Jadeveon Clowney off to slow start as contract year looms

Jadeveon Clowney played in all 16 regular-season games in 2017-18 for the first time in his NFL career. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Houston Texans began training camp almost two weeks ago, and Jadeveon Clowney still has not participated in a full practice.

On Sunday, coach Bill O'Brien was asked about Clowney's knee, and he said the pass-rusher is still "trying to work back to football shape."

"When we feel like he's in football shape, we'll put him on the field," O'Brien said.

O'Brien's stance softened some on Tuesday: "I think Clowney's getting better and better, being closer and closer to being able to do more and more. We'll see how it goes. Probably do a little bit more next week in preparation for San Francisco. See how that week goes, and then, at the end of that week, make a decision relative to L.A. and things like that. We've got a good plan for him, and he's doing a good job. He's working at it."

At the end of July, Clowney said he was excited and ready for camp. On the first day of practice, O'Brien said Clowney needs to "get back into a little bit better football shape right now," but "he'll be ready to go pretty soon here."

Eleven practices into training camp, Clowney has participated in a handful of team drills but has spent the majority of time doing work on the side. Still, O'Brien said he is "not concerned about him." The plan, O'Brien said, is to "be intelligent about the way we bring [Clowney] back" because he missed the Texans' offseason program while rehabbing his knee injury.

Clowney had minor knee surgery in January, which forced him to miss the Pro Bowl, and he did not participate in the organized team activities this spring because he was rehabbing.

Although Clowney has not fully practiced thus far, defensive ends coach Anthony Weaver seemed positive about the fifth-year player's condition.

"He's been very limited in terms of what he's done on the field, but he looks great," Weaver said. "I know [the plan is] to get him as physically strong as we can, just so hopefully we can avoid some of those injuries he's had in the past that have nagged him throughout the season."

Clowney dealt with several knee injuries in his first two seasons. He played in all 16 regular-season games in 2017 for the first time in his NFL career. Last season, Clowney had a career-high 9.5 sacks, 59 tackles and two forced fumbles.

Right now, Clowney is scheduled to play out his fifth-year option season, though before training camp, general manager Brian Gaine said that signing the No. 1 overall pick from 2014 to a long-term contract is "a work in progress."

"His No. 1 focus was to get healthy," Gaine said July 25. "Our No. 1 focus was to get him healthy, and he is now. So we're hoping that that will produce dividends for us here in training camp because he's going to be available to us -- to be out there and to be with his teammates.

"But these things take time. It's a work in progress, [and it's] amicable. They're developing."

If the Texans do not sign Clowney to a contract extension by the start of the season, it's unlikely to get done during the season. Gaine's policy is to stop negotiations when the season starts because he wants "the players to focus solely on the field and the games at hand."

Early in camp, O'Brien was asked if he thought Clowney's absence was related to his desire for a new contract. The coach reiterated that the team just wants to ease Clowney back into practice.

"I don't ever talk about contracts publicly," O'Brien said. "That's Brian [Gaine]'s job. I have no idea about contracts. I really don't. I'm all about the roster and improving the roster relative to coaching.

"[Clowney] was in a rehab mode during the offseason. So in the best interest of the player and the best interest of our team, it's important to bring him back at the right pace. That's really all we're doing. We're just trying to bring him back at the right pace, and when it's time ... we'll sit down, and we'll say, 'OK, he's full-go.' Until that time, we'll keep incrementally bringing him back at the right pace."

Paying Clowney could be complicated, given the money the Texans have committed to defensive end J.J. Watt. In 2014, Houston signed the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year to a six-year deal worth $100 million, with $30.88 million guaranteed. The Texans are paying Watt $15 million over each of the next two seasons, then $15.5 million in 2020 and $17 million in 2021.

The Texans have the money to make this contract work, as the team is $34,647,272 under the cap. However, it will be a challenge for the team long-term to pay $30-35 million for two defensive players while continuing to address other holes on the roster.

A look around the league gives an idea of how much Clowney could be paid if he signs a long-term contract. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and defensive end Khalil Mack -- both in Clowney's 2014 draft class -- are awaiting contracts and have not reported to training camp. The Dallas Cowboys recently franchised DeMarcus Lawrence. The defensive end will be paid $17.143 million in 2018 under the franchise tag. By comparison, the Minnesota Vikings signed defensive end Danielle Hunter to a five-year, $72 million contract in late June.

Although Clowney was healthy last season, Gaine acknowledged that the defensive star's previous injuries have been part of the discussion during negotiations.

"It's certainly a part of the conversation, but I feel like the changes that we made this offseason in our sports performance operation, in our nutritional element, the things we're doing in the training room, how we've changed how we train our players and how we work with our players in the offseason, I think all of those things will benefit somebody like [Clowney]," Gaine said.