That’s the CliffsNotes version of a bizarre situation that has left one of the NFL’s top edge players unsigned more than a week into free agency. And it has left the Seahawks in a waiting game with by far the most impactful player along a defensive line that otherwise struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2019.
While he has been waiting on Clowney, general manager John Schneider has taken his typically active approach in free agency, with nine signings as of Tuesday plus a trade for cornerback Quinton Dunbar. The biggest item on the Seahawks’ to-do list was and still is fixing a pass rush that generated only 28 sacks in the regular season, tied for second fewest in the league. To that end, Schneider re-signed Jarran Reed (two years, $23 million) and made an addition to Seattle’s defensive line with Bruce Irvin.
The Seahawks are betting that Reed can regain his form from 2018, when he broke out with 10.5 sacks — tied for the fourth most among defensive tackles — before a down season in 2019 that began with a six-game suspension. The 32-year-old Irvin, the Seahawks’ first-round pick in 2012, is coming off a career-high 8.5 sacks in 13 games with Carolina.
The Seahawks’ returning edge rushers include Rasheem Green, Shaquem Griffin, Branden Jackson and 2019 first-round pick L.J. Collier. Quinton Jefferson‘s departure should help Collier assume a larger role in 2020.
Having a complementary pass-rusher as productive as Irvin last season would have taken some heat off Clowney. According to ESPN charting, he was double-teamed on 26.3% of his edge-rush snaps, the third-highest rate among qualifying defenders. Clowney was fifth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate at 24.8%, another stat indicative of how much more impactful he was than his three sacks suggest.
But apparently he wasn’t impactful enough to command the $20 million or more per season that ESPN sources have said he’s seeking. The Seahawks never seemed inclined to go that high for Clowney, and at this point it doesn’t look like anyone is.
That could be due to a combination of factors, one being the fact that Clowney — despite all the pressure he generates — has never reached double-digit sacks in any of his six seasons. His injury history could be another, especially with the NFL prohibiting teams from bringing in free agents for visits due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Any team that would want its own doctors to give Clowney a physical before writing him a giant check is unable to do so right now.
Consider the situation from Clowney’s perspective. He was the No. 1 recruit in the country coming out of high school, got drafted first overall, then had to wait six seasons before reaching free agency, which is two years longer than most players. If he’s having a difficult time accepting the reality that his market isn’t as strong as he expected it to be, you can understand why.
The Seahawks know how Clowney fits into their defense and locker room. They know his willingness to play through pain like he did over the second half of last season, as he dealt with a core-muscle injury that eventually required surgery. They don’t have the same familiarity with some of the pass-rushers who are still available on the free-agent market (though coach Pete Carroll does have ties to Clay Matthews and Everson Griffen from their days at USC).
As for the possibility of the Seahawks finding an immediate-impact pass-rusher in the draft, that’s way more feasible for teams picking early in the first round than late. The Seahawks, who own the 27th pick, got a reminder of that last year, when they got next to nothing out of Collier after taking him No. 29 overall.
Clowney isn’t the Seahawks’ only pass-rush option. But now that they don’t have to break the bank to keep him, he looks like their best one.
And so the wait continues.