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Rick Gosselin: Jadeveon Clowney has stiff learning curve, expectations to deal with

By Rick Gosselin The Dallas Morning News (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:57 PM

HOUSTON — The first overall selection of an NFL draft is both a blessing and a curse for that player.

As Jadeveon Clowney will discover this fall.

Clowney is still operating in the “blessing” stage. The Houston Texans declared him the best of the hundreds of players available in the 2014 draft. As that first overall choice, Clowney received the best contract of any player in his draft at $22.3 million. So both his ego and pocketbook have been stroked.

Fans watching practice at the Texans’ training camp this summer wear his jersey and chant his name. On the day I attended practice last weekend, Clowney blocked a punt in a special-teams segment, which brought the crowd to its feet with plenty of whoops and hollers.

His honeymoon with the fans began with the draft May 8 and will run through Sept. 6. That’s when the “curse” portion of becoming the first overall selection of a draft arrives like a lightning bolt.

On Sept. 7, the Texans open the season against the Washington Redskins. At that point Clowney will be expected to live up to all of the hype and the expectations.

Clowney will be expected to be an impact player on a team that finished 2-14 last season. He’s physically a freak at 6-5, 266 pounds with 4.51 speed and an 83-inch wingspan. A player with those gifts is expected to walk in as an elite pass-rusher in the NFL. Double-digit sacks have already been penciled in for him by fandom.

Not so fast, says Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

“I realize everyone expects [Clowney] to be All-Pro right away,” Crennel said. “But there is a learning curve that players must go through to get where we want them to be. Every once in a while you’ll get that rare individual who lives up to it right out of the box. But things have to fall perfectly in line for that to happen.

“As circumstances occur, we have to deal with them. And he has to deal with them as well. So we’ll see how he’s going to do. But I feel we’ll eventually be pleased with him as a player.”

That’s the key word — eventually.

Like Clowney, Bruce Smith was the first overall pick of the 1985 draft. He would play 19 seasons and become the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200. He certainly lived up to his hype and expectations with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But not at first.

Smith managed only 6 1/2 sacks as a rookie. That represented the learning curve Crennel referenced. But Smith proved a quick learner, collecting 15 sacks in his second season and earning the first of 11 Pro Bowl invitations in his third year.

Like Clowney, Mario Williams was the first overall pick of the 2006 draft, also by Houston. He would go on to become a Pro Bowl pass-rusher with the Texans before signing a $100 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in free agency in 2012. He’s lived up to his hype.

But not at first.

Williams managed only 41/2 sacks as a rookie but, like Smith, proved to be a quick learner. Williams collected 14 sacks in his second season and the first of his three Pro Bowl invitations in his third year.

J.J. Watt is as dynamic a pass-rusher as there is in today’s NFL. He lines up on the other side of Clowney in the Houston defense. He was the 11th overall selection of his draft but managed only 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie in 2011. With his learning curve out of the way, Watt vaulted to 20 1/2 sacks in his second season.

Clowney’s own learning curve will be heightened by a change in position this summer. He was an end with his hand on the ground in college, but the Texans have moved him to a standup outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme.

The NFL rookie record for sacks is 14 1/2 by Jevon Kearse at Tennessee in 1999. But the Titans were a Super Bowl team that season.

The Texans are a long way from Super Bowl contention. Clowney doesn’t have the cast around him that Kearse had. The Titans went 13-3 in 1999, which presented Kearse plenty of opportunities to rush passers in the fourth quarter.

That said, the Texans do have an expectation for Clowney.

“I expect him to play,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “I don’t expect it to always be pretty. It’s a big jump no matter how talented you are. When you get here [in the NFL], everyone is just as talented as you are. But I expect him to be in there competing hard.”

The second year will be the key. It almost always is for pass-rushers. That’s when you find out if there’s substance to the hype.

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