clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the Seahawks need to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images

On Tuesday, I wrote about how the Seattle Seahawks are trotting out one of the worst pass rushing units of 2019 and specifically I ended up focusing on how Jadeveon Clowney has underwhelmed in this area. Frankly, I still do not know how this could be in dispute.

Whatever you think of Clowney, whatever reason you want to give for why his pass rushing statistics have been lacking for the better part of a decade compared to the pass rushers he’s often compared to, I do not know how anyone could argue that three sacks is what was expected or hoped for. Stats are not something I can change for the benefit of an argument and intangibles are completely useless to me and you as weapons of debate.

However, today I will argue for the Seahawks re-signing Clowney, even at a high cost. This is not me being a flip-flopper. This is not me giving up what I wrote on Tuesday. Instead, this is a writing experiment I’ve wanted to try for a little while now. I want to take the opposite side of a belief I hold and argue for it. I’ve already done this with the “running backs” and “rushing” don’t matter debate. I wrote stuff against running backs on this site even before Ben Baldwin did. I kept confirming my bias for years. I finally grew tired of it and of the way I saw myself and others behaving on Twitter and decided to take the opposite point of view: that running backs matter and that the best teams are clearly prioritizing rushing.

I deliberately switched my point of view and you know what happened? I started believing in it. And debating for it. That running backs do matter. Suddenly (or not so suddenly) the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers prioritized running and became the two best teams in the NFL. The fact that the Ravens are the analytical darlings of 2019 is obviously the biggest “Win” of the year for people who believe that rushing is a good thing. And it’s not just Lamar Jackson, as clearly the signing of Mark Ingra- wait, wait, stop. That’s not what this is about.

Instead, this is about signing Clowney to the mega-deal that he’s going to be looking for and the $20-23 million per year average that many fans would be happy to see him get. I have not been arguing for that in the slightest, but maybe it’s time I did. Because I think as soon as you are willing to shift your paradigm, even intentionally, you’re willing to start confirming your new biases.

And a pretty good argument can be made for just about anything, if you don’t mind taking the time to build it.

I do not believe that the Seahawks should sign Clowney or any other defensive player to a deal at $20 million per year ... but I could. I could believe it. I could simply change my point of view and begin seeing it as so many others seem to see it.

Let me start at the same place that I started at on Tuesday, looking at the beginning of the legend of “Jadeveon Clowney.”

Something about Clowney as a teenager made him more appealing to colleges than all other teenagers at the time. I do not really know how this works, as there are tens of thousands of teenagers to evaluate at the high school level, but somehow it does. Clowney even played on the same high school defense as Stephon Gilmore and still drew more attention than a guy who is currently listed by many as the best defensive player in the NFL.

Perhaps Gilmore even has something to do with that early attention, I don’t know.

Clowney was ranked as the number one recruit in the 2011 class, ahead of Cyrus Kouandjio, La’El Collins, Timmy Jernigan, and De’Anthony Thomas in the top five. Continue down the list and you’ll see a lot of names that you don’t recognize, if you’re like me, and I think I have a pretty decent grasp on football player names. I mean, I still recognize a lot of them, they just never went anywhere beyond these lists.

Clowney actually overcame the odds to become the number one pick in the draft and to retain his status as an elite NFL prospect even three years after all the high school hype. Consider that Ronald Powell was the top recruit in 2010, Mario Edwards in 2012, and Robert Nkemdiche in 2013. Then you have Myles Garrett in 2014, and well, sometimes with Clowney and Garrett it does work out as expected.

As a true freshman at South Carolina in 2011, Clowney played on one of the most talented college defenses of the day: himself, Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, D.J. Swearinger, Devin Taylor, Antonio Allen were the highlights. DeVonte Holloman and Travian Robertson also made it to the NFL. Playing opposite of Ingram, Clowney had eight sacks, 12 TFL, and 5 FF that season as a teenage demarcusWarewolf.

That included two sacks against Georgia in his second game, and two sacks against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.

He returned the next year without Ingram and completely dominated: 13 sacks, 23.5 TFL, 3 FF. On a less talented defense, South Carolina repeated their 11-2 record and Clowney had sacks in 8 of 12 games, including 4.5 vs Clemson. He had a FF in three of South Carolina’s last four games. He gave his team a chance on the road against LSU with two batted passes. And then the hit at Michigan happened.

