So far, so good: A healthy Jadeveon Clowney is key to Browns' defensive success

BEREA, Ohio – On the first day of Browns minicamp last week, Jadeveon Clowney lined up with the other linemen for a series of sprinting conditioning drills.

Clowney, just six months removed from knee surgery, exploded off the line before nearly tracking down the pair of teammates in front of him who’d taken off several seconds earlier.

“I’ve been training extremely hard this offseason, so I kind of already have a feel of where I was coming here,” Clowney said following the second day of minicamp. “I felt great coming in, and I feel great now.”

Of the many moves the Browns made this offseason, signing Clowney to a one-year deal worth up to $10 million could prove to be the one that elevates Cleveland’s ceiling the most in 2021.

Due in large part to injuries, Clowney, 28, has yet to live up to the billing of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But the talent and potential for Clowney to be a difference-maker off the edge remains. Especially considering that he’ll now be lining up opposite Myles Garrett, one of the preeminent pass-rushers in the league and a former No. 1 overall pick himself.

“Very athletic and very fast,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods said of Clowney. “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. [Clowney] will be a great complement [to Garrett], and we’ll also be able to move those guys around just to try to create some favorable matchups.”

Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2002, the Browns prioritized upgrading the defense around Garrett and Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward. Cleveland’s offense surged down the stretch last season, fueling the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. The defense, however, lagged at times, and in the playoff loss in Kansas City, it was unable to come up with the game-changing play or stop even after quarterback Patrick Mahomes exited the game.

To counter, the Browns signed John Johnson III, arguably the top safety on the free-agent market this offseason. They also utilized their first two draft picks for cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, bolstering their budding young core. Cleveland also landed several other veteran free agents, including defensive tackle Malik Jackson, nickelback Troy Hill and linebacker Anthony Walker, all of whom are projected to start.

The addition of Clowney, however, is what potentially gives this Browns defense the upside to become a top-five unit in the league after finishing just 19th in defensive efficiency last season.

Garrett, who was leading the league in sacks and forced fumbles in 2020 before contracting COVID-19 in late November, is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year contender and will continue to see double-teams. As a result, Clowney -- doubled-teamed more than any defender other than Michael Bennett and Za'Darius Smith since 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- should face the fewest double-teams of his career. And, as a tandem wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, they could have the domino effect of making life easier on the rest of Cleveland’s revamped defense as well.

“I wouldn’t say it would be very fun to go up against them,” said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “That duo creates a lot of stuff for a lot of other people on the back end. Obviously, we have a lot of guys who are very talented, so it is not just those two, but they do add a special dynamic when it comes down to offensive scheming, that you have to worry about those two guys.”

Of course, for that to come to fruition, Clowney will have to stay healthy. His NFL career began with a microfracture surgery on his right knee. He missed half of last season for Tennessee with a torn meniscus in his left knee. He’s suffered various injuries in between.

But Clowney is already showing that he’s healthy again -- and, in turn, that he could be the piece to take the Cleveland defense to another level.