This offseason has driven folks mad. They’re thinking about jumping off bridges, muttering to themselves and replying back to the same sentences they utter, chasing butterflies, and they want the Texans to trade Jadeveon Clowney. I guess this is what happens when a team has a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, tons of cap space, and hasn’t done much with it.
If you forgot, Clowney just finished playing his fifth NFL season. Houston and him were unable to come to a long-term contract extension before free agency began. So Clowney was franchise-tagged, and a month later, that’s where things remain. Reports are that both sides are far away from a deal. Clowney doesn’t want to play under a franchise tag, so he will skip out on the team’s voluntary offseason workouts, will probably skip OTAs, and may miss training camp and the preseason if the sides don’t come to an agreement by then. The Texans publicly say they want to extend him, but one knows exactly what the Texans want to do.
The problem is the potential contract. There were four potentially available premier edge rushers entering this offseason. All four were franchise-tagged. Dee Ford was tagged and traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2020 second round pick; he then signed a 5-year, $85 million ($33.5 million guaranteed) contract as he enters his age 28 season. DeMarcus Lawrence was recently extended by the Cowboys after using his floppy shoulder as leverage; he signed a 5-year $105 million ($65 million guaranteed) and enters his age 26 season. The Seahawks still haven’t extended Frank Clark and reportedly want a first round pick for him. Clark had 10 tackles for a loss, 33.5 pressures, 27 quarterback hits, and 13 sacks last year. It would make sense for a team like the Raiders or Packers or Giants that has multiple first round picks to make a move for him.
Clowney is entering his age 26 season. He just had the best season of his NFL career. He had 16 tackles for a loss, 35.5 pressures, 21 quarterback hits, and 9 sacks. He is, in my opinion, the best edge run defender in football. Together he and J.J. Watt were tentacles, squeezing every run play to the jagged Punji stick teeth on the interior. The Texans had a run defense DVOA of -30.1%, and led the league in this measure last year. This run defense devoured crappy offenses that had to run the ball, not because they were particularly good at it, but because they had no other options. Together, Clowney and Watt led the league’s best run defense, and that was the primary reason the Texans won eleven football games last season.
Watt finally played an entire season last year after missing the majority of 2016 and 2017. Last season he had 18 tackles for a loss, 45 quarterback pressures, 25 quarterback hits, 16 sacks, and 7 forced fumbles. It was more than a reunion. It was an annihilation.
Clowney and Watt were also the entirety of the Texans’ pass rush in 2018. Together they accounted for 46.9% of the team’s pressures, 57.5% of the quarterback hits, and 58.1% of the team’s sacks. When these two weren’t on the field getting to the quarterback, the rush was infinitesimal. Opposing quarterbacks could scribble a novel and then complete deep passes. This is what the Texans’ Clowney/Wattless pass rush looked like in 2018.
The pass rush was integral to the defense. Houston’s secondary was Shareece Wright, Kareem Jackson (who moved from cornerback to safety because of injuries), 77 year old Johnathan Joseph, Tyrann Mathieu, Andre Hal, Justin Reid, Aaron Colvin (when he wasn’t injured or benched), and street free agent pickups like Mike Tyson. Without a pass rush, the Texans didn’t have the horses to run with or cover even the slowest of ponies.
This offseason, the Texans still haven’t done much to improve either aspect of the defense. The pass rush is the exact same. They skimped out on paying for either stud interior rusher—Sheldon Richardson or Malik Jackson—in the free agent class. They didn’t add any outside rush help either, so it looks like they are committed to Watt and Cloweny remaining on the edge, with Clowney occasionally drunken master stumbling around the interior of the line of scrimmage before the snap. Unless they move one inside and use Whitney Mercilus as a tight ‘5’ rusher or find help in the 2019 NFL Draft, Houston’s pass rush will have the same problems. When Watt and Clowney aren’t getting to the QB, it will be nonexistent.
At safety, the secondary has switched out Tashaun Gipson for Mathieu, which will help the team’s deep zone coverage and their ability to cover tight ends. No longer shall Jeff Heuerman scorch this earth. Justin Reid adds another notch to his belt and should be better after an impressive rookie season. Hal retired to pursue other more important things.
The cornerback group is also better, but it still isn’t great. Bradley Roby is a great #3 corner in a secondary with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., but heisn’t a dependable #1 cornerback. Joseph is susceptible to deep moves and will be until his time comes to an end. Briean-Boddy Calhoun is here as a buy-low slot option. Colvin’s ankle should be the size of a ping-pong ball, not a grapefruit, as he attempts to put an awful first season in Houston behind him.
This is still a secondary that will depend on its rush to shorten coverage times. Houston will once again struggle in coverage, have problems stopping competent passing attacks, and worse, this season they are playing at least eight great quarterbacks. The worst ones they face will probably be the top picks from the 2015 NFL Draft.
Houston needs Watt. They also need Clowney for the 2019 season. This isn’t a team that has the luxury to trade Clowney for a first round pick. Even if they received Oakland’s fourth overall pick, the one that will be made in two days,, they would be exchanging a great edge defender for a cheaper unknown. Teams don’t destroy their cap by paying great players lots of money. They destroy their cap paying mediocre or bad players lots of money. Clowney isn’t mediocre or bad. He should get paid.
