Hub Arkush: In a strong pool of most improved player candidates, Jadeveon Clowney is cut above the rest

December 30, 2016 GMT

It’s awards time around the NFL and I have found myself thinking lately about an award they give in the NBA every year but it’s not one you see with the NFL.

I’m talking about the most improved player in the league.

There have been a number of really impressive turnarounds in the National Football League this season and some of those players are worth recognizing.

Marqise Lee was drafted in the second round by the Jacksonville Jaguars three seasons ago, 22 picks ahead of Allen Robinson and before the Jags found undrafted rookie free agent Allen Hurns that year.

While the latter two emerged as 1,000-yard receivers last season, Lee lagged behind.

But this year it’s Lee who has emerged as one of Blake Bortles’ favorite targets with 57 catches for 765 yards (13.4 yards per catch) and three TDs after totaling just 52-613-2 over his first two seasons.

Melvin Gordon was a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2015 but struggled most of his rookie season, rushing for 641 yards, catching 33 passes for 192 yards and failing to get into the end zone.

Gordon has exploded this season in spite of missing a few games to injury, rushing for 997 yards on 254 carries with 10 scores, plus two more TDs on 41 catches for 419 yards.

Matt Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Detroit Lions eight seasons ago and through his first six-and-a-half seasons was the poster child for highly-rated quarterbacks with unique gifts and awful mechanics.

Through his first six-and-a-half seasons, Stafford averaged 19.5 touchdowns and 11.7 interceptions per season, but right about the midway point of 2015 the light went on.

From the ninth game of 2015 through Week 15, Stafford has thrown 41 TDs and just 11 picks, with four of those interceptions coming in his past three games after dislocating the middle finger on his throwing hand.

With eight fourth quarter come-from-behind wins this season, an NFL record, Stafford has improved to the point where he is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Travis Kelce was a nice tight end for the Chiefs his first two years on the field, averaging 69 catches for 868 yards.

This season Kelce has exploded with 84 grabs for 1,117 yards (13.3 YPC) and four TDs with a game left to play.

I think everyone’s favorite story and favorite candidate for most improved this season has to be Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.

Alexander is in his 10th NFL season, having spent his first six seasons in the league in Washington, two years with the Cardinals and this past season with the Raiders before signing with the Bills as a free agent in 2016.

His best year in the league was in 2010 with Washington, when he totaled 57 tackles, 1½ sacks and three forced fumbles. Over his first nine years in the NFL, Alexander totaled nine QB sacks.

This season in Buffalo, Alexander has 72 tackles, three forced fumbles, one interception returned for 28 yards, six passes defensed, nine tackles for loss and he is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11½ sacks — 2½ more than he totaled his first nine seasons.

In any other year, Alexander would almost certainly win the most improved player award but this year I can only give him a second-place ribbon.

Three years ago, the Houston Texans made Jadeveon Clowney the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Through his first two seasons he was hampered by injuries limiting him to just four games his rookie year and then 13 last season coming back from microfracture knee surgery.

Clowney also had to overcome multiple reports of lack of effort, poor practice habits and understanding of what it takes to play in the NFL.

Through 15 games this year, with six sacks and an amazing 16 tackles for loss, Clowney is currently the single most dominating defender in the game.

Watching tape of Clowney recently, if there is one player in the league you might compare him to it would be J.J. Watt, and that has to be a really scary thing for Texans opponents to think about next year when Watt returns from back surgery and both players are Defensive MVP candidates.

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