The Jadeveon Clowney free agency saga has been a wild one to follow. In watching the premier edge rusher/defensive line prospect in the pre-draft process leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, I was floored by his immense upside, his ferocious method of playing on the field, and the eye-popping production the South Carolina Gamecocks star had.
His notorious signature highlight that we all remember, showed that he had position-defining potential as an edge rusher. He has definitely realized much of the potential in his six seasons with the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks in the NFL.
So why, in early May, is the former first overall pick and one of the top edge rushers in the league still unsigned?
Why is Jadeveon Clowney still unsigned?
Back in mid-March, when the Indianapolis Colts traded for DeForest Buckner and extended him for $84 million over four years, it seemed like Clowney’s market would also be red-hot. With that context, it seems reasonable for Clowney to have dangled the idea of $22-23 million per annum in front of teams.
Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off. As many as seven or eight teams were in on him over the last few months, but now the Clowney free agency market has largely become a barren wasteland.
With the current global situation and a quarantine largely still in effect across the U.S., NFL teams have not had the opportunity to bring in free agents for workouts and medical check-ups. The latter is especially relevant for Clowney, who has dealt with microfracture knee surgery (which forced him to miss 12 games) and a sports hernia (which limited him to 13 games in 2019).
It should be noted that Dr. Edwin Porras of FantasyPoints.com has provided a study of players undergoing core surgeries and found that there is no career difference between them and their positional peers who did not suffer the injury, so it is possible that the concern over Clowney’s rehab is overblown. Still, with such a large investment to be made, teams want to verify that for themselves.
Making things more complicated, some previously interested teams have begun to address their edge rusher/defensive line needs in trades, in the draft, and with other free agents. With the demand dropping (and, with it, Clowney’s leverage), some sources indicate his ask is still around the $17 million level. Pro Football Network’s Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline has reported that Clowney will likely end up dropping his salary request into the $14 million per year range (6:14 mark).
Finally, Pauline reported on the NFL Draft Insiders podcast (3:08 mark) that teams are concerned about Clowney’s motor and ambition, and that if he gets a big payday, he will “shut it down” and not play as hard as he should – a concern that goes back to the pre-draft process in 2014. Without interviews to help assuage those concerns, teams will continue to mull and overthink instead of signing a player who’s ready to help them bring home a Lombardi trophy.
It’s a horrible conflux of factors for a Clowney’s first go at NFL free agency, but that’s just how it breaks down in this current climate.
Where might Jadeveon Clowney land?
Speaking of breaking down, let’s figure out which teams might still be realistically interested in Clowney. They are ordered below in my rough estimate of their chances at signing him, best to worst.
Just a few days ago, Clowney floated in the media that he would be open to a reunion with the Seahawks (7:10), after having been down on the idea for a while and declining a likely $15 million offer from them. Neither general manager John Schneider nor head coach Pete Carroll has shot the idea down, as the Seahawks have about $16 million left in cap space per OverTheCap.com. However, they did invest significant money in edge rushers Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa, as well as draft capital rookies Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson.
There’s an obvious connection here between Clowney and former Texans defensive coordinator-turned-Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, but general manager Jon Robinson has said that – despite being in contact with the Clowney camp – “nothing is imminent”.
The Browns still have the most cap space available, at around $38 million, so they could be a team to watch. Clowney seems ready to play the long game into the summer with his signing, so the idea that the Seahawks have his most up-to-date medicals (and therefore possibly the most comfortable with his recovery) might not matter much.
If Clowney is patient, general manager Andrew Berry seemed to be interested in signing him. Berry is notoriously aggressive about adding big talent even if that means big prices. A higher-cost one-year deal from Cleveland could be the best fit for both parties.
With $24 million available in cap space, the Colts are a player if they want to be. A defensive line featuring Buckner, Justin Houston, and Jadeveon Clowney would be a nightmare for the rest of the AFC and would fit with general manager Chris Ballard’s defensive line-first philosophy of team building. While rumblings have been relatively quiet on this front since February, the fit still makes a lot of sense.
New York Jets
Tony Pauline has reported that the Jets have been “fishing around” on Clowney, and if they put in a strong offer they could be serious players, due to Clowney’s interest in playing in a big market like New York. The Jets could fit Clowney in under their cap if his asking price drops to the expected $14 million, but general manager Joe Douglas has been much more reticent to offer big-money contracts than his predecessor. Despite the obvious need, the interest doesn’t seem to be anything more than exploratory on the Jets’ part.
The Eagles have been connected to Clowney, and while they have the cap space ($24 million) to sign him, I don’t see a huge need. Josh Sweat is no great shakes as a depth defensive end option, but Clowney would bump one of franchise edge rusher Brandon Graham or budding star Derek Barnett to a rotational option, and that might not sit well. I’d expect Philly to address its lack of depth with a lower-end option like Everson Griffen once Clowney signs and sets the market.
Our own Ben Allbright noted in his first mailbag article that the Dolphins, while a potential suitor for Clowney last off-season, don’t seem to be on the table anymore. Clowney has said he’s “not looking to get on no sorry team for no money” and “wants to get that Super Bowl” with his next team. The Dolphins are in no spot to do that soon.
New York Giants
Also on Clowney’s wish list is the other New Jersey team. The Giants’ cap space is pushing the lower limit of the star edge rusher’s expected contract at $15 million, but they didn’t do much to address the position in the draft either. Still, we have a non-competitive problem here as well.
Who will end up signing Clowney?
The only teams with what seem like greater than middling chances to nab Clowney at the moment are the Seahawks, Titans, and Browns, but even if they do, he will almost certainly sign a one-year “prove it” deal and then hit the free agency market again in the 2020-21 offseason looking for a big contract – something more in the premier $20 million range.
Despite dealing with core and back injuries in 2019, Clowney turned in a solid 42nd-best pressure percentage among the 96 edge rushers to play at least 200 pass-rush snaps. He may not be the supremely ferocious sack-monster we thought he could be, but he’s still a dominant run defender and terrorizing pass-rusher. All concerns aside, Clowney will prove a dominant defensive force to whichever team is lucky enough to get him in free agency this year.