In the wake of Jadeveon Clowney’s monster game on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers, many fans of the Seattle Seahawks are clamoring for the team to do whatever is necessary to extend Clowney as soon as it is allowed to. Obviously, due to the fact that he is playing this season on the franchise tag, the team is prohibited from reaching any kind of extension prior to the conclusion of the regular season under NFL rules. However, once the Week 17 game against the 49ers is in the books, the team is free to sit down with him and attempt to work out a deal that would keep him in a Seahawks uniform.
The key question is, of course, how large a contract would that require?
The answer is not one that most Seattle fans are likely excited to hear.
For starters, while still with the Houston Texans, Clowney reportedly was looking for a DeMarcus Lawrence/Frank Clark sized contract. Lawrence signed a five-year, $105M contract ($21M average per year) last spring after the Dallas Cowboys, while Clark signed for $104M ($20.8M average per year) over five years with the Kansas City Chiefs after being acquired from the Seahawks. Splitting the difference on those contracts, that’s a contract in the $20.9M range.
Following his performance against the Niners, there are likely a lot of fans that would happily pay that amount to Clowney, however, that number fails to take several factors into account. First of all, the salary cap is continually rising, and is expected to increase a little over six percent in 2020. That means that while the Clark and Lawrence contracts average $20.9M per year, accounting for the anticipated 6.27% cap increase projected by OverTheCap.com, that number adjusts up $22.1M per year.
In addition, the fact that the salary cap as a whole is increasing faster than minimum salaries are increasing leads to cap slippage. Cap slippage is the process by which top salaries increase at a faster rate than lower and mid-tier salaries, in part because of the limitation on the growth of minimum salaries. Thus, taking cap slippage into account for Clowney likely pushes any contract for him into the $23M per year range.
Further, there is one big piece of the puzzle that needs to be accounted for. When they signed their contracts, neither Clark nor Lawrence had the true leverage of hitting the open market. Both were franchise tagged by their respective teams, and had limited ability to start a bidding war. In contrast, there is absolutely nothing the Seahawks can do to prevent Clowney from reaching the open market. In acquiring Clowney from the Texans, Seattle agreed to the inclusion in his contract of a clause that precludes the team from applying the franchise tag again in 2020. Thus, if Clowney wants to hit free agency, there absolutely not a single thing the Hawks can do to prevent him from reaching the open market.
Once reaching the open market, Clowney will be represented by Bus Cook, who is a long-time NFL agent and who has a documented track record of landing record-breaking deals for his clients. Cook was Brett Favre’s agent when Favre signed the first $100M contract in NFL history in 2001. He was Calvin Johnson’s agent when Johnson signed a $132M contract with the Detroit Lions that was the largest in NFL history at that time. And he was Cam Newton’s agent when Newton signed a five-year, $103.8M extension.
In short, Cook knows how to play hardball and land the most money for his client. Knowing that his client holds all the leverage in this negotiation, it would seem unlikely that he would advise Clowney to accept anything that would be materially lower than market value. And on the open market, in a bidding war between teams desperate for impact player on the defensive line, Clowney could potentially land a contract that exceeds $25M per year.
While a $25M price tag might seem outlandish, taking a step back it is completely within the realm of possibility. It was barely eight months ago that Trey Flowers landed a five-year, $90M contract on the back of 21 sacks and 59 QB hits in his career. Clowney will hit the market with better production than that, and in addition, he will be the rare top tier defensive lineman to hit the open market, as the overwhelming majority of such defenders are either extended early or franchise tagged.
Now, I am certain there will be pushback from fans arguing that $25M is even more than Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald received when they signed their extensions. However, both Donald and Mack were under contract to their teams at the time of reaching their extensions, meaning neither had the true open market leverage Clowney will be able to exercise should he so wish to do so. In addition, both Donald and Mack signed their contracts in 2018 when the salary cap was $177.2M. Adjusting their $22.5M and $23.5M respective APYs to account for the projected 2020 cap of $200M, on a percentage of cap basis those contracts now comp out at $25.4M and $26.5M, respectively. And that is before accounting for cap slippage, which would be likely to easily push the average salary of a comparable contract into the $26M-$28M range.
At the end of the day, the Seahawks will have plenty of cap space to extend Clowney if they want, the far more important question will be how much he demands. There is a very real possibility he can get $25M on the open market, and it would seem doubtful that the Hawks would go that high in their bidding for his services. It’s certainly possible that he could accept a lower number because of how much he is reportedly enjoying playing in Seattle, however, when presented with the ability to completely reset the market for defensive players, the temptation to cash in could be too great.