When Texans general manager Brian Gaine was asked last week about Jadeveon Clowney's contract situation and the possibility of using the franchise tag to extend the window to negotiate a long term deal, and to keep Clowney off the free agency market, Gaine nonchalantly said, "We won’t discuss contract negotiations publicly. It’s certainly an option. It’s not the priority, but it’s certainly an option.”
That would seem to indicate that the two sides, Clowney's camp and the Texans, were and are working toward a multi-year deal that would keep the soon-to-be sixth year DE/OLB in a Texans uniform through his prime years. On Monday afternoon, however, the non-priority option was exercised, as the Texans put the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney, just one day prior to the March 5 deadline to do so.
The move was first reported by John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
The Texans have franchised OLB Jadeveon Clowney.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) March 4, 2019
It was then followed up by Texans PR with a statement from Gaine:
The Houston Texans have placed the non-exclusive franchise designation on DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, the team announced today. pic.twitter.com/HmY04QtzWj— Texans PR (@TexansPR) March 4, 2019
So what does this all mean? Let's break down the particulars, shall we?
So just how historic an occasion is this?
This is only the second time in 17 possible offseasons where the Texans have employed the franchise tag. The first and only other time was prior to the 2009 season, when they placed the franchise tag on cornerback (and, like Clowney, former first round pick out of South Carolina) Dunta Robinson. If you recall, that resulted in extreme acrimony between the two sides, and Dunta scribbling "Pay Me, Rick" (to former GM Rick Smith) on the back of his cleats. Robinson left the next offseason for a big contract (six years, $54 million) from the Atlanta Falcons.
How much is Clowney set to make, if he plays on the tag?
The franchise tag at each position is the average of the top five salaries in the league at that respective position. So first, let's set the record straight on the positional designation for Clowney, because he's as hybrid a superstar player as there is in the league. (The Texans list him as "DE/OLB" on all of their press materials, if that's any indicator as to his versatility.) Clowney will be tagged as a LINEBACKER, where the tag number is lower than that of a defensive end, by about $1.7 million ($15.4 million for LB, $17.1 million for DL). However, the way the tag works is that a player either gets the designated tag number for his position OR a 20 percent raise over last year's salary, whichever is higher, so Clowney will actually receive a 20 percent raise on his last season's $13.3 million salary cap number, for around $16 million in total income for 2019, if he plays on the tag this coming season.
Clowney franchised at $15.967 million rather than LB’s $15.443 mil. He got 120 percent of last year’s contract of $13.30 mil. DE franchise is $17.12 mil. It’s a difference for Clowney of $1.160.8 mil.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) March 4, 2019
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One thing to note here — the Texans do not decide if Clowney is tagged as a linebacker or defensive end, the league does. That tidbit comes to me directly from the Texans PR staff. Last season, the Texans gave Clowney around $1 million additional at the end of the year to make up for the difference between the LB pay scale and DL pay scale for his fifth year option season from his rookie deal. They did it as a goodwill gesture, and would likely do the same under the franchise tag at the end of 2019, by cutting him a check for roughly $1.1 million. But for now, he is set to make around $16 million playing on the franchise tag.
Aside from playing under the tag, what are the possibilities for 2019?
There are really three. First, the two sides could reach a long term deal before the season starts. They would need to do so by July 15, as that is the deadline for players on the franchise tag to reach a long term extension. If they do not reach a deal, an extension cannot come until after the 2019 season. Second, he could be traded. Clowney is on the non-exclusive version of the franchise tag, which means other teams can make offers to him, and if he signs an offer sheet, the Texans have the right to match the deal OR receive two first round picks as compensation for losing him. The Texans can work on conventional trade scenarios with teams that may want Clowney, too. Then third.....
Could Clowney hold out, and if so, for how long?
....Clowney COULD hold out. In fact, if they don't reach a long-term deal before July 15, I would expect him to skip training camp, as he can do so without accruing fines, so long as he waits to sign the paperwork on the franchise tender. Whether Clowney would hold out longer like Duane Brown (until Week 8 of the 2017 season), or Le'Veon Bell (all of 2018) remains to be seen. I think it's safe to say that, as we've watched this saga play out over literally two years now, the two sides seem to be fairly far apart on just what Jadeveon Clowney's value is to the Houston Texans.