Not only did the Houston Texans lose an excellent pass-rusher on Saturday with the trade of Jadeveon Clowney, but they failed to get anything close to fair market value for a three-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher in his prime.
The Texans are trading Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for a 2020 third-round pick and linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin because they did not want to sign Clowney to a long-term extension — even though they have the salary-cap space to do it — and poorly misread the situation this offseason by giving him the franchise tag and not trading him before the July 15 deadline for signing him to an extension.
Not having a general manager certainly didn’t help. Texans owner Cal McNair fired GM Brian Gaine in June because he didn’t think Gaine was good enough at his job. Coach Bill O’Brien has had more power in the organization since, and will and should take a big portion of the blame for how the situation with Clowney played out, in part because Gaine was already gone.
By not trading Clowney in July, the Texans gave him more leverage. Clowney didn’t sign his franchise tender, which effectively gave him a no-trade clause — he could not be traded until he signed the tender. And his new team couldn’t sign him to an extension until after the 2019 season, which diminished his trade value.
The Texans didn’t get close to what the Raiders did last season for another elite defender picked early in the 2014 draft. Just before Week 1 last season, the Oakland Raiders traded Khalil Mack to the Bears for first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, a third-round pick in 2020 and a sixth-round pick in 2019. The Bears also received a second-round pick in 2020 and a conditional fifth-round pick in 2020. Of course, Clowney has not played as well as Mack, who was taken four picks after the Texans look Clowney in 2014, and the Texans clearly didn’t think Clowney was worth the six-year, $141 million contract Mack received from the Bears.
On Friday, O’Brien said it’s not that Houston didn’t want Clowney back, but “it’s a matter of a difference of opinion in value relative to the contract.” Clowney was looking for a contract similar to those given to Mack and Aaron Donald, who signed a six-year, $135 million contract with the Rams last year. But even if the Texans didn’t think Clowney was worthy of that kind of deal, they mishandled the situation at every turn.
The fact Clowney held out for all of training camp after being franchise-tagged should not have been a surprise. At the owners meetings in March, O’Brien indicated he didn’t expect to see Clowney at the team’s spring workouts. So if Houston knew this was a likely scenario, they should have traded Clowney either before the draft, to get help this season, or at the very least before the July 15 deadline, which would have allowed his new team the chance to sign Clowney to an extension.
If Clowney’s holdout had continued through the season, the Texans would have received a compensatory draft pick, expected to be in the third round, if he walked. Instead, the Texans were forced to settle for the package they received from the Seahawks.
The Texans are coming off an 11-5 season and an AFC South title and appeared to be all-in to win a Super Bowl with an offense featuring Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller and a defense highlighted by Clowney and J.J. Watt. It’s hard to see how the Texans will be better this season after trading Clowney.
Had the Texans managed to get a good left tackle in return, such as the Dolphins’ Laremy Tunsil, the trade would have been more palatable because that would have protected the team’s biggest asset: quarterback Deshaun Watson. But by waiting, the Texans instead fill a position group that was thin … because Clowney had not reported to camp.
Now without Clowney, who had 18.5 sacks in the last two seasons and was one of the best run-stoppers in the league, the Texans will have to depend even more on Watt and Whitney Mercilus.
Although Watt led Houston with 16 sacks last season, Clowney had the better pass-rush win rate at 35 percent, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Clowney ranked second in the NFL among all qualifying edge rushers, and Watt’s 28 percent ranked 15th. But Clowney’s presence allowed Watt to take advantage of not seeing as many double-teams. In 2018, Clowney was double-teamed 32 percent of the time, compared to Watt’s 29 percent.
On Friday, O’Brien said several times that the Texans were going to do what was in the best interest of the team when it came to Clowney. But by waiting, all it means is the Texans are worse today than they should be.