How Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney positioned himself for his strong bounce-back season

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal

When Jadeveon Clowney explained last month he's been taking care of his body more as he gets older, Ben Fairchild knew better than almost anyone exactly what the Browns defensive end meant.

Clowney and Fairchild are scheduled to meet for an assessment Friday to map out another offseason of training at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston.

With Clowney's former Houston Texans teammates Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson vouching for Fairchild, Clowney turned to him last offseason before he signed a one-year contract with the Browns worth as much as $10 million with incentives.

The partnership paid off.

Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney trains last offseason at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston.

A three-time Pro Bowl selection with an extensive injury history, Clowney resurrected his career in Cleveland. He played 14 games — the most since he appeared in 15 in 2018 — and compiled nine sacks — the highest total since he had nine sacks in 2018 and a career-high 9½ in 2017.

“I think it's a sign of what's to come,” Fairchild said Tuesday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “I wouldn't hang a hat on that season. I feel like this is the start of something.

“I think you're going to see a more consistently high-level production, high-level reliability out of [Clowney] moving forward.”

The statement is somewhat bold, considering Clowney will turn 29 on Feb. 14, about a month before he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 16.

Clowney has made it clear he's open to re-signing with the Browns, but he also said his decision will largely hinge on the money he's offered.

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Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) celebrates with Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Anthony Walker (4) after sacking Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) during the first half of an NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

A lack of talent has never been an issue for Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but the University of South Carolina product had microfracture surgery on his right knee as a Texans rookie, and other injuries subsequently piled up.

Yet Fairchild is optimistic Clowney can maintain the momentum he created with the Browns because of what the sports performance manager described as a newfound understanding and commitment to health.

“Without information, I think wholehearted commitment becomes pretty difficult,” Fairchild said. “When you're not understanding what you need to do to create this indestructible weapon of a body, I think it's really hard to kind of commit when you don't know what's causing injuries and why you can't really get it right. I just see an understanding in him as to what he has to put himself through to be able to sustain that 17 weeks and beyond hopefully.”

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Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, left, sacks Bears quarterback Justin Fields during the second half Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Clowney said after the Browns' regular-season finale on Jan. 9 he was “smiling from ear to ear” because of his health.

“I just wanted to make it through a year healthy and show people that I can play at a high level, stay healthy,” he said. “That was my goal this year was to really be in a healthier place than I have been the last few years. I think I reached that. So going into the offseason, I’m already ahead of the curve. I ain’t got nothing to get fixed [with surgery] — no injuries. So I’m just trying to take care of myself and get ready for next year.”

Clowney played just eight games and had no sacks in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans, who he chose over the Browns and other suitors two years ago. He had surgery on torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee on Dec. 6, 2020.

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Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Ben Fairchild last offseason at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston.

Clowney rehabilitated under the care of Toko Nguyen at the Institute for Athlete Regeneration. Nguyen is a physical therapist and partner of Fairchild. A little more than a month after Clowney began training with Fairchild in March 2021, he signed with the Browns despite some hesitation about the weather, a consideration Fairchild can laugh about now.

“I know that he had a great time [with the Browns],” Fairchild said. “I know signing there, the weather was a big hurdle for him. He does not like cold weather.

“His agent [Kennard McGuire] talked to me and had me have a long talk with him about the upside to [Cleveland]. I think he fell in love with it once he finally got there, but, yeah, the temperature was a hurdle for sure.”

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Cleveland Browns linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (90) celebrates a sack during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

Three days before Clowney reported to Browns training camp in late July, he and Fairchild reviewed the goals they had set.

They were sustaining his health, improving his ability to bend while rushing off the edge and stabilizing his lower body.

“He's just kind of been playing on bad wheels for several, I mean, gosh, his whole career now,” Fairchild said. “We do feel like we achieved all three of those things to some degree. It's something we surely want to build on going into this offseason, but I think he was able to at least check those three boxes.”

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Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney trained under sports performance manager Ben Fairchild last offseason in Houston and will do the same again this year.

Fairchild said because Clowney is built like a power forward in basketball — “high hip, shorter torso” with “great limb length” — maintaining stability in his lower body is a significant challenge and the curved running required in edge rushing often causes knee alignment issues.

Those were among the factors Fairchild considered when formulating a strategy for Clowney's training.

“When we see this kind of limb length in proportion to torso length, the stability of his core is absolutely essential and that leads to greater propulsive sustainability,” Fairchild said. “If he can just have a really stable core, because his limbs are so long, that serves as the foundation for that limb speed. If his core is not absolutely proficient, if it doesn't work perfectly, he's going to have a hard time staying healthy. That's why you will see the hernia histories because these with long limbs that move those limbs with such excessive speed, their core has to be so well educated. Otherwise, it's just not going to work.

“In his case, it came down to core stability. It came down to retraining simple movement patterns, teaching him how to use his hips when he decelerates and to lower his center of gravity versus being a more knee-reliant athlete at his foundation. When you have a knee history now, multiple events, and your default movement pattern is to rely on the knee when you slow down, you're putting yourself between a rock and a hard place. We just had to teach him to use the other gifts that he's been given, access his hip, access his glutes when he's decelerating and take stress off the oft-injured joint.”

Clowney's 2021 season is another success story tied to Fairchild, who also trained Browns safety Grant Delpit last offseason during his comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon and former Texans defensive end J.J. Watt in the buildup to him playing all 16 games in 2020 and signing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021.

Cleveland Browns' Jadeveon Clowney (90) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

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Clowney's first Browns season wasn't spotless. He missed three games — two because he contracted COVID-19 in December and another one because he experienced knee soreness in pregame warm-ups Oct. 10 before a 47-42 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

Clowney said he has been “listening” to his body more lately, and Fairchild agreed the decision to sit out versus the Chargers is an example.

“Can I recover from this if I play this week, or do I need a down week to ensure my health the rest of the way?” Fairchild said. “I think sometimes just the nicks and bumps, veterans have to kind of monitor instinctively with the help of [the medical] staff, of course, how serious of a threat is this.”

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The bottom line is Clowney missed just one game due to injury last year.

Football is the ultimate contact sport, so luck is certainly a factor in a player's availability, but it's far from the only one. Working hard in the right ways is crucial, Fairchild said, and he has found great joy in watching Clowney do as much.

“The older I get, the healthier I’ve been getting lately,” Clowney said. “So hopefully it continues.”

Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sacks Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the third quarter of Monday night's game at Heinz Field.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com.