In the end, the Texans must have decided to trade Jadeveon Clowney for the best available offer. Thankfully for Russell WilsonSeahawks managed to acquire significant draft capital while swapping out one star edge rusher for another. Bill O’Brien’s Texans, meanwhile, somehow failed to come away with either.
In April, the Seahawks sent 26-year-old franchised defensive end Frank Clark and a swap of third-round picks to the Chiefs for a first-round pick and a 2020 second-rounder. On Saturday, they acquired the 26-year-old Clowney, who is on a slightly smaller franchise tag after being billed as an outside linebacker, for a third-round pick and backup linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. This is the point in which you text your friends who are Texans fans and ask if they’re OK.
Why were the Seahawks able to get Clowney for a fraction of what Clark cost the Chiefs? And do those reasons make any sense? Let’s run through them to figure out how the Seahawks pulled off a heist that doesn’t make any sense at first glance:
Leverage and timing
Every contract in the NFL is more about leverage and timing than it is about talent. The Seahawks agreed to their trade with the Chiefs in April, after Kansas City had moved on from both Dee Ford and Justin Houston and failed to replace their departed edge rushers with anything more than Alex Okafor. A Kansas City team that might realistically make it to the Super Bowl if it can field even a competent defense around Patrick Mahomes desperately needed a difference-maker on the edge. The Seahawks had one of the two top pass-rushers available on the market and took advantage of their window to make a deal.
We’re about eight weeks past July 15, which left the Texans in a bind of their own devices. Even if they had been able to come to terms sometime in August, Houston couldn’t sign Clowney to an extension. Any team trading for Clowney — including the Seahawks — can’t sign Clowney to an extension until 2020, which means they’ll likely need to use the franchise tag for a second time to make sure Clowney returns to the negotiating table. That reality drastically reduces Clowney’s value as a trade asset right now, but the Texans either misplayed their hand or were caught in an awful bluff. My guess is the former, in part because …
The Texans are an organizational mess
Houston unexpectedly fired second-year general manager Brian Gaine in June, and while you could pick holes in Gaine’s debut season at the helm, you don’t see many general managers fired after winning the division in their only season in charge. The Texans quickly tried to hire Patriots executive Nick Caserio, which would have added to the various Patriots alumni populating their front office, but when The Patriots threatened tampering charges, Houston backed off and instead chose a GM-by-committee approach.
Houston’s first move under this committee was to send a likely third-round pick to the Browns for Duke Johnson, who was buried on Cleveland’s depth chart and held little trade value. Their second was to trade Clowney for an extremely modest return. Given what they did on Saturday, the Texans should have just held onto Clowney for 2019 before franchising him again in 2020 and shipping him off for a better offer next offseason. (They also could have chosen to simply let Clowney leave after the year for what would have been a third-round compensatory pick in 2021, but that pick would have disappeared if the Texans were active in free agency, which seems likely.) Even before this trade, Houston was projected with nearly $80 million in cap space and wasn’t likely to need their franchise tag to re-sign one of their other free agents, with the likes of Nick Martin and Whitney Mercilus as their most pressing options.
In trading Clowney for peanuts, the Texans are also giving up a key player during the third year of Deshaun Watson‘s bargain rookie deal. Other organizations are desperate to add talent while their quarterbacks are on seven-figure salaries. The Texans, instead, are doing the opposite. In what could be related news, the Seahawks have an actual general manager and the Texans have a committee with several people, some of whom once shared wireless internet with Bill Belichick.
Even worse is that the Texans have now shipped off a valuable draft pick and their best trade chit — a star edge rusher in the prime of his career — without acquiring a single offensive lineman. Watson is going to head into Week 1 with former Vikings and Panthers starter Matt Kalil as his left tackle, despite the fact that Kalil has been below-average for years, missed all of 2018 with a knee injury, and didn’t practice for a full week this month. Houston clearly wants to build its organization around the principles Belichick has succeeded with for two decades in New England. Would Belichick trade a third-round pick for a change-of-pace back and enter into the season with a replacement-level tackle protecting his star quarterback’s blindside?
The Seahawks kept their options open
Good organizations don’t spend to their absolute internal limits and acquire additional picks by trading down. Those are smart principles, in part because teams retain flexibility late in the offseason when other teams can’t make those same sorts of additions. The Seahawks didn’t panic when they traded Clark; general manager John Schneider signed Ezekiel Ansah to a one-year deal with incentives and drafted L.J. Collier with the first-round pick he got from the Chiefs in the Clark deal. Months later, the Seahawks had both the financial wiggle room and the draft assets to acquire Clowney when an unexpected opportunity arose.
You can certainly understand why the Seahawks made this trade, although it’s also possible that it could end up disappointing Schneider.
You can argue whether Clowney is a better player than Clark, but it’s hardly clear. Clark has been more productive as a pro, but the Michigan product was kicked out of school after being arrested on domestic assault charges, which might have limited his trade value. Clowney’s upside is as one of the absolute best defenders in all of football, but he has a microfracture surgery in his past and still hasn’t topped 10 sacks in a single season. Sacks aren’t everything, of course but edge rushers who get paid like superstars typically hit double-digit sacks as a matter of habit.
The Seahawks are presumably making this move in advance of signing Clowney to a long-term deal. There’s certainly risk in signing him to an extension given the knee issues in his past, and you have to figure it gave the Texans pause in their own negotiations with the former South Carolina star.
Schneider has also struck out in the past when trading for star players from other teams. The Seahawks sent first- and third-round picks to the Vikings in 2013 for Percy Harvin in the hopes of finding the missing piece in their Super Bowl puzzle, and while the Legion of Boom did win their Super Bowl that following season, Harvin played just six regular-season games and made $19 million in a Seahawks uniform before being dumped off to the Jets.
LikeWISe, the move to swap center Max Unger and a first-round pick to the Saints for Jimmy Graham and a fourth-rounder cost the Seahawks draft capital and didn’t deliver on its promise. Unger played well for the Saints and would have been valuable as the Seahawks attempted to rebuild their offensive line under the disastrous stint of Tom Cable as offensive line coach. Graham suffered a serious patella injury and averaged 683 yards with six touchdowns during his three seasons in Seattle.
The difference here, though, is that the Seahawks simply didn’t have to give up very much to make this trade. One year of Clowney at just under $16 million is valuable by itself, and while the Seahawks did have to give up a pair of roster players and a third-rounder, they could very well net that pick back as a compensatory selection next March if they don’t think Clowney fits. If this trade had involved a first-round pick or one of Seattle’s best offensive linemen, it would be a riskier proposition. As is, this was an easy call for the Seahawks to make.