If there was ever a team who could afford to take a risk on a high-risk/high-reward player on the defensive line, it is the San Francisco 49ers.
As John Lynch and the front office attempt to retool what was the best defense in the league last season, they should strongly consider taking a chance on a boom or bust type of player who has the ability to elevate what is already a tremendously talented unit.
Enter defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who would immediately become the most complete edge rusher the 49ers have paired with Nick Bosa during his time in the league. Clowney is a former number one overall pick, and the talent that got him drafted that high is still evident when you break down what he has put on tape with the Cleveland Browns in each of the last two seasons.
Clowney does it all, bringing a blend of speed and power that make him a handful for opposing offensive lines to deal with, no matter the down or distance. The elephant in the room is that Clowney hasn’t played a full slate of regular season games since 2017, something it would be unwise to expect him to do so now after not being able to in each of the last five seasons.
It’s almost a given that at some point Clowney is going to miss time, which is problematic for the majority of teams in the NFL. The 49ers are not one of those teams, however, as they are set up as well as anyone to absorb the blow that would come should Clowney’s trend of missing a handful of games each year continue into 2023.
Not only have the 49ers shown an ability to stockpile talent and depth on the defensive line, they also have a promising young player in Drake Jackson, who would figure to account for a large portion of the snap count at the edge spot regardless of who San Francisco brings in at the position this offseason.
In theory, you could also keep Clowney healthier if he is locked into some kind of rotation with Jackson. The fewer snaps for each, the greater chance that each player is fresher down the stretch of a long season, while also having the energy to be more efficient with the snaps they are given.
Clowney has the ability to be a game wrecking talent for this 49ers defense, something they haven’t had opposite Bosa since Dee Ford’s first season with the team back in 2019. That includes the ability to disrupt opponent ground games, as Clowney has been one of the best run defending edge rushers in the NFL for a large portion of his career.
Regularly, you will see him make plays like this that keep opponents behind the sticks on early downs.
March 9, 2023
Even as he approaches 30 years of age, Clowney is still an explosive athlete with exceptional get off. Clowney also has thrived when lined up in the nine technique spot he would almost assuredly frequent if he were to play in San Francisco.
Clowney also has tremendous lateral agility, which has allowed him to thrive when he is executing stunts to the interior from that wide nine alignments.
Take a look at this rep, which unfortunately did not count, as another player was flagged for an illegal hands to the face penalty. Still, it demonstrates that lateral movement and how dangerous Clowney can be when his off the charts physical gifts are schemed up in a way that maximizes those abilities.
March 9, 2023
Clowney also still has tremendous bend around the edge, like this rep where he can win the corner and likely would have had a sack if not for the holding penalty that was committed.
March 9, 2023
Having the understanding that the potential of Clowney suiting up for all 17 games is not great, the real question becomes what would it cost to get him? Clowney is coming off a 1-year, $10 million deal with the Browns, and it’s reasonable to assume his market is still somewhere around that figure now.
In the right situation with the right supporting cast, that cost is worth every single penny, and the 49ers check both of those boxes.
There is an inherent risk in bringing in a guy who has missed time in five consecutive seasons, there’s no way to sugarcoat that. However, for the 49ers, that risk is offset by the reward of getting a true difference maker at one of the most important positions on the field.
The worst-case scenario is you sign the guy, and he ends up missing a large chunk of time, in which case you are able to fall back on players like Jackson and the other depth pieces you have amassed.
The best-case scenario is you pair Bosa with an absolute stud, and find yourself boasting the best edge rushing duo in all of football.
This team has already proven they can find and bring in the glue guys on the defensive line. The depth is always going to be there for this team, but this is a golden opportunity to take a swing on an elite front-line player who has the potential to take this defense to even greater heights.