Jadeveon Clowney is one big question and answer for the Houston Texans.
The 6-foot-5, 266 lbs. linebacker exploded into the mainstream with the infamous bone-jarring hit on former Michigan running back Vincent Smith during the 2013 Outback Bowl – one of South Carolina's three straight bowl victories from 2011 to 2013.
He collected 24 sacks in three seasons with the Gamecocks but had his work ethic called “OK” by college coach Steve Spurrier before the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
He responded to the criticism with a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, best among defensive linemen, a 42-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-9 broad jump, both second among defensive linemen.
But poor results in the bench press – 21 reps was less than Miami punter Pat O'Donnell (23) – resulted in another knock on Clowney's pedigree.
NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp was less kind with his criticisms during an NFL Network segment in April, months after the combine.
“I look at Jadeveon Clowney's (game) tape and I don't see a guy that is playing the game with his hair on fire, making plays, running up and down the field sideline to sideline, doing all of the things," Sapp said.
Clowney's answer? Although it wasn't his decision, the 21-year-old did enough to make the Texans believe he had the assets worthy of the No. 1 overall pick at the 2014 NFL Draft in May.
The question Clowney has to answer next is whether the Texans made the right choice with the top pick and a subsequent five-year deal.
First of all, Clowney's “lack of effort” could be in large part due to a sports hernia injury he admitted to playing with in his final season with the Gamecocks. He had groin surgery in June to deal with the nagging problem.
The admission in itself is enough to take the work ethic jabs off the table, for now at least.
His natural blend of tremendous size and speed makes him a pass-rushing nightmare. His 24 sacks in three years at South Carolina amassed a total of 147 yards lost – an average of 6.1 yards lost per sack.
Despite a lackluster showing of three sacks in his final year of college – with the alleged injury – Clowney wreaked havoc when he did get to the quarterback, averaging 8.6 yards lost per sack.
Developing a strong partnership with defensive end J.J. Watt – 31 sacks in the last two seasons – could result in a lot of pain for opposing QBs.
The Texans were tied for 29th in the NFL last season with 32 sacks, a far cry from the fifth-highest total of 44 in 2012. A little less pressure on Watt to carry that load could be good for him.
Clowney's physical gifts also make him a bandage against opposing ground attacks.
Using the sample size available against relative competition, which Vincent Smith can attest to, Clowney has shown the ability to drive right through the offensive line. Though it's not always enough to keep the ball in the hands of the quarterback, there is often little space between a handoff and Clowney's 83-inch wingspan.
Not surprisingly, he can be overwhelming to block. If by chance an offensive line can keep him out of the backfield that wingspan is more than capable of plugging holes in the blink of an eye.
Houston allowed 122.4 yards per game on the ground last season, the 10th highest total in the league. It's tough to argue Clowney won't help lower that figure.
The questions remain. Answers pending.
J.J. Watt needs help.
The 6-foot-5 Wisconsin product has accounted for 47 per cent of the Texans' sacks over the last two seasons.
When Watt is flying – see his league-leading 20.5 sacks in 2012 – life is good. He was named Defensive Player of the Year and the Texans finished the 2012 campaign fifth in the NFL with 44 sacks.
But when he slows down – just 10.5 sacks in 2013 – it reverberates through the lineup. Houston finished tied for 29th with 32 sacks last season.
Watt can carry the line. He has before. But if the Texans want to be feared across the NFL, the rest of the line will have to carry Watt sometimes.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is doing something right.
Despite ups and downs at every turn in his career, the Harvard graduate continues to find a job.
The Texans are hoping for the quarterback who threw more than 20 touchdowns for three straight seasons from 2010-2012 with the Buffalo Bills, well, without the 54 interceptions he threw over the same span.
In his favour is the presence of Andre Johnson, miles away the best receiver Fitzpatrick has ever thrown to.
But throwing to Johnson should be the least of Fitzpatrick's concerns. The Texans receiving corps features six rookies (two TEs, four WRs) and 13 players with less than four years of NFL experience (three TEs, 10 WRs)
A Harvard education can't be a bad thing in this situation.