“Last year’s bowl game - someone told me there wasn’t a single person in China who had heard of Jadeveon Clowney,” head coach Steve Spurrier said in post-practice comments released by South Carolina. ”Now they all know who he is after that hit. That hit was shown for eight months.”

The 2012 version of Clowney was everything everyone had ever hoped he’d become. Think of Leonard Fournette at LSU in 2015 when he was ripping off 150-250 rushing yards and multiple touchdowns every week and that’s how good Clowney was as a disruptive force on a defense in 2012. What stats rarely tell you though is how good of a run defender a player is, but notice in the highlights video below (with perhaps the worst highlight video song I’ve ever heard — no offense to the artist, I just don’t think it fits with a football highlight video) just how ridiculous of a notion it is to run near Clowney:

That’s what brought Clowney so much attention going into his junior year when he was getting that rare Heisman hype for a non-QB, non-RB — he finished sixth already the year before — but nothing close to a Heisman was coming.

Illness reportedly sapped Clowney of some production in 2013, as well as double and triple-teams as offenses knew they had to focus on the college football player who was now even famous in China. Other nagging injuries mounted and the end result was underwhelming on paper: 3 sacks, 11.5 TFL, 1 FF. Worse numbers than what he had produced as an 18-year-old.

But teammate Kelcy Quarles, now perhaps the benefactor of Clowney’s presence, had 9.5 sacks and 13 TFL. Quarles went undrafted and played in just two NFL games but at South Carolina, he could be productive next to a less-than-100 Clowney. The Gamecocks were far less talented, but finished 4th in the AP poll with another 11-2 record.

Steve Spurrier coached at South Carolina for 11 years and his three best seasons — by far — were with Clowney. Sans Clowney in 2014, South Carolina dropped from 11-2 in each of the last three years to 7-6. Spurrier coached 19 more games in his college career after Clowney declared for the draft, going 9-10.

But headed into the 2014 draft season, Clowney’s star hadn’t shined as brightly as expected. Like many frontrunners, Clowney had a group of anti-frontrunners who probably even rooted for his demise so that some underdog like Jackson Jeffcoat could become a superior NFL pass rusher. Former NFL GM Phil Savage saw him as a bad fit for the Houston Texans’ 3-4 defense, and would it be the best move for Houston to go for another pass rusher with the number one pick?

Then he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine, faster than many running backs, receivers, and cornerbacks, and no longer could the Texans deny themselves an opportunity at a physical marvel who was also the consensus number one recruit three years prior who was also a star in college who commanded the most attention, both by defenses and media.

Like it or not, there was plenty going against Clowney going into the draft.

His junior season at SC was marred by injuries (“ability and availability,” etc.), by an apparent “miscommunication” between him and Spurrier regarding if he wanted to play in a game that he was medically cleared to play in, and by a lack of sacks production. Garrett never had a season at Texas A&M like Clowney’s junior season for the Gamecocks. But few college players have ever had a season like Clowney’s sophomore campaign either.

And when it comes to the NFL draft, which is far more of a gamble than most care to admit, why not take a punch at the consensus top pick instead of someone else? Mack played at Buffalo. Donald had to convince scouts that a size disadvantage at his position was actually an advantage. Clowney was also two years younger than either of them.

The Texans chose Clowney and then essentially waited for two years. If you wipe out those first two seasons that were again marred by injury, and start in 2016, then Clowney built an impressive resume in Houston.

From 2016-2018, Clowney ranks third in tackles for a loss at 53 (Donald, 57, Chandler Jones, 56) and tied for 19th in QB hits with Trey Flowers and Gerald McCoy. He’s 22nd in sacks with 24.5. Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Detroit Lions, posting similar pass rushing numbers with a reputation as an elite run-stopper on the edge.

As of now, Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced stats only go back to 2018, but Clowney was tied for 6th in pressures with Frank Clark and Garrett. The leaders were Aaron Donald at 70, teammate J.J. Watt at 60, Dee Ford at 54, Yannick Ngakoue at 51, Chris Jones at 49, and Clowney at 48. He played in one fewer game than those five and at an average of 3 pressures per game, this could have put him over the 50 mark.

Well behind Donald (like everyone else) but certainly comparable to Ford, Ngakoue, Clark, and even Garrett. Khalil Mack had 47 in 14 games.

In QB knockdowns, Clowney had 11, tied for 15th with Watt, Chris Long, and McCoy. In hurries, he was third behind Donald and Watt. All told, when the Seahawks traded a third round pick, Barkevious Mingo, and Jacob Martin to Houston for Clowney, they were trading for a player who had an argument as the best run defender on the edge in football and perhaps a top-6 pass rusher from that position as well.

