We’ve seen rumblings that the Titans have been interested in Jadeveon Clowney for weeks, but Paul Kuharsky’s report last night was the first time that we’ve heard anyone with connections to the team confirming their interest.
Yes, Jon Robinson mentioned last week that he had been in contact with Clowney’s agent and Mike Vrabel talked relatively expansively about his former pupil — something that seemed odd at the time from the usually tight-lipped coach — but Robinson talking to agents and checking prices is normal GM behavior this time of year. Now we know, with certainty, that the Titans are in the chase for the NFL’s top remaining free agent.
That news combined with reports from credible sources that the Seahawks could, in fact, be moving on from their pursuit of the talented edge defender make Clowney-to-Tennessee more plausible than ever. So let’s look at the reasons why this makes so much sense from both sides and why waiting until after the draft to make it official helps the Titans.
Why Clowney would want to come to Tennessee
What do we know about what Clowney wants out of free agency? When asked about his plans after Seattle’s season ending playoff loss to the Packers, he emphasized the fact that he wanted to play for a contender first and foremost.
“I just want to win. I’m trying to get to the Super Bowl by any means. That’s what I’m looking for: Who’s going to get me there? I ain’t looking to get on no sorry team for no money. That ain’t going to fly. I ain’t gonna put my body through all of that just to lose no 16 games, go home with my check. I’d hate that, so that ain’t what I’m doing. So if I can’t win no Super Bowl, I ain’t going to no team that can’t win.”
The Seahawks certainly qualified as a contender given their championship pedigree and a bonafide star quarterback in his prime in Russell Wilson, but if they’re out of the picture as the article linked above suggested, then the Titans stand out as the most credible contender of the remaining suitors. The Jets, Colts, and Browns are other teams that have been linked to Clowney and all three of those squads finished the season with losing records last year.
Out of those three, the Titans clearly would seem to be the most “playoff ready” coming off a run to the AFC Championship and four straight winning seasons. The Browns still have some talent — and joining forces with Myles Garrett could certainly be intriguing — but it’s been over 25 years since that franchise has even won a playoff game and Baker Mayfield’s sophomore season left more questions than answers.
The other thing we know that Clowney wants is money... and lot’s of it. Reports have been consistent all offseason that he was looking for a deal worth $20 million per year on average and that teams have been unwilling to go to that number given his history of injuries, the most recent of which required surgery to repair at the beginning of the offseason.
If you’re looking at the list of potential landing spots, the Titans don’t have the most money available, but they do have enough to be competitive. Cleveland leads the league with $40.7 million in space according to Spotrac, while the Colts ($25.2 million), Titans ($21.6 million), and Jets ($17.0 million) check in at 6th, 9th, and 13th, respectively, in terms of available cap remaining for the 2020 season. The Seahawks, after their latest moves, are now sitting at $12.3 million, though they could potentially create more room if they needed to.
The Titans can create more room as well, if necessary. Restructures for big contracts like Taylor Lewan and Malcolm Butler could create several million in extra dollars under the 2020 cap in exchange for guaranteeing more of the money left on their current contracts. An extension for DaQuan Jones, whose current deal expires next offseason, would also potentially free up some space in the short term.
It seems highly unlikely that Clowney will end up getting the $20 million that he was looking for, but where his ultimate price tag settles will be interesting, as will the number of years that both he and his eventual team decide to commit to. There is some logic on both sides to making his deal a one year “prove it” contract that gives the team a quick out if his injury issues pop up again and gives Clowney a chance to show his worth and hit the market again in a 2021 offseason that might see a $40 million jump in the salary cap.
Besides money and playing for a contender, Clowney’s fit with the Titans makes a lot of sense on a personal level. His relationship with Mike Vrabel is widely known to be a good one and he had his best season as a pro during Vrabel’s season as Texans defensive coordinator in 2017 when he moved Clowney around like the defensive chess piece he was built to be.
Beyond Vrabel, Clowney has also worked with the man who would be his primary position coach in Tennessee, Shane Bowen, who was a defensive assistant under Vrabel in Houston during Clowney’s time there and Titans assistant strength and conditioning coach Brian Bell, who served in the same capacity for the Texans from 2015 to 2017 before following Vrabel to Tennessee. Those two coaches would have a lot of interaction with Clowney on a day to day basis and that would seemingly be a big advantage for the Titans over other staffs.
Clowney’s best season — 9.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 21 QB hits, and 64 total pressures — came with Vrabel as his defensive coordinator. No NFL coach has a better understanding of what he is as a football player and how to use him.
The Titans offer Clowney the chance to stick it to Bill O’Brien twice a year after he traded him for cents on the dollar following the 2018 season and a chance to play closer to his home state of South Carolina. That may or may not matter to him, but it seems like those are at least minor perks.
Why the Titans would want Clowney
There is little doubt that pass rush was near the top of the team’s needs list coming into this offseason. Adding Vic Beasley and bringing back Kamalei Correa in free agency has helped provide at least a little more juice to the Titans front, but that’s largely offset by the loss of Jurrell Casey.
It seems clear at this point that the Titans are not interested in a “like for like” replacement for Casey. They see Jeffery Simmons as the guy who will be taking over the 3-technique spot in the defensive line and he is likely to inherit Casey’s snaps as an interior pass rusher in third down situations too. Instead, they appear to be intent on redistributing their resources that were invested in Casey to other positions.
