The Texans and Bill O’Brien’s blundering of Jadeveon Clowney’s contract situation seemed to bail the Seahawks out at the last moment. Seattle had traded their sack leader from 2018, Frank Clark, to the Chiefs. His replacements, Ezekiel Ansah and L.J. Collier, looked entirely uncertain. Ansah was a doubt to begin the regular season, while Collier had most of August robbed by injury. Clowney was the perfect fit for the Seahawks, a player who could come in and replicate Clark’s 2018 output. Instead, Seattle tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league, with 28, and Clowney contributed just three.
Despite Clowney’s low sack total, he is now headed towards unrestricted free agency with no shortage of suitors, potentially in line to become the highest paid defender in NFL history. While the potential to become the highest-paid ever is simply a result of being the latest elite defender to be up for a new deal, the high demand Clowney finds himself in is a result of his superb 2019 season.
Upon Clowney’s trade to the Seahawks—a trade which was almost unanimously met by criticism towards O’Brien—whispers began to flutter out of Houston that they were content losing such a physical freak. That Clowney wasn’t a hard worker, nor part of a culture that would lead to winning. In Seattle, he would be in a highly competitive, hard working, winning culture. Lo and behold, Clowney fit right in. During Pete Carroll’s end of season press conference, he glowed when discussing Clowney’s impact and culture fit, delivering comments which stood in stark contrast to the convenient September leaks from the Texans.
He loves it here and he wants to be here. He dropped up to see (general manager John Schneider) just to let him know how important it was to him. He had a great time. Everybody in here, they had a ball competing together. It’s interesting to see the new guys that come in because they’re more surprised by the environment. They were very upbeat about it and Clowney was as much as anybody.
Carroll’s comments (which John Schneider echoed at the Scouting Combine) were, in a way, predictable. Of course he would gush over a crucial pending free agent. Clowney’s play in 2019, however, reinforced all of the ideas Carroll suggested in January.
The apparent me-first defender who came from Houston with a reputation for floating between plays delivered some of his most memorable moments last season as a backside defender. Not exactly the type of moment one would expect a lazy player to show up in, but there was Clowney, time and time again chasing down the play from behind.
Of course, such a dominant backside run defender made his presence felt on the frontside and at the point of attack, too. Whether it was setting and holding the edge, disengaging at the line to make a stop, or blowing up the ball carrier in the backfield, Clowney impacted the opponent’s running game regardless of if they ran at him or away from him.
The leaks from the Texans’ side prior to the 2019 season were always off base, and Clowney proved as much. The other criticism lofted towards Clowney, seemingly the first thing mentioned when his value or reliability is mentioned, is his durability. Concerns over Clowney’s health have always been overstated—over the last five seasons, he has missed just nine games. In fighting through the pain of a core injury down the stretch last season—in a contract year, no less—Clowney disproved the two shots constantly taken at him. He has legitimate toughness to play through pain, and in proving that in 2019, underscored not only his regular availability but his commitment to whatever team he finds himself on.
While Clowney spent most of 2019 knocking down unfounded criticisms of his game like perilous running backs, the one regarding his (lack of) traditional production remains. For those who do not want their team to pay Clowney a top of the market deal, this is surely at the top of the list of reasons why. But it hardly tells the full story. While yes, Clowney was able to total just three sacks for the Seahawks, his underlying numbers more accurately showed how impactful he was.
Despite playing nearly half the season with a serious core injury and acting as a one-man show far too often, Clowney posted the second-highest pressure rate of his career (11.7) in 2019, per Sports Info Solutions. (His highest rate, 12.2, came in a season in which he had 9.5 sacks, further emphasizing the idea positive regression is coming in 2020.) Clowney’s highly disruptive season came with him being double-teamed at the third-highest rate—on over a quarter of his rushes—among EDGEs in the entire NFL, per ESPN.
Though Clowney was almost always the focal point of the opponent’s protection, he still managed to create several game-altering plays himself.
More often, however, it was Clowney creating opportunities for the players around him. Every member of the defensive line in 2019, with the exception of Ansah and Jarran Reed, set career highs in pressures, sacks, or both. It may have been a relatively talent poor group, but they benefited from Clowney’s presence nonetheless. Seattle’s win over the 49ers in Week 10 perfectly exemplified just how impactful Clowney can be with adequate talent around him, even if it isn’t he himself who is finishing plays.
For all of the moments in 2019 where Clowney flushed a quarterback up or out of the pocket, or off their spot for another Seahawk to benefit, there were countless more where Clowney did his part only for his defensive line counterparts to fail in holding up their end.
With added talent around him, the entire unit will be better for it. Clowney’s generally narrow path to the quarterback—with power or a devastating inside swim move being his tools of choice—would only become more effective with speed alongside him and greater talent around him. Not only would it enable Clowney to finish plays more frequently, but it would see far more instances of the quarterback being flushed out of the pocket end with a sack.
Ultimately, that is the best argument for Seattle to re-sign Clowney. He was, by all accounts, an excellent culture fit with the Seahawks. Week-in and week-out, he showed to be a downright dominant run defender at the line and kept the linebackers clean while they flowed to the football. But it will be his ability to rush the quarterback that teams are betting on and it’s what will get him paid. Maybe Clowney tops out at 10-12 sacks, or sits just below double-digits as he has for most of his career. However, he is also greatly improving those around him, enabling all other rushers to maximize their production and further their opportunities.
Clowney spent the 2019 season disproving criticism thrown at him as he went out the door in Houston. Now, Seattle should ensure that in 2020 and beyond, he is continuing to prove his game-changing ability with the Seahawks.