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Why I would avoid Jadeveon Clowney in free agency

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Why some GMs may be over-valuing the former Texans and Seahawks run-stopper

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Sunday morning I posted a profile on free agent defensive tackle D.J. Reader because I believe he’d be one of the better values than some other d-line options who might be able to free up space necessary for Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, and others. One other much more high profile free agent brought up in the comments section was Reader’s former teammate with the Houston Texans, Jadeveon Clowney.

Now let me quickly tell you why I think Clowney is arguably the least desirable edge rush options on the market, even if he is one of the most disruptive players we’ve seen hit free agency in the last decade.

My first instinct here was to write something along the lines of “Even though Clowney is a more productive pass rusher...” but that actually became debatable in 2019. Playing defensive end in a 3-4 with the Texans, Reader notched 2.5 sacks and 13 QB hits last season but was only credited with 12 pressures by Pro-Football-Reference. Moving from an edge rusher in a 3-4 to more of a three-point end in Pete Carroll’s 4-3 under defense with the Seattle Seahawks, Clowney totaled three sacks and 13 QB hits, 30 pressures.

Clowney got a PFF pass rush grade of 79.1 on 421 pass rushing snaps, Reader hit a 75.4 pass rush grade on 353 pass rushing snaps. On 68 fewer pass rushing snaps, Reader had the same number of QB hits and virtually the same number of sacks.

This really isn’t about Reader though. This is not me doubling down on the Las Vegas Raiders pursuing Reader because I don’t even know that I believe that they should. I simply wanted to profile him and I like what I see. I like what I see from Clowney too, but I think that the perception of him as an elite pass rusher has already proven to be false over the last nine seasons between the South Carolina Gamecocks, Texans, and Seahawks.

I’ve already written at length what has been underwhelming about Clowney’s ability to actually finish his pressures and why The Big Book of Excuses by Clowney Truthers is a read that I’ve become exhausted by — I don’t mind at all if you disagree with me and see him as a player whose value can’t be measured by any stat sheet, nor do I believe that he is incapable of actually being the missing piece to a defense like the Raiders as I am constantly open to being proven incorrect — so I’ll summarize thusly:

  • Clowney could be the best overall run defender in the NFL.
  • If he’s healthy*, he might play 200-300 snaps of run defense per season.
  • Run defense is considerably less valuable than pass defense. Nobody disputes this.
  • Steve Spurrier once said that Clowney became “famous in China” when he made his highlight tackle vs Michigan. Recall, that was a run.
  • As a pass rusher, he deserves to be in the conversation with Matt Judon and Brandon Graham, not Myles Garrett and J.J. Watt. Graham makes $13.3 million per year, Judon is also going to be a free agent this year (unless tagged) and he may get a deal around $17 million per year. Maybe. The talk around Clowney is more like $21-$23 million per year.
  • His lack of production with Seattle was blamed on his teammates by Clowney supporters. I can’t tell you how much truth there is in that, but I look at Chandler Jones, I look at Garrett, even Judon, I don’t see an incredible supporting cast. Those really elite pass rushers don’t seem to need help to get there and how valuable can a player be if you need to also surround him with a bunch more talent? Do the Raiders already have that in the bag with Crosby, Ferrell? Maybe! But unless Clowney is moving inside, I don’t think you want to take snaps away from him and turn him into a potential Dante Fowler for another team — the former Jacksonville Jaguars-turned LA Rams pass rusher who lost snaps when the team signed Calais Campbell.
  • (Calais Campbell would be Clowney’s dream future. Campbell turned a corner around the same age that Clowney is now, but I believe he still showed more health, consistency, and production in the first six years of his career than Clowney has. But it’s a potential hope to shoot for, I admit.)
  • He presence on the defense also didn’t help any of his teammates become more productive, as the Seahawks had one of their worst seasons of the decade under Carroll’s guidance from a pass rushing and pressure on the QB standpoint.
  • *He’s a much better bet to play 13 games than he is to play 16 games.

To summarize the summary: Giving an oft-injured run-stopper $22 million per year to take up a spot on the defense where a pass rusher should be and crossing your fingers that at 27 years of age, Clowney will fully develop the skills many hoped he would have by now after six seasons of moderately decent production.

Free agency is not about talent. That really should hit home and stick with people: When you work in a salary capped league, adding veterans is not about talent, it’s about value and fit. The reason it is so important for the head coach and the general manager to be on the same page is that the GM needs to already know which talents make sense for a specific system, which don’t, and how to evenly spread out that money to plug the leaks.

Giving an edge player $22 million annually when he has only ever been even semi-productive as a pass rusher in a 3-4, and you run a 4-3, seems irresponsible.

In his four seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Paul Guenther’s pass rush in a 4-3 defense only really came from two players: first and foremost, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, followed closely by defensive end Carlos Dunlap, then a good distance until you get to third place. We know that Crosby can be the Dunlap and we can believe that Ferrell has the potential to be a Carl Lawson, who emerged in Guenther’s last year with the Bengals, but they have no Atkins that we know of yet.

Now if you told me that Clowney was going to move inside, my ears would perk. I believe that might be where he best fits in a 4-3 defense. That seems unlikely for two reasons: Clowney probably doesn’t want to do it and teams probably don’t want to risk a mega-contract in conjunction with a position switch.

For all those reasons, I think Clowney’s lack of fit with the Raiders from a schematic, personnel, and financial standpoint, should make it an obvious “No” for Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden. I also believe that generally speaking if Clowney gets paid near what he wants to be paid, it will be too big of a risk for whatever team pays him.

I think of a player like DeMarcus Lawrence with the Dallas Cowboys, who signed a five-year, $105 million deal last year, and I think there are similarities. I wouldn’t have given Lawrence that same contract. I think of Trey Flowers, now making $18 million annually with the Detroit Lions, and I see similarities — many might be surprised to learn that over the last four years, Flowers has 28 sacks and 80 QB hits in 60 games while Clowney has 27.5 sacks and 72 QB hits in 58 games. I’m less concerned with reasons why something didn’t happen than I am with actual production.

Free agency is about fit and value and I see neither when it comes to Vegas and Clowney.