Clowney is entering his prime. All those previous injury struggles seem to be behind him. Over the last three seasons, Clowney has started 47 of Houston’s 51 games. He has 53 tackles for a loss, 59 quarterback hits, and 24.5 sacks. He’s the team’s best inside rusher, makes some absurd run stops, and can ruin offenses on his own—see Week 16 versus the Philadelphia Eagles.
Clowney can, and if I had to bet my health on it, should get better as a pass rusher. He faces the opponent’s left tackle, normally the other team’s best pass protector. Using him on the inside more often could get him past that ten sack hurdle. He also gets sooooooooo close most of the time. Too many of his rushes have ended with him hurdling in frustration and hurling obscenities at the football overlords.
As a pass rusher, Clowney needs to improve after his first move is stopped. Clowney is great at reading and reacting in the run game to plow through pullers, chase down ball carriers from the backside, and split double teams. In the pass game, he doesn’t have the same recognition. Too often he picks the incorrect path based on the tackle’s kick-slide. He also doesn’t have a plan if his first move is stopped. If the tackle/guard clasps him, he’s stuck in quicksand until the play is over. Clowney relies on his athleticism as a pass rusher. That’s been good, but it hasn’t been as good as the Texans hoped he would be when they took him first overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
These are fixable issues. This is what the offseason is for. Recognizing the turning of hips versus a speed rush, knowing how to transform it into a bull rush or inside move, can happen. Learning to spin inside after his rip gets stopped can happen. With his athletic ability and prior production, the smart move is to assume Clowney will become a better pass rusher and maybe, one day, he could evolve into one of the league’s best.
Clowney is 100% worth the same contract Lawrence recently signed. A $21 million average salary. $65 million guaranteed. These are figures worth giving to an incredible edge defender entering his prime who can and should get even better. The Texans also have the cap space to make it happen. Extending Clowney isn’t a monetary issue for the team. They have $39 million in cap space right now. The salary cap keeps going up and up. Houston could extend Clowney and front-load it some to ease the future burden. Being able to do that is an unexpected benefit of being tame this offseason.
The Texans shouldn’t trade Clowney. They shouldn’t trade J.J. Watt either. Houston’s Super Bowl window is open now with Deshaun Watson on his rookie contract, the draft capital they have, and the talent currently on their roster. But, if they had to or wanted to trade one of them, Houston would be better off trading Watt instead of Clowney.
Unlike Clowney, Watt has been injured two out of the last three seasons. Watt has started only 24 of the Texans last 51 games over that span. He had back surgery in 2016. He broke his leg in 2017. He’s entering his age 30 season and spent the healthier seasons of his career playing just about all of the team’s snaps. The tires are balding. Watt, not Clowney, has been the injury-plagued player on this line.
Watt is also exiting the prime of his career, whereas Clowney is entering it. Defensive ends tend to peak at age 26, the same age as Clowney is now. They tend to decline at age 30, the same age Watt is now.
The greatest player I, and most of have ever witnessed, had an insane 2018 season. Part of Watt’s latest ridiculous season can be attributed to Romeo Crennel. The Texans’ defensive coordinator gave Watt the easiest match-up available most weeks. Watt rushed primarily as a left end versus right tackles, while Clowney dive bombed into the interior and went up against left tackles.
Last season Watt had 12 sacks against right tackles, 2 sacks against right guards, 1 sack against the guard and center combo, and 1 sack against a tight end. As an edge rusher, Watt has zero sacks against left tackles. Zero.
The best player he beat was Zack Martin when he split him and Joe Looney for a sack of Dak Prescott on Sunday Night Football. Yet the majority of his production came against players like Chad Wheeler (3 sacks), Denzelle Goode (2 sacks), Corey Robinson (2 sacks), and other dudes like Elijah Wilkinson, Jordan Mills, Morgan Moses, and Jonnu Smith. I’m sure Jadeveon Clowney could have gotten that tenth sack that has eluded him if he faced similar competition.
This isn’t to diminish what Watt did last year. He demolished his favorable match-ups. Context is necessary here. There’s a background to why Watt put up the gaudy sack numbers he had last season. He slaughtered crappy blockers and capitalized on advantageous situations. As he should have.
Additionally, Watt has three years left on his contract. He’s due $15 million this season and would have a dead money hit of $2 million. The next two seasons, he’s due $15.5 million and $17.5 million. Trading Watt wouldn’t be a cap casualty for the Texans. They could hypothetically exchange him for peak value and wouldn’t suffer any financial consequences.
Let me be clear: The Texans shouldn’t trade J.J. Watt. They especially shouldn’t trade Clowney. This defense is built around these two players. Their talent makes up for the deficiencies around the rest of the defense, and both are integral to this team’s success. Watt is on a cost-effective contract, particularly based on last season’s production, and historically great players have a larger margin for error as their athleticism deteriorates. Clowney, on the other hand, is entering his prime, is a top five edge run defender, and could become a top five pass rusher. In this setting, Jadeveon Clowney is undoubtedly worth a $100 million contract.
If you think trading Watt is dumb, trading Clowney is even dumber.