As we near the end of a notably quiet offseason for the NFL, things are finally starting to heat up. One key flashpoint is in the Texans’ handling of Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney has long been marked as one of the top defensive players in the NFL. His pass-rushing ability places him in the upper echelons of elite players, despite injuries hobbling his overall ability during portions of his short run.
As the first overall pick from the 2014 NFL draft, Clowney would be a major piece for any contending team on the open market. So why is that unlikely to happen anytime soon?
Why Houston won’t let Jadeveon Clowney go
With Clowney’s overall production looking as good as it does, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has long wanted to keep the elite defensive end on his team. For the 2018 season, Clowney completed the season with nine sacks and 47 tackles in total.
Because of Clowney’s high level of athleticism, O’Brien pushed him to linebacker for many of his snaps. This is the kind of situation that’s perfect for a head coach in search of versatility, although Clowney himself likely does not appreciate the lower pay grade of working at that position.
Despite minor mishaps involving illegal hits last season, the defensive phenom is currently healthy, and he doesn’t appear to have reached his skill ceiling. It’s no mystery why O’Brien wants to keep him around.
Why O’Brien prefers the franchise tag for Clowney
O’Brien previously clashed with former Houston GM Brian Gaine over how to handle Clowney’s contract. O’Brien preferred forcing Clowney’s hand via the franchise tag, while Gaine pushed for hammering out a long-term contract. Even before Gaine’s tenure, generous contract extensions weren’t out of the norm.
But O’Brien made a case not only for preferring to rely on the franchise tag, but to oust Gaine as GM altogether. With that short 18 month obstacle out of the organization, O’Brien got his way.
The Texans formally placed their franchise tag on Clowney back in March. This allows the Houston payroll to stay smaller, by locking Clowney’s salary to lower levels than a standard contract would open the organization up to. For a team looking for playoff contention in the short term, O’Brien is insistent that this is a win/win situation that locks down an important defensive piece and keeps space open for further moves in the near future.
How the franchise tag could backfire
It’s clear that O’Brien is going for a Bill Belichick approach to the head coach job. His habit of spearheading the direction of the franchise in the long term, rather than sticking to managing the players served up by the front office, is about to be put to the test.
With no GM for the 2019 season as of yet, O’Brien’s handling of the franchise tag situation has one major barrier: Jadeveon Clowney himself.
The human element in this situation has already shown signs of becoming a problem. The NFLPA filed a grievance on Clowney’s behalf over being tagged as a linebacker instead of a defensive end, an O’Brien move meant to save Houston on $1.69 million in salary paid to a player who executed 60% of their snaps as a DE.
Clowney hasn’t appeared at any training events so far as a way of voicing his disdain for his treatment by the Texans. He stands to lose millions of potential dollars due to spending so much of his prime years being tied to a single team at capped rates.
O’Brien isn’t likely to end up on that ignominious list of coaches on the edge of being fired anytime soon. But whatever happens next with Jadeveon Clowney is likely to be one of the biggest turning points in the career of this uniquely powerful head coach.