Bill O'Brien and Jadeveon Clowney both arrived in Houston back in 2014 as a buzzy match. O'Brien was that year's trendy college coaching candidate and Clowney was that's year's presumptive No. 1 overall pick sensation. The likelihood that O'Brien will wind up outlasting Clowney in Houston says a lot about the state of these Texans.
O'Brien wanted the juice and he got it. In the span of 18 months, Rick Smith and Brian Gaine both became former Texans general managers. O'Brien appears to be the organization's de facto lead decision maker with no GM in place, if he wasn't quietly that guy the whole time. Even before Gaine was fired in June, it became clear that signing Clowney, who has not signed his one-year tender after being tagged in March, to a long-term deal was not a priority.
Reports consistently indicated the two sides were nowhere close to a new deal and it appeared they weren't negotiating at all as the July 15 deadline to sign Clowney long-term came and went. The Texans are second among all NFL teams with more than $37 million in cap space, according to Over The Cap, so they could have extended Clowney if they wanted to. They didn't, but it was still stunning to read this week from the Houston Chronicle's John McClain that he'd be surprised if Clowney wasn't traded.
NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported earlier this week that a deal "could happen quickly" if an interested team steps up. It's hard not to see all of this as O'Brien putting a "for sale" sign on the back of the key figure in O'Brien's only playoff victory as a head coach.
The timing of this suggests a lack of foresight. If the Texans wanted the best value for Clowney, the time to deal was back in March or even April, when the league was flush with cap space and 2019 draft picks. Clowney's trade value is greatly diminished by the reality that no team, including the Texans, can negotiate a new contract with him until next offseason. How much will interested teams be willing to give up for a one-year rental and the chance to negotiate potentially the biggest defensive contract in NFL history in February of 2020, a few weeks before the rest of the league?
Trading Clowney for a draft pick makes no sense unless Houston receives a first-rounder in return, which is nearly impossible to imagine because the Texans have given up so much leverage by waiting this long. A trade for a draft pick would make the Texans worse in 2019 and raise further questions about how the team's front office upheaval impacted this season. If Clowney leaves the Texans -- or any other team -- in free agency of 2020, he'll count to that team's compensatory pick formula and likely bring a third-round pick in return. If the Texans are only getting trade offers for a third-round pick or even a second-round pick, they might as well keep Clowney, get considerable value from him this season, and then move on. I'd rather have Clowney for this season than save cap space the Texans don't need and acquire a 2020 draft pick that might not be much better than a third-round compensatory pick. Despite some nagging injuries, Pro Football Focus has Clowney on the field for more than 870 snaps in each of the last three seasons, placing him among the league leaders at outside linebacker. He's one of the best edge run defenders in football, a consistent disrupter in the passing game and has played his best down the stretch every year. Just giving him away is not an option.
Trading Clowney for a comparable veteran talent, like Redskins tackle Trent Williams, is an entirely different matter. A player-for-player swap is a cleaner route to getting fair value, even if it's harder to accomplish. Williams would address a problem area on the depth chart and save O'Brien from taking a big loss before the season even started. O'Brien has to consider that the Texans' new ownership structure, which signed off on firing Gaine so quickly, could always change direction again next offseason if the team trades away one of its signature players for pennies on the dollar and then struggles on the field.
So where could Clowney go? Here's a highly speculative list of some destinations that could make sense:
Washington Redskins: Making Trent Williams the key piece in a trade for Clowney almost makes too much sense for it to happen. Williams, the best Redskins player of the decade, is engaged in a standoff with the organization that goes beyond football. Both sides appear intractable and there's probably no way the Redskins would let go of the 31-year-old perennial Pro Bowler without getting first-round value in return. Clowney qualifies.
The Texans have had a hole at left tackle since the minute they dealt away mainstay Duane Brown to the Seahawks at the trade deadline in 2017. That deal was the result of a disagreement between a player and organization that grew personal and the Seahawks took advantage. The Texans could do the same here, while the Redskins could add another pass rusher to join Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Montez Sweat. Washington's fearsome front seven on defense would give the team a long-needed identity and eventually paying Clowney more than $100 million sounds like a Redskins move.
The Redskins would be taking a calculated risk given the possibility that Clowney would only be a one-year rental, but they can afford to take risks because Williams is set on never putting on a Washington uniform again, according to reports. Great tackles are so hard to find that the Texans couldn't be faulted for taking their own risk in the deal.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have a rare combination in today's NFL: Cap space and a willingness to take risks in trades, not to mention a screaming need for a pass rusher. General manager John Schneider has taken big swings before in deals for Duane Brown, Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham. I don't see a logical veteran piece for the Texans to take in the deal, but the Seahawks could offer a second-round pick and see if that's enough for the Texans to bite. Clowney could be a premier piece for the next iteration of the Seahawks to build around or he could potentially bring a compensatory pick in return if he leaves in 2020.
Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans: Both teams have plenty of cap space and could use the edge presence that Clowney provides, but would the Texans trade Clowney to a division rival? It didn't stop O'Brien's old boss in New England from sending Drew Bledsoe to the Bills, but O'Brien may not have that level of chutzpah.
Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams: I list them primarily because they have risk-taking front offices that aren't afraid to get creative. The Rams, after all, were in on the Khalil Mack sweepstakes last season after they made Aaron Donald the richest defender in football. The Rams would have to shed salary cap space to make room for Clowney, but they still have a need at their edge rusher spot and provide a natural scheme fit. The Eagles have quietly created salary cap flexibility this offseason and they are virtually the only NFL team with an extra starting left tackle sitting around after leapfrogging the Texans to draft Andre Dillard in the first round this year. It would be shocking for the Eagles to deal away mainstay Jason Peters considering his history with the team and close relationship to owner Jeffrey Lurie, but the Eagles seem as likely as any team to make an NBA-style deal before Week 1, if only because it makes general manager Howie Roseman feel alive.
New York Jets: New Jets general manager Joe Douglas worked under Roseman in Philadelphia. While it's safe to say the two men don't have the exact same philosophy, Douglas has seen firsthand how advantageous player trades can be for an organization. The Jets would have to make a corresponding move or two to make a Clowney trade work under the salary cap, but this is the type of deal the old Jets would make, giving up too much draft capital in the process. Douglas figures to be playing a more patient game as Sam Darnold's window to compete is just opening. But the incredible need on the roster for a pass-rushing presence could tempt him to make a move if he's confident they could also sign Clowney long-term.
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The sudden availability of Clowney provides a sneak preview to NFL free agency in 2020. Teams have the chance to acquire a game-changing talent early, even if the Texans are looking to move him a few months too late to get fair value.
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