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The Browns Place a Low-Risk, High-Reward Bet on Jadeveon Clowney

Cleveland hopes Clowney can bookend Myles Garrett to give the Browns an elite pass rush. The two former no. 1 picks entered the league with enormous potential but have been on different trajectories in the NFL.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

From fantasy football contenders to an old man and his offensive coordinator, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today, it’s two former no. 1 picks: Myles Garrett and his new Cleveland Browns teammate, Jadeveon Clowney.

Back in mid-June, during the Cleveland Browns’ pre-preseason minicamp, quarterback Baker Mayfield was asked during a press conference to envision the world through the eyes of his opponents. What might it be like, someone inquired, for all the rival NFL quarterbacks out there who will have to face the Browns’ amped-up pass rush this season? “My two tiny friends?” Mayfield responded with a laugh, referring to the men on the far left and right of the Browns’ defensive line: the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Myles Garrett and the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Jadeveon Clowney.

“It is fun to watch them work,” Mayfield said. “I would not say it would be very fun to go up against them.” Depending on one’s perspective, Garrett, 25, and Clowney, 28, are either the well-paired bookends of the Browns defense, or they are the human incarnate of the Kool-Aid Man, busting through walls and upending every last shelf in their path. Two former no. 1 NFL draft picks, Garrett and Clowney have been named to five Pro Bowls between them, using their outrageous ratios of heft to agility to finish all those scores of tackles and dozens of sacks throughout their careers. They have each forced 10 fumbles and disrupted countless counts; they have both missed numerous games to the ramifications of impulsiveness or the ravages of injury and illness.

And they became teammates for the first time this spring when Garrett’s Browns, coming off an 11-5 season and the team’s first playoff win since 1994, signed Clowney to a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth up to $10 million—an intriguing, long-time-coming agreement that was just the latest in a series of ambitious offseason moves for an ascendant franchise that fancies itself a contender.

It was only a few years ago that the Browns were on a three-season anti-run during which they won only four games. Now the team has one of the NFL’s most stacked rosters on both sides of the football. Mayfield’s targets include Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry—that is, if he’s not handing it off to Kareem Hunt or Nick Chubb, who Pro Football Focus recently named as the best backfield unit in the league. To bolster its defense, the Browns had already picked up corner Troy Hill, safety John Johnson, linebacker Anthony Walker, and outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley, a former first-rounder, this offseason.

By the time the team signed Clowney on top of all this, the acquisition felt borderline ornamental. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also wind up becoming essential, too. After all, as both Garrett and Clowney have proved at various points over their aesthetically dazzling and dizzying careers, it’s totally possible to be both.

Almost immediately from the time the Browns signed Clowney, he and Garrett began to speak of each other with the mutual recognition and respect of, like, kindred Jeep Wrangler owners giving appreciative and understanding nods on the freeway.

“He’s an athletic specimen like someone I know on the Browns,” Garrett said this spring, cheekily giving shine to both his new teammate and his own self. Clowney agreed: “I have not run into too many guys like that in the National Football League yet,” he said after his first minicamp practice with Garrett in June when a reporter remarked that the two were basically athletic equals. “Took me eight years to get here and find another one like that on defense, anyway.”

Back in 2017, when Garrett arrived in Cleveland, he was already seen as a generational star, a physically wondrous talent who had led the SEC in sacks as a Texas A&M sophomore and who jumped higher than any other defensive lineman at the pre-draft combine. A Sports Illustrated piece about him in 2015 included a kingly anecdote about Garrett blocking a kick while in high school “at the exact moment” that Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin landed next to the field in a conveyance known as “the Swagcopter” to watch the five-star recruit play. One mock draft assessment described Garrett as “a freak: taller than Julio Jones, heavier than Rob Gronkowski, faster than Jarvis Landry.”

The Browns, meanwhile, had been starved for many football generations. (The team’s Wikipedia history contains robust sub-sections titled “Playoff disappointments (1966-1973),” “Inactivity (1996-1998),” “Struggles and change (2005-2012)” and “2nd Decade of Struggle (2012-2019)” among others.) A 1-15 record in 2016 earned them the top pick in the subsequent draft, with which they took Garrett, though things didn’t immediately improve. The rookie led the team in sacks that next season, but due to injury he played only 11 games, and Cleveland’s 2017 record was, oh, you know, 0-16. With a second straight first pick, they took Mayfield, and the next season Garrett recorded 13.5 sacks and the team finished a hopeful 7-8-1.

Not everything involving Garrett has gone smoothly, however. In 2019, during an altercation on the field in a game against the Steelers, he swung a helmet at another player’s head in a rage and was ultimately suspended for six games. (Garrett later alleged that he had been instigated by racist language; an NFL investigation found no evidence to support Garrett’s claim, though the league reportedly did not use audio from the game’s broadcast to investigate it. When he was eventually reinstated by the league, he tweeted out a John Wick meme.)

Last season, in the midst of a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber performance that included leading the NFL in sacks and forced fumbles, Garrett missed a few games with COVID-19 and later said he’d struggled to fully recover for months. After Garrett returned, his counterpart on the other end of the defensive line, Olivier Vernon, tore an Achilles tendon in January, setting the stage for the signing of someone like Clowney.

