Texans burning question: Can Clowney emerge as a DPOY threat alongside Watt?

It has been three years since Jadeveon Clowney became the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and in his three seasons with the Texans, Clowney's gone on to notch 10.5 sacks, 72 solo tackles, and eight passes defended. At first glance, that appears to be an underwhelming output for a player who's shown the capability of doing stuff like this:

Despite that underwhelming stat line, Clowney has been anything but a bust for the Texans. It might've taken longer than expected due to injuries, but Clowney has almost morphed into the exact player the Texans thought they were getting three years ago. Every Sunday, he showcases his freakish athleticism by bulldozing linemen, demolishing running backs, and harassing quarterbacks -- even if the stat line above doesn't show it.

The numbers might not be there, but they're coming.

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As the 2017 NFL season approaches, a few household names will be floated as potential Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Von Miller will be on the shortlist. So will Khalil Mack. Clowney's teammate in Houston, J.J. Watt, is always a front-runner. But don't count out Clowney. He's given us plenty of reasons to be considered a dark horse candidate for the award.

At the very least, Clowney appears to be on the verge of a mammoth breakout after already establishing himself as one of the best defensive players in the game. 

Disruptiveness 

Clowney is far from a bust, even if his raw numbers have been a tad lackluster. Keep in mind that he practically missed his entire rookie season. In the 48 regular-season games for which he's been eligible, he's appeared in just 31, starting 25. His stat line looks a bit better within that context, as he's averaging 0.42 sacks per start. 

Clowney's stat line looks even better when you use more advanced metrics. Thanks to Pro Football Focus, we can see just how good Clowney already has been. 

Last year, despite drawing countless double teams, Clowney racked up 41 total pressures. He was the ninth-most efficient tackler among 3-4 outside linebackers, missing just two tackles all season long. PFF graded him as the eighth-best 3-4 outside linebacker, just behind James Harrison of the Steelers. He was PFF's second-best 3-4 outside linebacker when defending the run. So, he's much more than just a pass rusher. In 2015, which was essentially his rookie season, he was PFF's ninth-highest graded 3-4 outside linebacker.

In truth, it's less about his stats and more about how he achieved them, because his highlights demonstrate just how much of a skilled, athletic freak he is. I'll fully admit it: His stats are lacking. There's no real way around it. But when you watch what he does on the field, you can see his remarkable potential.

Most players wouldn't even be in a position to make this tackle for a loss: 

Even when he doesn't get to a quarterback, he makes their life a living hell by getting his arms into passing lanes.

Run defense isn't as appealing as pass rushing, but Clowney makes it look sexy:

One more:

Despite facing constant double teams, he's capable of dispatching them. And he makes it look easy:

H/T to Jonathan Kinsley for the GIFs.

Peaking

But the numbers aren't there. His production is still lacking compared to his talent level. The good news is that there's reason to believe his numbers are going skyrocket in the years to come.

He's still getting better. Take a look at his weekly PFF grades from last year:

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Pro Football Focus

Clowney peaked at the end of the season, offering a glimpse of what's to come. After accumulating three sacks in his first 11 regular-season, he picked up a sack in each of his final three regular-season games. If you watched the Texans' two playoff games, you know just how dominant he was against the Raiders and Patriots -- even though he didn't register a single sack in either of those two games.  

In the Texans' wild-card round win over the Raiders, Clowney notched four quarterback hurries, a batted pass, and an interception, per PFF. He was everywhere:

In the Texans' divisional round loss to the Patriots, Clowney provided two quarterback hurries and hit Tom Brady three times, according to PFF. Due to his lack of sacks, that performance will be forgotten if it hasn't been already. But it shouldn't be. Peter Bukowski recently provided a film breakdown that demonstrates how Clowney completely disrupted the Patriots' offensive gameplan.

A few examples:

Those plays are great examples of how Clowney impacts the game without appearing in the stat sheet. Of note: Brady experienced one of the worst performances of his career against the Texans, completing under 50 percent of his passes, throwing two interceptions, and posting a 68.6 passer rating.

Clowney doesn't deserve all of the credit, but he deserves a lot of it for making Brady uncomfortable.

So how does he look so far this summer? I'll let Texans coach Bill O'Brien explain.

"I can't wait until we're out of shells. We can't block him in shells," O'Brien said last month, via ESPN. "Maybe we can have a little bit better chance of blocking him in pads."

Watt's return 

Clowney peaking at the end of the season isn't the only reason to believe an improvement is coming. Watt, who pretty much missed all of last season with an injury, will be back, which means defenses won't be able to zero-in on stopping Clowney. Watt -- not Clowney -- will receive the bulk of the attention and double teams because he's the best defensive player in the game. Remember how I said Clowney averaged 0.42 sacks per start in his career? Watt averages 0.92 sacks per start.

Clowney should be beyond excited about the idea of playing alongside Watt.

"Since [I've] been here, either I'm injured, he's healthy, or he's injured and I'm healthy, or we both not on at the same time," Clowney said last month, per ESPN. "But hopefully we can get that done this year. Come out here and give the people what they want, come out and play hard and we make a lot of plays up front. That's how it goes. We come in here to work every day to get to that goal."

It should make Clowney's life less difficult. 

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A healthy J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney in 2017 should frighten any offense. USATSI

"With him out there it's always going to be good, not just me but for everybody around him, for the defense as a whole," Clowney said. "He's a great player. He's going to be noticed. Other teams are going to have to game plan for him, and us knowing that will help us a lot. So, we got a lot of good guys across the front, and with him out there it just makes it a lot easier for everybody to make a lot of plays."

Don't forget that offenses will also have to account for Whitney Mercilus, who's been credited with 19.5 sacks since 2015. Teams can't double-team all three pass rushers. Someone will be left with a one-on-one matchup. At times, it'll be Clowney who draws the favorable matchup -- at the very least, he'll be less of a vocal point for offenses than Watt.

Versatility 

Clowney, like Watt, is incredibly versatile. He can play almost anywhere -- even inside linebacker.

Obviously, he'll spend the majority of his time on the edges, but he can play on either side. According to PFF, Clowney rushed the passer from the left side 135 times and the right side 205 times last season. The Texans are expected to make use of his versatility again. 

"They move me all over, I'm not just playing D-end I'm playing a little bit all over the field," Clowney said in June, per CBS Houston. "Just knowing the system, knowing the scheme and knowing everything we did the last three years since I've been here it's made my life a lot easier. I really don't write much down now, just really study who we are going against."

Watt can also be moved around, which makes it tough for opposing offenses to gameplan for him -- and the entire Texans' defense, really. The overall strength of the Texans' pass rush will benefit Clowney, even if he has to share the spotlight with Watt and Mercilus. 

Eventually, though, don't be surprised if the spotlight tends to favor Clowney. Watt is still the king of the Texans defense, but he's coming off a serious back injury. Meanwhile, Clowney is just 24 years old and he's getting better every year. He's already shed the bust label after his injury-riddled first season. He's already established himself as of the league's best defensive players in terms of defending both the pass and the run. Next up? Becoming the league's best defensive player.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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