunting task for Clowney-Watt to go down as the most accomplished pair of pass-rushers in NFL history?
From what I could gather, these are the most productive defensive end tandems in the Super Bowl era as ranked by accumulated AV. AV is far from a definitive metric, of course, but it’s probably the best statistical measure we have to go by when comparing across eras … especially since sacks weren’t officially tracked by the NFL until 1982.
Years together: 10 (2003-2012)
Combined AV: 148
Combined sacks: 186.0
Many of Peyton Manning’s Colts teams dealt with criticism for not being able to stop a nosebleed come playoff time, but Freeney and Mathis were always able to get to the quarterback; Indy just couldn’t find a worthy pair of tackles to stick between them. Seriously, look up some of the guys that were part of that rotation over the years. Eric Foster? Edward Johnson? Daniel Muir?
Years together: 10 (1971-1980)
Combined AV: 164
Combined sacks: N/A
It’s no surprise that a lot of the best pairs in history played on lines that had their own nicknames. Greenwood and “Mad Dog” were part of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain in their 1970s dynasty, generating havoc with “Mean” Joe Greene and winning four Super Bowls, and both are still members of the Steelers’ All-Time team despite there being plenty of viable competition for those spots.
Years together: 8 (1983-1990)
Combined AV: 171
Combined sacks: 131
The only duo on this list that are both Hall-of-Famers. They played on the most iconic defense of all time in 1985 and were a part of several more dominant units, contributing much of the fearsome pass rush that was so essential to Buddy Ryan’s 46 scheme. The Bears never finished outside of the top five in points allowed from 1983 through 1988.
2. Bruce Smith & Phil Hansen
Years together: 9 (1991-1999)
Combined AV: 189
Combined sacks: 140
Hansen was a good player, having shown enough to start in 148 of his 156 career games (all with Buffalo), but this is more of case of whoever was lucky enough to line up on the other side of Bruce Smith for the better part of a decade. Smith is tied for sixth all-time in career AV with Ray Lewis and is just three points behind Reggie White, the leader among all defensive players.
Years together: 15 (1964-1978)
Combined AV: 296
Combined sacks: N/A
Without a doubt (or the presence of a close competitor), Eller and Marshall were the most productive pass-rushing team in history, playing together for a decade-and-a-half and comprising half of Minnesota’s famed “Purple People Eaters”. They benefited greatly from Gary Larsen and Alan Page, who was arguably the best defensive tackle ever, but the sheer longevity of this tandem will probably never be matched in the modern era of free agency.
IT goes without saying that Clowney and Watt have their work cut out for them if they are to go down as the best defensive end duo in history, and yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds when talking about a guy that’s played three seasons and another who has yet to see a professional snap.
But the offseason is the time for hypotheticals like this, and I don’t know how many more times we’ll be able to witness a scenario where the Defensive Player of the Year is joined by the No. 1 pick at the same position. Clowney’s development — and the sheer pleasure I get from watching Watt bull-rush mortals — will make Houston’s defensive line a must-see unit going forward.
* Second-worst, technically. Houston finished with just one more sack (32) than last-place finishers Chicago and Jacksonville (31).
** Have we thought of an appropriate moniker for this decade yet? “Aughts” was sneakily clever.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.