Clowney’s arrival in the NFL had been similar at first, in terms of hype, to Garrett’s. As a high school player in South Carolina, he was the nation’s top recruit before playing for Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks. By the time he left, after three(-ish) seasons, he had been named the best defensive player in college football; awarded an ESPY (and earned high praise from LeBron James) for a particularly pivotal forced fumble in the Outback Bowl; and debated ad nauseam by sports prognosticators who were compelled by his Julius Peppers–style play but weren’t quite sure about Clowney’s passion (or physical durability) for the sport.

“Like most elite prospects,” wrote SI’s Mike Rosenberg right after the 2014 draft, “Clowney can be a star in the right system, with proper coaching, unless the brutality of the game turns his knees into coleslaw.” Ultimately, it was mostly that last part that came true.

The Clowney acquisition may have been the cherry on top of an already calorically dense Cleveland roster, but that’s exactly the kind of little detail that tends to spark the most joy. On NFL Live, in mid-April, former NFL defensive end and current ESPN analyst Marcus Spears became emotional when it came time to discuss the exciting new addition to the Browns’ defensive line. “It’s almost a tearful thing,” he said on-air, removing his glasses to dab at an eye.

“Y’all are my friends, and y’all know how I talk about how a defensive line is like a basketball team,” he told his fellow anchors. “The more you can pair guys with special skill sets with a guy that can do everything, the better those players are around him. Myles Garrett is the LeBron James of this D-line-slash-basketball-team.”

Garrett, who recently helped commission a mural of James in downtown Cleveland, and who went viral for an athletic dunk, would surely appreciate that. And for his part, Clowney also seems well aware that while he may no longer get to be the top guy on a team, he’ll instead get something arguably better: more room to maneuver.

“I have been getting double-teamed an awful lot in this league and in my career,” Clowney told the media in April, shortly after signing with the team. By lining up on the far side from Garrett, he joked with a laugh, “maybe I can go one-on-one more.” On the one hand, Clowney was maybe exaggerating slightly; after all, he was on a team with primo-era J.J. Watt for several seasons in Houston, even if the two weren’t always healthy at the same time. But ever since that Texans era, he’s got a point: According to ESPN’s Jake Trotter, Clowney has been the NFL’s third-most double-teamed player since 2018.

“You’re telling me Jadeveon Clowney,” Spears said on-air in April, explaining his excitement, “with less attention, and less double-teams, is going to have the—”

Here Spears interrupted himself. “Staying healthy,” he qualified slowly, as if to pre-empt what everyone was thinking, before continuing.

“—is going to have the ability to get after the passer, and face one-on-ones for the majority of this season? That’s what I love about this!”

His enthusiasm said a lot, but those two words—that staying healthy—said it all.

At 28, Clowney is only three years older than Garrett, but he carries the physical baggage of a much more veteran player. (Cleveland offensive lineman Jack Conklin even complimented him, in earnest, as being “spry,” which is not something you necessarily want to hear from a peer in your 20s.) Last year, after signing a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans for $12 million, Clowney missed half of the season and finished the year with zero sacks. The only time in his career he’s played all 16 games was four years ago.

It is in many ways a marvel that Clowney is still on the field at all, considering his much-hyped rookie season was ended after four games with a dreaded microfracture surgery that typically signals the beginning of the end, or just the plain end, of careers. (Clowney did at least manage to heroically take down Tom Brady during his one 16-game season.) Whether he can now stay on the field for the Browns, all the way through what the team hopes will be meaningful late- and postseason games, is another story, and one that could have big leverage on the Browns’ fortunes.

For the Browns, Clowney’s one-year contract, combined with the team’s otherwise deep roster, means that there isn’t too much to lose. But such upside has a flip side. The team will need to balance any win-early-and-often curiosity about Clowney’s pass-rushing capabilities with a more cautious and prudent approach to his minutes and his recovery. They’ll need to play the long game with the edge rush.

Would it be fun to try to befuddle Patrick Mahomes in Week 1 and put the rest of the league on notice? Sure, but it would be more fun to have something left in the tank during two-minute drills with playoff implications in those back-to-back late-season games against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Will Clowney want to go hard and resent being reined in from time to time? Maybe, but postseason appearances have a way of making up for that kind of strife.

Conklin, the offensive lineman who signed with Cleveland before the 2020 season and was one of four Browns players to make the All-Pro team, has had to battle guys like Garrett and Clowney in practice and scrimmages this summer, and tried to describe the differences between them to the media. “Myles can do everything,” he said. “[Clowney] brings a whole ’nother level of physicality. He is maybe a little bit more violent, where Myles is a little more finesse in certain situations, but they both can do all of it and do just about anything. It is really hard to categorize them differently because they both are very similar in certain ways.”

Like everyone else who talks about the two defensive ends, Conklin pointed out to reporters that if all goes well, teams will be put in the unenviable position of deciding how to cover both Garrett and Clowney. “I think you are going to see much more pressure on the quarterback,” he said. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods similarly told the media that “offenses, they are going to have to make a choice of who they are going to chip and where they are going to slide the protection to.”

Fans may even see new formations in which Clowney is tasked with lining up closer to the inside, maybe even right next to Garrett sometimes. “I thrive in moving around,” Clowney assured the media when they asked him whether he’d be OK with that kind of thing. “But I thrive in going forward.” For a franchise that has spent years trudging mostly in place, it can’t hurt to start with a new outside lunge.