The Frank Clark Trade and the Value of a Sack

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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How much is a sack worth in the NFL?

About a million and a half, but only to the right team.

In a league where an unprecedented amount of money and penalties swirl around the QB position, recent activity has shown that GMs currently hold considerably different opinions about their pass rushers.

Each of the past two seasons has seen a blockbuster trade involving one the top defensive ends. Last year, the Raiders sent Khalil Mack to the Bears for two first round picks. It’s only the second time in over 30 years that has happened for a defensive player.

This offseason, the Seahawks traded Frank Clark to the Chiefs for a first and a second. Both trades apparently occurred because the original team couldn’t come to terms with a contract extension for their edge rusher. Both transactions also immediately followed a massive DE signing elsewhere in the league. Aaron Donald in 2018 signed for $22.5 million per year, the day before Khalil Mack was traded. Last month, DeMarcus Lawrence signed for $21 million per year, three weeks before the Frank Clark deal. Both Khalil Mack and Frank Clark were rewarded for their patience, as each signed for a few dollars more than their predecessor.

Last year, Donald and Mack proved their worth and more than lived up to their weighty contracts. Donald finished the season with 20.5 sacks and the Rams found themselves in the Super Bowl. Mack had a more modest 12.5 sacks, but had an interception for a TD, forced six fumbles and was clearly the best player on the Bears, who made the playoffs and were a bad luck bounce from a conference title game themselves.

This year remains to be seen. Both Lawrence and Clark only have two double-digit sack seasons to date, but the potential to be consistent game-changing disruptors is definitely there. Here’s a look at five of the biggest defensive end contracts this coming season, if the only thing they were paid to do was tackle the QB. I threw in Von Miller’s $19 mil per year and 14.5 sacks:

Aaron Donald – 1.1 million dollars per sack (20.5 sacks)
Khalil Mack – 1.88 million per sack (12.5 sacks)
Von Miller – 1.3 million per sack (14.5 sacks)
DeMarcus Lawrence – 2 million per sack (10.5 sacks)
Frank Clark – 1.62 million per sack (13 sacks)

For that group, it averages out to $1.5 million per sack - . Granted Mack’s numbers were low, but all of these guys got paid how they are because they do more than get sacks. All of them can run down QBs from behind, humiliate linemen, and inspire their teammates.

So which business model is correct? Are the receiving Bears and Chiefs smarter than the giving Raiders and Seahawks? Or will they suffer the consequences of such high defensive contracts?

While it comes out fairly consistent in dollars, it’s proved difficult to determine the value of a sack on an NFL game. It can be a momentum-changing, drive-killing, fan-stirring display of power. But it’s also not necessarily an indicator of a team’s success.

Last season, only four of the twelve playoff teams held top-10 sack numbers: Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the Kansas City Chiefs. Interestingly, the Chiefs had the most sacks in the league, and a shockingly bad defense to accompany. On the opposite end, Super Bowl champion Patriots only had more sacks than the Oakland Raiders.

The NFL seems headed in two different directions right now as teams strive to find and create their own identity. Some follow the Rams and Chiefs into the clouds of 100-point games, while others are bringing back the ground and pound of the Seahawks and Ravens. Similarly, there’s a revolving door of highest paid defensive players (all high sack guys) and the teams willing to part ways with their quarterback hunters.

It’s clear that a few teams know their identity, some are trying to get there, and that many disagree on how to build it. For right now, we’ll just have to wait and see if Frank Clark is worth the 11 players and $18 million in cap space the Seahawks now have headed into the season. Specifically for Hawk fans, we’ll be paying attention to the value Frank Clark had as a leader of the defense as well.