The deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign a long-term contract will come at 4 p.m. Monday. By all indications, the Houston Texans will not extend such a contract to pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Assuming he reports to the team at some point before Week 1 in September, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft will make just under $1 million per game this year under the tag.
It's not a perfect solution—playing on a one-year deal won't sit well with the 26-year-old, and there are already reports that Clowney will sit out most (if not all) of training camp and possibly the preseason.
But for as talented as the three-time Pro Bowler might be, Clowney hasn't yet proved to be worth a long-term contract that could come in well over $100 million. A Texans team without a general manager after it fired Brian Gaine in June is making the right call.
As Aaron Wilson reported for the Houston Chronicle, Clowney said all the right things at the end of the season regarding his status with the team:
"Of course, I want to come back. I promise to the Texans and whoever else is watching that I'm going to be a much better, improved player next season. I haven't been thinking about a contract. If I come back and play well like I know I'm going to, contract will take care of itself. I'm going to work on my craft and work on my game. That's what I'm worrying about."
To his credit, that's exactly what Clowney has done. Granted, he wasn't in attendance at minicamps or OTAs (nor was he technically required to be, because since he hasn't signed his tender, Clowney's not under contract or subject to fines), but per Wilson, he spent time in the offseason working out with retired edge-rushers Julius Peppers, Robert Mathis and Chuck Smith.
"I thought JD was a humble guy who is really open to learning new stuff," said Smith. "He really wants to be great and improve his pass-rush technique. He's a really good person and he deserves the success because he's putting in the work. I think he's going to have a good year. He has added some signature pass-rushing moves."
It's not as if Clowney needed to put in a massive amount of work to become an impact player. In his five pro seasons, he has been an excellent run defender, averaging 52.7 stops per season the past three years. There are times when he's essentially unblockable off the edge—a wildly athletic player who moves past opponents and into the backfield in the blink of an eye.
As Cody Stoots of ESPN Radio in Houston pointed out, in terms of sacks and tackles for loss, Clowney's last three years compare favorably with some of the league's best (and highest-paid) edge defenders:
Given that, it might seem like an easy decision to back up the Brinks truck and give Clowney his cash. Gaine reportedly thought so—Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote that part of the rift between the ex-GM and head coach Bill O'Brien stemmed from a disagreement over whether to extend Clowney.
But there are valid reasons that doing so isn't the slam dunk it might seem.
For starters, Clowney hasn't been in the NFL for only three years. He's been playing for five. And the first two weren't especially good. As a rookie, Clowney played in just four games before he suffered a knee injury that eventually required microfracture surgery. The following year, he played in 13 games but logged a pedestrian 4.5 sacks.
Clowney's made it through an entire 16-game season once—in 2017. That propensity to miss time is a concern when contemplating paying someone over $50 million guaranteed.
Also, while Clowney's been very good, his sack numbers haven't been especially impressive. Despite playing on the same defense as J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, Clowney has yet to produce a 10-sack campaign.
Dee Ford, who entered the league the same year as Clowney and just signed a five-year $85.5 million extension with the 49ers after being tagged and then traded by the Kansas City Chiefs, has more sacks than Clowney—in far fewer snaps.
There's also Houston's salary-cap situation. The Texans have the second-most cap space in the NFL, per Over the Cap, but the team also already has one defender (Watt) playing on a $100 million contract and a blockbuster extension on the horizon for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Finally—and here's the important one—the simple reality is that the Texans don't have to extend Clowney yet. The team has all the leverage in this situation.
Unless Clowney's willing to punt an entire season (and $16 million), a la Le'Veon Bell, he will report at some point. Wilson wrote that there's been no indication Clowney's willing to sit out regular-season games.
If Clowney comes out in 2019, stays healthy and puts up the first double-digit sack campaign of his career, the Texans can break out the checkbook next offseason. Clowney may not especially like how things went down, but a $25 million signing bonus (what Demarcus Lawrence just got from the Cowboys) goes a long way toward soothing hurt feelings.
Never mind that Clowney won't exactly make peanuts in 2019. If he grouses about re-upping with Houston next spring, a second consecutive tag won't be prohibitively expensive. A second straight offseason with this issue looming over the club wouldn't be ideal, but it demonstrates just how many of the cards the Texans are holding.
If Clowney disappoints or can't stay healthy, the team will have avoided making a long-term financial commitment that could hamper its ability to keep pace in the AFC South—and even if he has a letdown, that second tag would be a possibility.
Barring a disaster, Clowney will get his money in 2020, and this whole episode will be forgotten. The sack numbers may not be there yet, but Clowney's a young difference-maker who's just entering the prime of his career.
But there's just no need for Houston to make that massive commitment this year—and there are a couple of legitimate reasons the team might be reluctant to. It's an unnecessary risk. This is why the franchise tag exists—and why so many players hate it.
Houston's made some questionable moves this offseason, whether it was letting key pieces in the secondary, such as Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson, walk in free agency or deciding the team doesn't even need a general manager.
But while extending Clowney may appear to be a no-brainer to some, taking the safe, steady route with his contract is the right move.