Whatever the reasoning — scheme, injuries, surrounding personnel, commitment from opposing offenses to contain him, strength of schedule — Clowney has not been as productive as a pass rusher in 2019. He ranks 15th in total pressure with Devon Kennard and is on pace for 38 total. He has 10 QB knockdowns, roughly the same as 2018. He has 16 QB hurries, same as Nick Bosa, and only seven players have more. But his three sacks does not rank him in the top 100.

It’s really the one area where Clowney’s production has not matched all the “accoutrement stats” around it. Many players have finished a season with 10+ sacks, but for whatever reason, Clowney is not one of them and 2019 will be his least productive season in that area barring an incredible three-game finish.

The question then becomes: What’s the actual value for “not finishing” 3-4 times per year?

Clowney ranks 7th in pass rush win rate per ESPN, but many others on the list have impressive sack numbers. Does it matter that much? If one player has 30 pressures and 3 sacks and another player has 30 pressures and 7 sacks, what’s the value in those 4 sacks? On one hand, it doesn’t sound like a lot. You may play in 600-700 snaps per year if you’re a defensive lineman, and the majority of those are probably pass rushing snaps, so what’s 1 less sack per 100 snaps? On the other hand, maybe those 4 sacks lead to 4 additional drives that were stopped because of you.

And I don’t know what the value of that is, but it feels like it is closer to excusable than it is to inexcusable. I do not like using “feelings” as a way to determine player value any more than I like intangibles, but it’s the best I have right now.

I can’t say that I ever expect Clowney to be a 12-15 sacks per year player, but I can say that maybe it doesn’t matter as much as we’d be led to believe that it matters. And more importantly, the Seahawks may not have much of a choice in the matter.

If the 2020 cap is at $202 million, then Seattle is set to have roughly $63 million in space. I can’t imagine that they won’t release Ed Dickson, and that will save them another $3.25 million. Even before considering a potential release of K.J. Wright ($6 million) or Justin Britt ($8.75 million), the Seahawks should have at least $66 million in cap space and plenty of holes to fill.

None bigger than on the defensive line.

Not only is Clowney going to be a free agent, but so is Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson, Al Woods, and Ziggy Ansah. There will be no bigger priority for Seattle than help on the edge and they just so happen to have put in three months of work with the top edge player on the market. The Seahawks have never committed more than $18 million per year to a non-QB player, but the market has changed and Seattle is becoming desperate.

First round pick L.J. Collier is the most underwhelming first round rookie of the Pete Carroll era and we have no idea what to expect of him in 2020. If he can’t get work during a season when the Seahawks rank in the bottom five in sacks and pressure, then how steep is his learning curve? Rasheem Green could still develop in year three, but he too has not taken advantage of opportunities in the way that many had hoped.

If teams are given $202 million in which to work a 53-man roster, what’s the point if you don’t have at least a few players making premium cash? Russell Wilson is one. Bobby Wagner is two. And Seattle may need to justify a three — especially as the rest of the NFC West is set there for awhile.

The Arizona Cardinals have Chandler Jones, the NFL’s sack leader since 2014, signed through 2021.

The LA Rams have Aaron Donald, the NFL’s second-leading sack-getter since 2014, signed through 2024 and will work hard on an agreement with Dante Fowler.

The San Francisco 49ers have Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Dee Ford, and will make a push to re-sign Arik Armstead, I’m sure. Ford and Bosa are signed through 2023.

The Seahawks have very little commitment to the future, especially on defense, and on the edge is one place where they haven’t had much success in the draft. E.J. Wilson in 2010, Bruce Irvin in 2012, Cassius Marsh in 2014, and now Collier. Only Clark has really surpassed his draft value, while the rest have fallen shy of expectations. Clowney is in Seattle already and you know what you’re going to get.

An elite run defender. A disruptive edge rusher, at times. A defensive end that opposing offenses have to gameplan specifically to stop. A player capable of racking up 3-5 QB hits or pressures in any given game. A 26-year-old who may still have the potential to be even more than he’s already been.

The Seahawks could re-sign Clowney to a deal that surpasses the one signed by DeMarcus Lawrence and not even have to change course.

Lawrence signed a 5-year, $105 million deal with $65 million guaranteed with the Dallas Cowboys. With a $25 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million base salary, that puts Lawrence’s 2019 cap hit at $11.1 million. So for Seattle to add $11 million to their 2020 cap, it still leaves them with $55 million to spend.

