Four years into his NFL career, Jadeveon Clowney has become kind of a big deal. He just finished up his second Pro Bowl season, and perhaps more importantly, just finished up his first season in which he played in every game, no small nuance considering the Texans' next two best defensive players (Whitney Mercilus, Justin James Watt) both went down for the season about five plays apart in Week 5 of the 2017 season.
So now, with his option year on his rookie contract upcoming, history with the Texans would dictate that it's time for the team to do a long term extension with Clowney. The glitch in the matrix, though, is that Texans' history, recent history at least, is essentially rendered moot with Rick Smith being replaced by Brian Gaine as the team's general manager.
The Clowney extension was the third biggest to-do that I had on Gaine's offseason list that I put together for him a couple weeks ago, but do we know that Brian Gaine is going to share Rick Smith's philosophy of extending guys a year early rather than waiting for free agency? In Gaine's own words, he SEEMS motivated to get a deal done, but we have no past deeds of his to prove it.
For what it's worth, one person who seems enthusiastic about Gaine's insertion into the process is Clowney's agent, Bus Cook, who spoke to FOX 26's Mark Berman at the Senior Bowl last week and had this to say....
We can dissect all day long whether that last sentence with Cook's seeming endorsement of Gaine is thinly veiled shade thrown at Smith. At this point, it could just as easily be Cook's buttering up Gaine to try to get Clowney a deal in which he is the highest paid defensive player in football, and if you think making Clowney the highest paid defensive player sounds crazy, just remember, at one point Mario Williams became the highest paid defensive player in football back in 2012, and Clowney's last two seasons were better than anything Williams did as a Texan, and I say that knowing full well Clowney topped out at 9.5 sacks last season. (Williams had two double digit sack seasons in 2007 and 2008.)
Cook's sales pitch will probably be a little more intricate than this, but the case for Clowney is based as much on timing as it is performance. "The next great player is always the next 'highest paid' player" is how the NFL seems to work. It's how Matt Stafford overtakes Derek Carr — neither of whom have won a playoff game — as the highest paid quarterback in the league. As a point of reference, according to salary website Spotrac, the highest average salary for a defensive player is Miami Dolphins' DT Ndamukong Suh's $19,062,500.
The question is "Is Jadeveon Clowney's body of work, combined with the optimism of his upward trend, enough to swallow making him the highest paid player?" Here are a few mitigating factors working against him:
1. No double digit sack seasons
As disruptive as we know Clowney has become the last two seasons — he finished among the league leaders in tackles for loss in 2017 — he still has yet to achieve double digit sacks in a season, which is a crude, arbitrary benchmark, but unfortunately a relevant one for lazy narratives and, my guess is, contract negotiations. Guys like Clowney get drafted and paid to put the quarterback on his ass, while he's still holding the ball.
While Clowney picked the perfect season to play in all 16 games, it can't be ignored — his body has been cut open and scoped a LOT for someone his age, even by NFL standards. The biggest one was the microfracture knee surgery that ended his rookie season, which will always loom to some degree. Does 2017 get treated like the beginning of a trend of great health (undoubtedly Cook's case) or an outlier (perhaps the team's case, but put tamely enough so as not to offend Clowney).
3. What effect would paying Clowney have on the "Watt dynamic"?
Look, I love J.J. Watt. You love J.J. Watt. We all love J.J. Watt. However, he's now missed 24 of the last 32 regular season games, and in the eight games that he played, he wasn't exactly 2014 J.J. Watt. He was good, but not $16 million per year-good. However, we know there's a whole lot more wrapped up in paying Watt than just how many sacks he gets. He is a true icon, in every sense of the word. Clowney will undoubtedly surpass Watt in annual salary this go round. If Watt returns to, say, 80 percent of his former self, which subjectively would put him about where Clowney is now, is there an awkward dynamic that becomes palpable? Even if there isn't one internally, are there any drumbeats about Watt's contract, which runs through 2021? Likely, nothing comes of this mitigating factor, and it might only be a story the first few days after Clowney signs, and even then, it's likely more of a media/fan-driven narrative than any underlying tension between the two players. In fact, my guess is that we get a congratulatory tweet from Watt the second Clowney finishes affixing his signature to the bottom of his new deal.
4. Oh yeah... Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack
Then there's that little thing about Clowney's draft classmates, Rams DT Aaron Donald and Raiders OLB Khalil Mack, both of whom have been considered the ACTUAL very best defensive player in the league at varying times over the last three seasons, and both of whom are looking for new deals. So we have a three way staring contest in which the Texans have the guy whose performance thus far least justifies "highest paid" status. Juicy!
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If this is truly just going to be a situation where Clowney, Donald, and Mack ultimately get stacked one on top of the other, there is certainly a case to be made for Gaine getting a deal done and establishing the market rather than letting Donald and Mack do so, and then somehow trying to justify paying Clowney, or worse, getting into a contract standoff with Clowney and Cook.
In the end, the Texans hold the cards, as Clowney is under contract for one more year, and the team can franchise him for as many as three seasons after that. A three year stint of his option year and a couple franchise tags would pay Clowney, likely, somewhere between $50 and $60 million guaranteed, which isn't the worst outcome in the world, but for a guy whose knees have been surgically repaired a couple times now, the year to year aspect of that approach can be stressful.
Brian Gaine, Bus Cook has spoken, You're on the clock now.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.