One of the most intriguing NFL contract situations of 2019 involves the Texans and talented edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who appears to be headed for a franchise tag and not the top-market deal he is seeking — at least not yet.
Clowney, 26, is worthy of an eight-figure contract. But his performance is not yet at the level of Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald, the NFL’s highest-paid defenders, and a long-term deal signed this year likely would reflect that. This is why the franchise tag makes sense for both the player and the team, especially since Houston has the salary cap room to absorb the tender amount.
MORE: Top 2019 franchise tag candidates
Clowney has been considered one of the most athletically gifted players since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. Due mostly to injuries, he struggled to meet sky-high expectations in his first couple seasons, but he has since developed into an excellent run-defender and an improving pass-rusher.
The drama is expected to start if the Texans franchise tag Clowney as a linebacker at an estimated $15.5 million as opposed to defensive end at an estimated $18.5 million. That likely would trigger a grievance from the Clowney camp.
My agent group represented Jermichael Finley, and in 2012, we were embroiled in a similar dispute over whether Finley should be franchised as a tight end or a wide receiver. Finley lined up outside as a receiver on more than 50 percent of plays with the Packers, and the wide receiver tender was $5 million higher than the number for a tight end. We ended up splitting the difference between the two amounts on a two-year deal.
A couple years later, Jimmy Graham and the Saints had the same dispute. New Orleans won that arbitration, so the precedent is not good for Clowney. (Although it’s pretty clear he is predominantly a pass-rusher.)
A long-term deal for Clowney would render such an issue moot, but it appears Houston will be content to force him to play under the one-year tender, unless he surprisingly agrees to a deal worth less than $20 million per year. The rumblings are the team wants to see another season of good health and elite-level sack production (in Donald/Mack/Von Miller 15-plus territory) before it commits to a long-term deal at top-market rates.
MORE: How the NFL franchise tag works
I don’t see Texans general manager Brian Gaine being ready to have Clowney join the $23 million-per-year stratosphere of Mack and Donald, or perhaps even Miller’s $19 million per year, especially when the Texans’ best defensive player, J.J. Watt, is earning $16 million per year. Watt produced 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season. (Clowney had nine sacks and one forced fumble.)
And based on personal experience, I can’t fault Gaine or Texans coach Bill O’Brien for wanting to see more production and good health from Clowney — who has played a full, 16-game schedule just once, in 2017 — before giving him a huge contract with massive guarantees.
As Vikings GM in 1998, I was in a somewhat similar position with running back Robert Smith. We had placed a transition tag on our leading rusher, giving us the right to match any offer while guaranteeing him the average salary of the 10 highest-paid backs. (We didn’t have the franchise tag available to place on Smith. That would have tendered him at the average of the top five at his position.)
I would have liked to see Smith have another big year, as he was coming off his first 1,000-yard season and had not yet been a Pro Bowl selection. Smith had been hurt early in his career, although his ACL injuries were more serious than the knee issues Clowney has had.
I had to match an offer from Seattle that would make Smith the highest-paid back in the league. Of all the deals I ever negotiated, I was most nervous about signing this contract.
Fortunately, It worked out well for both Smith and the team. He produced two Pro Bowl seasons, including 2000, when he led the NFC in rushing.
The franchise tag has always been a tricky subject and mechanism to navigate. It enriches an elite player yet often precipitates angst among players and agents who react negatively to being denied free agency and potential huge guarantees on a long-term deal.
Some players play out the year under the franchise tag and hope for a long-term deal while others fight the tag. For Le’Veon Bell last year, being hit with the franchise tag for the second consecutive year propelled him to a season-long holdout, and his future still is undetermined.
Clowney is coming off a $13 million salary under his fifth-year option. He didn’t play the Mack card and refuse to report last year, so I don’t expect him to turn down the one-year franchise tender from Houston. As Bell will learn, a player can’t make up for the wages lost from missing a season. And with Clowney’s injury history, no-showing the offseason program and training camp won’t help him have that signature season to prove he is worthy of a Mack- or Donald-like contract.
NFL FREE AGENTS: Top players by position
This a risk-reward game. Given Watt’s injury history, the Texans can’t afford to let Clowney hit free agency and risk losing a premier player in his prime. It helps Houston to be a couple years away from having to pay top quarterback money to Deshaun Watson, and by then, Watt’s career might be winding down. So Clowney is affordable for the short and long term.
If I were his agent and if Clowney were to be hit with the franchise tag, I would fight hard for the long-term deal before the July 15 deadline. But with an offer worth more than $20 million per year likely not forthcoming at this point, playing under the one-year tender will work in Clowney’s benefit if he has a great 2019 season.
That will make it easier for Gaine and the Texans to pony up top-market money for a young star who can sign a long-term deal in 2020 and still get another lucrative contract in five more years.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.
Share if you enjoyed this post!