During Sunday's 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, in street clothes and on the inactive list, did one of the dumbest things I've ever seen a football player do — in a game in which his team had just seized momentum and their first lead of the season just two plays earlier, he decided to bow up in Titans tight end Luke Stoecker, who had just slid into the Texans sidelines following an 11-yard catch for a first down.
Stoecker may or may not have bumped into Clowney, but if he did, then so be it. That's the price of poker for hanging out on an NFL sideline in street clothes, guys might bump into you. That didn't stop Clowney from walking over to Stoecker, "fake tough guy" nudging him, and then saying something derogatory in his direction, likely a tad curse laden.
This drew a 15-yard penalty, giving the Titans a 26-yard play instead of an 11-yard play in a game where the Titans could barely move the football. They'd have had a hard time gaining 26 yards playing 11 on 7, and there was Clowney giving them 15 of those yards. IN STREET CLOTHES. The Titans would tie the game on that drive, win the game several minutes later, and the Texans would fall to 0-2.
Now, back to Clowney. Oddly, the most disturbing thing for Clowney that day wasn't one of the most boneheaded decisions a Texan has ever made. The most disturbing thing was that he was in street clothes at all. Clowney was on the injury list last week, listed as "QUESTIONABLE" with back and elbow dings. It was pretty surprising when the news came down Sunday morning that he wouldn't be playing against Tennessee.
For Clowney, this unfortunately reignites the substantial narrative that he is injury prone, and believe me, there is plenty of data to back it up. I say "reignites" because it appeared that Clowney had, as best he could, put that behind him by playing all 16 games in 2017's dreadful 4-12 season. However, off-season knee surgery, a slow recovery, and now missing Week 2 have set all of the angst back in motion. The slow comeback from an off-season scope is believed to be the big reason he is playing out his fifth year option, as opposed to enjoying a new contract extension.
So, the question becomes "How do the Texans play this Jadeveon Clowney situation after the 2018 season is over?" They basically have three choices — give him a big contract extension (likely not exceeding, but in the neighborhood of Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald at $20+ million per year), put the franchise tag on him (likely a one year $16 million deal to keep him or trade him), or let him walk in free agency (and possibly get a 2020 third round compensatory pick).
Here are the things to watch that will factor into the decision making:
Since arriving in Houston in 2014, Clowney has had at least four knee procedures that we know of, and maybe a scope here or there that went unreported, for all we know. At South Carolina, he had other non-knee injuries that hindered him in his final year. Now, we are tacking on elbows and backs. I don't know that there's anything Clowney can do to dispel the health concerns and what comes with giving a guy $100 million who may not be on the field week to week. The only thing he really can do....
Clowney's level of play
.... is ball the hell out when he is out there and make the risk/reward calculus seem less daunting. Like, "Hey, yeah, he may miss four games, but he might get a sack and a couple TFL's in the 12 games he plays!" Getting double digit sacks this season would help his cause greatly.
The play of J.J. Watt
Now, we begin to stray into the murky "trade Clowney" or even murkier "let Clowney walk" waters, and make no mistake, the waves are rising in those waters. The primary non-clowned variable in moving on from Clowney is where J.J. Watt is as a player, health and production-wise, at the end of 2018. If he is back to near Peak Watt level AND Whitney Mercilus has gotten his juice back, then that makes the decision-making process more flexible. For the record, though, while Watt has looked pretty close to his old self, as of today, he has gone 731 days without sacking a quarterback in an NFL game.
Duke Ejiofor - Plan B
The other variable on the roster is sixth round rookie Duke Ejiofor, who through training camp and the Titans game last weekend, looks like a find, like someone you'd draft in the first two rounds, not in the sixth round. There is still a LONG way to go in knowing what Ejiofor may be. However, the same way Brooks Reed's standout rookie season made allowing Mario Williams to walk a little easier, so might Ejiofor's rookie season allow the same with Clowney. To put the value play in perspective, after this season, Ejiofor has three years and $2,118,943 worth of TOTAL cap space left on his rookie deal. Clowney's weekly game checks in 2019 will each be more than Ejiofor's ANNUAL cap hit.
Tyrann Mathieu - wild card
Here's one thing to also consider — each NFL team only gets one franchise tag to use each offseason. What if Tyrann Mathieu regains his 2015 form over the course of the 2018 season? If the Texans don't get a long term deal done with the Honey Badger, they might need to use the franchise tag to keep him, which would make sense of you feel good about the Watt, Mercilus, Ejiofor combo platter rushing the passer. Just something to keep in mind.
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Add all of that up, and for what it's worth, here are the odds I would place on Clowney’s situation come mid-March with the start of free agency:
Franchise tag -250
Long-term extension +600
Walks in free agency +300
However, a few more 15-yard penalties in street clothes, and those odds change significantly.
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