HOUSTON -- While J.J. Watt has played a combined eight games over the past two seasons as a result of injuries, Jadeveon Clowney has shed his injury-plagued label to become the Houston Texans' premier defensive player. Now, as Clowney enters the final season of his rookie contract, the Texans have to figure out whether they want to pay him, and if so, how much it will cost.
Clowney has been the most impactful Texans defensive player over the past two seasons. Houston was without Watt for the majority of that stretch after he dealt with season-ending injuries, and during that time, Clowney has become the Texans' difference-maker defensively.
Houston’s defense, with a stronger secondary, was one of the best in the NFL in 2016. A weakened pass defense turned in worse results in 2017, but Clowney’s performance remained strong. In 2016, despite being without Watt, the Texans had the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Last season they ranked 20th.
Opposing head coaches praised Clowney seemingly every week last season. As Clowney was putting together his best -- and healthiest -- season yet, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said simply: “He’s an issue [for us].” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin praised Clowney’s versatility, saying, “It’s not a one-man job being prepared to block him. Everybody’s going to see him in some form or fashion, and I think that’s one of the unique things about him outside his outstanding physical traits.”
But as Clowney looks to become perhaps the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL, the Texans have a dilemma: Can they count on the 25-year-old given his injury history, and how could they make a deal work alongside Watt's massive contract?
'He can do unique things'
Clowney’s past two seasons have been his best. Although his 15.5 sacks are tied for 23rd among NFL players since the beginning of the 2016 season, he has 37 tackles for a loss, which is second to only to Arizona Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
While sacks are of course an important statistic for edge rushers, Clowney affects other areas of the game in ways that don’t always show up on the stat sheet.
"The first thing I notice with Clowney is the amount of disruptions he has,” ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “It could be moving the quarterback off the spot, altering the quarterback’s throw, putting a hit on the quarterback, penetrating the line of scrimmage and forcing the running back to bounce outside or cut back inside to the defensive help. He does that all of the time.”
Texans coach Bill O’Brien likes to use the word “disruptive” to describe Clowney. While he's known as a pass-rusher, Clowney has also improved quite a bit against the run, becoming an impressive all-around defender.
“He’s got great instincts,” O’Brien said. “Some of the ways we move him around, he ends up in the backfield quite a bit because of his athletic ability [and] his explosion.”
One thing that makes Clowney so hard to block is the way the Texans can move him around the field, which prevents teams from being able to double- or triple-team him all game, particularly when Houston was without Watt or Whitney Mercilus.
“He can do unique things. And the thing that I would love as a coach is how much versatility he provides you,” Bowen said. “He can play 3-4 DE; he can line up outside with his hand on the ground and a four-man front in your nickel or dime packages. He can play off the ball. ... He gives you a lot of flexibility as a defensive playcaller.”
There’s always the question of whether Clowney can stay healthy -- he missed 15 games in his first two NFL seasons. But for the first time in his career, Clowney played in all 16 regular-season games for the Texans in 2017. While he spent a significant portion of his first two NFL seasons injured, Clowney showed some durability in 2016-17. He might never shake that “injury-prone” label, but the Texans can’t let that stop them from signing him to a long-term deal.
What does a new deal look like?
So how much money could Clowney actually sign for? It’s possible the Texans could make him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL.
The league's top two defensive contracts belong to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Von Miller. In March 2015, the Miami Dolphins signed Suh to a six-year, $114.375 million free-agent contract, including $59.955 million guaranteed, the most guaranteed money given to a non-quarterback. After the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, they signed the Super Bowl MVP Miller to a six-year, $114.1 million contract.
Because he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, Clowney will already get a significant raise in 2018 after the Texans picked up his fifth-year option. Clowney made $7 million in 2017, and in 2018 he is scheduled to make $13.846 million. Clowney likely will want, and get, another big raise from his 2018 salary, which means he could become the first defensive player to earn $20 million annually.
There are two other 2014 draft picks to compare Clowney to: defensive tackle Aaron Donald and defensive end Khalil Mack. If either player signs a new contract before the Texans sign Clowney, that could affect what that year's top pick will get. Although Clowney has played in fewer games because of his injuries -- and sacks aren’t everything -- his stats don’t stack up to either player.
Mack, after establishing himself as one of the NFL's elite pass-rushers, is also looking for a new contract from the Raiders this offseason. Clowney has 20 sacks, 158 tackles, 48 tackles for a loss and 4 forced fumbles in 47 games over four seasons. Mack, picked No. 5 in 2014, has played in all 64 regular-season games and has 303 tackles and 40.5 sacks. Donald, taken 13th, has played in 62 games and has 204 tackles and 39 sacks.
Neither player has signed an extension yet, although Donald held out for a new contract last offseason and into training camp. While the Texans are trying to get a long-term deal done, they could also let Clowney play out the 2018 season and then put the franchise tag on him for 2019, when he would make in the neighborhood of $18 million.
Can Texans afford Clowney and Watt?
One difference between Clowney's situation and Suh's and Miller's is that the Texans already have a superstar defensive lineman with a massive contract in Watt.
In 2014, Houston gave the three-time Defensive Player of the Year a six-year contract worth $100 million and $30.88 million guaranteed. They are paying Watt $15 million over each of the next two seasons, then $15.5 million in 2020 and $17 million in 2021.
Houston has a lot of cap space this offseason and the luxury of not having a massive quarterback contract on its books. Now is the perfect time to lock up Clowney before they have to pay Deshaun Watson down the road.
Houston has the money to fit both defensive stars, but with significant needs on both sides of the ball, it will be a long-term challenge for the Texans to potentially spend a combined $35 million on two players on their defensive line. Clowney will get paid because he's an elite defensive talent, but how the Texans handle that contract and make it work will be interesting.
Right now, two other teams are paying multiple defensive linemen a similar amount to what the Texans would have to pay Clowney and Watt if the former were to sign a new deal. In 2018, the New York Giants will pay Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon a combined $34.5 million, while the Jacksonville Jaguars will pay three players -- Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell -- a combined $43.175 million, about $14.39 million per player.
The Jaguars can invest more than $58.8 million in their defensive line because, as of now, they have spent less than that on their entire offense. Similarly, the Giants balance out the high price tag for Pierre-Paul and Vernon by paying less than $2 million more for the rest of the defensive line and paying just $3.8 million at linebacker.
Houston obviously hopes Watt can contribute -- and stay healthy -- next season and beyond, but if it gets to the point he cannot perform at the $15 million level, there is an out in his contract.
There’s no evidence the Texans would cut Watt, who is one of the most beloved players in the NFL and the face of the Houston franchise. But after the 2018 season, the 28-year-old has just $2 million guaranteed left on his contract.
“You have to start planning for the future,” Bowen said. "In Clowney, you’re planning for your future. Watt is coming off another injury and you don’t know where his game is going to be and you don’t know the longevity of his career path. But you do with Clowney. You have the injury early in his career but look at the number of games he’s played. He’s been pretty consistent the last couple of seasons. “That’s the type of guy you want to invest in.”