Clowney would likely be labeled as an outside linebacker in the Titans base defense, but he’s really a movable chess piece in the defensive front that can line up inside or outside depending on the down and distance. Tennessee would be able to create a formidable edge rush rotation featuring Clowney, Harold Landry, Vic Beasley, and Kamalei Correa that would offer a variety of skill sets and give Mike Vrabel the opportunity to mix things up on passing downs to create mismatches.
A four man pass rush front of Landry, Simmons, Clowney, and Beasley on third downs would be a look that would keep offensive line coaches up at night. If you wanted to take that to an even more ridiculous level of athleticism, imagine Landry, Clowney, Beasley, and Rashaan Evans rushing together.
Clowney’s pass rushing chops are often criticized as a drawback to paying him big money. He’s never reached double digit sacks and is coming off a year where he got to the quarterback just three times. However, advanced stats have always viewed his impact as greater than his counting stats would indicate. In 2019, he earned the 7th highest pass rush win rate in the league according to ESPN despite being double teamed on close to 24% of pass rush snaps.
Double team rate as an edge rusher (x) by pass rush win rate as an edge rusher (y) in 2019 for players who were in the last season of their contract.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) March 6, 2020
Lower qualifying threshold than usual to get a few more players in. pic.twitter.com/xH1SZc72CM
Even if you don’t believe Clowney is going to be able to record a high number of sacks for himself, his presence alone should open up more one-on-one opportunities for Landry, Beasley, and Simmons.
There is also the injury objection that gets brought up with him and that’s a valid concern. He had microfracture knee surgery in 2014 and is coming of a year that was marred by a sports hernia that required surgery to repair after the season. In his six NFL seasons, he’s played 16 games just once and has missed a total of 21 potential regular season games.
However, the injuries can be overstated at times. In the past three years, he’s missed a total of four regular season games. That’s exactly one more game than Jurrell Casey missed over that same span and we never heard anyone calling Casey injury prone.
It’s also worth noting that Clowney’s only full 16 game season just happened to coincide with Vrabel’s year as defensive coordinator in Houston. Vrabel’s reputation as a coach who puts a high premium on the health of his team may be a good fit for a guy who has been banged up at times over the course of his career.
Clowney’s relationship with Vrabel is a bonus for both sides. Whether you consider it a positive or a negative, Vrabel has shown time and time again that trust matters to him. Almost every hire on his coaching staff this offseason has had some connection to his past. He’s seen their work first hand. It would stand to reason that his relationship with Clowney would make him a more attractive option than a free agent that he had not previously coached.
Given the fact that COVID-19 is set to likely eliminate all OTAs and potentially shorten training camp this summer, Clowney’s knowledge of the Titans defensive scheme is a major plus as well. Vrabel has spoken frequently about “our system” when referring to the defense that he ran in Houston, making it clear that he views the Titans current defense to be essentially the same scheme. His comments after hiring former Texans secondary coach Anthony Midget earlier this offseason made that clear.
“I would say he has a vast knowledge of the system and the secondary guys are going to be in good hands going into their third year in the system, Midge having coached it for four or five years in Houston.”
In an offseason that will make getting new players up to speed increasingly difficult, having familiarity with Clowney absolutely makes him more valuable to the Titans than most of the suitors (outside of Seattle of course).
Putting Clowney in a rotation at edge with other quality players would also reduce the snap load on both him specifically and his new teammates. I don’t think anyone would tell you that Harold Landry playing 86% of defensive snaps last year was a good thing for his production late in the year. Keeping Clowney, Landry, and Beasley fresh throughout the season could maximize the snap by snap effectiveness of all three.
Ultimately, the reason the Titans should want Clowney is relatively simple. He’s the only remaining free agent that can take over a game. We saw him do it last year against the 49ers on Monday Night Football. No, he’s not a 16-game wrecker like Aaron Donald or J.J. Watt in his prime, but he can be a one game wrecker and the list of guys who can dominate like that — even just in spurts — at the NFL level is shorter than you might think.
Set the money aside for a second. Does Clowney make the Titans a better football team in 2020? The answer is undoubtedly, yes.
Why the Titans would benefit from waiting until April 27th (or later) to make his signing official
Being patient has been difficult as a Titans fan this offseason. The Casey trade made it feel as if a corresponding big move — like signing Clowney — was imminent, but over three weeks have passed without anything more substantial than depth moves from the team.
However, a little more patience might be required for those hoping that this signing comes to pass. The new CBA establishes the 4:00 PM Eastern Time on the Monday after the draft (April 27th this year) as the cut off for free agent signings counting for or against calculations for 2021 compensatory picks.
Given the fact that Clowney is almost certain to end up earning something close to $15 million or more per year on his contract, signing him before that cut off date would almost certainly mean the Titans would “cancel out” the third round compensatory pick they are currently projected to receive from Jack Conklin signing with the Browns.
The team could agree to terms with Clowney before then, but with that cut off date just two and a half weeks away, it would be foolish for them to submit the deal to the league office until 4:01 PM Eastern Time on April 27th. That patience would add a top 100 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to Jon Robinson’s war chest which is no small prize for a little extra patience.
The other added benefit to waiting longer to make Clowney’s deal official is the potential that the NFL could lift the ban on team physicians seeing potential free agents for physicals that is currently in place due to COVID-19. Obviously, there is no guarantee that the ban will be lifted any time soon, but at some point it will be and having the Titans team doctors get a look at Clowney in person may make them more comfortable with the signing.