Once you get into the rest of the cap hits ($21.9, $22, $24, $26), the cap will continue to go up, older players will continue to go out. Duane Brown, for instance, is perhaps not likely to play for the $13 million he’s scheduled to play for in 2021, when he’ll be 36. The Seahawks would save $11 million by releasing him. (Hopefully with a new left tackle in place by then.)

But Clowney’s cap figures would not just be manageable, it would be a waste of space to not use it on a premium player at one of these positions: QB (done), left tackle, edge rusher, Wagner (done). Seattle would still have $55 million to play with for 2020, at least, and could still negotiate with free agents Reed, Ansah, Jefferson, Mike Iupati, Germain Ifedi, Al Woods, Mychal Kendricks, George Fant, Josh Gordon ... any of their outgoing players.

If the Seahawks didn’t want to go the $105 million route on Clowney then there’s always looking at the other free agent options, including Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, Matt Judon (personally, a favorite of mine and really curious to see where his contract lands), Robert Quinn, Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree, Mario Addison, and Jason Pierre-Paul at various levels.

And what we’ve seen Seattle do in free agency pretty much every year is not go after the big names, but the ones that Pete Carroll has viewed as undervalued. This past offseason, he waited all the way until after the compensatory deadline to sign Ansah and right up to the end of preseason to trade for Clowney. If he had been looking elsewhere, he obviously avoided Clark and had no interest in trading for Dee Ford, so he probably would have been thinking about Justin Houston (9 sacks for the Colts this year), or Barrett (15 for the Bucs), or Markus Golden (8.5 with the Giants).

Houston, Barrett, and Golden are all set to be free agents again, by the way.

So I do not really expect the Seahawks to be talking to Fowler, Ngakoue, or Judon. They do, however, talk to their own players and Clowney is now one of “their own.” He is perhaps the only option they’d be considering at $105 million and they absolutely have to be considering their options at edge rusher since it is not only their most glaring weakness of 2019, it is their biggest free agent exodus of 2020.

Unless they re-sign Clowney.

Now, when I write that I don’t think the Seahawks should sign Clowney to a $100 million+ deal, it’s hardly personal. What is personal is my opinion that almost no contract of that magnitude works out as well as you would hope.

Even with quarterbacks, you might rather have a good one on a rookie deal than a great one on a $30 million per year deal. In the case of Russell Wilson, who does make over $30 million next season, you know that his value goes beyond the playing field; in addition to being a better sell for primetime TV, which focuses on stars more than it does on matchups or teams, Wilson also presents Seattle as a more attractive destination for players just like Clowney.

And Clowney, the football player who is known in China, is also a star that primetime is ready to sell. He may also be the type of signing that attracts veterans looking to take less money for a shot at a Super Bowl. That’s one other advantage that signing Clowney has over say, signing Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, as the Green Bay Packers did this year.

The Smiths have a combined cap hit of $31 million in 2020. That’s a lot for two players. But the Seahawks could sign Clowney and in year two of his deal, have his hit ($21 million) and another hit at $10 million and end up with the same average. But then one of those players would be Clowney, and the other could still be a good veteran option like the next Justin Houston. (Calais Campbell will be a 35-year-old free agent in 2021, if the Jaguars don’t release him next year.)

Or Reed.

Re-sign Clowney or not, the Seahawks will clearly need to make some changes. Maybe that involves the coaching staff, maybe it is the personnel around Clowney, but being a bottom-three pass rushing unit with Clowney already in the fold can’t be acceptable for Carroll.

Bringing him back for $100 million+ makes it even less palatable. Luckily, changing coaches is relatively easy. Admitting mistakes with the 2019 plan for the defense is likely something that Carroll has already done. Adding veteran pass rushers around and next to Clowney is simple, Seattle finds players like that every year, even signing Cliff Avril in 2013 after they’d already signed Michael Bennett, and the $11 million to commit to him in 2020 won’t prohibit them from doing so.

The Seahawks could not only re-sign Clowney and Reed, they could also still go out and grab Emmanuel Ogbah or Jason Pierre-Paul. Nothing is stopping them from at least attempting to do that.

It would just be nice to also figure out what’s stopping them from turning pass blocking wins into sacks. That is at least a lot easier to figure out when you have Jadeveon Clowney than when you don’t.

Are you convinced?

Listen to a new episode of Goofballs: A football podcast with guest Tug Coker!