Jadeveon Clowney was never going to hit free agency this offseason. The Houston Texans have gotten far too much production from him during his last three Pro Bowl-caliber seasons to let that happen. The team was always going to apply the franchise tag to Clowney rather than let him hit the open market. Any club that wants to sign a non-exclusive franchise player like Clowney has to surrender two future first-round draft picks to the team that tagged him—a price so high it effectively locks down that player for his original team. The Texans’ only obligation in applying the tag is to pay Clowney at least the average of what the five highest-paid players at his position earned during the past five seasons.
Adding to Clowney’s unhappiness with receiving a one-year franchise contract instead of a long-term deal are the shenanigans that the Texans pulled in the process. The team tagged him as a linebacker—a position he played for just 33 of his 863 snaps last season—rather than as a defensive end, where he lines up the vast majority of the time.
Calling Clowney a linebacker means that next season the Texans can pay him the average of the top-paid players at that position ($15.43 million) instead of what he’d earn if rightfully claimed as a defensive end ($17.128 million). That’s $1.672 million the Texans save by employing a procedural trick against one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL. Clowney is reportedly threatening to sit out training camp in response, and the NFL Players Association is filing a grievance on his behalf.
Clowney isn’t the first player to challenge his franchise tag, but his case is by far the most egregious. Former Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs was in a similar situation in 2008, but he had to resort to a snap-by-snap breakdown to prove he had played more than 50% of his time at defensive end. The Ravens eventually agreed to split the difference between the differing positional salaries. Accepting a solution like that makes far less sense for Clowney, who spends less than 4% of his time at the position the Texans are claiming. They might as well say he’s a punter.
The situation has likely strained the relationship between Clowney and the Texans, who’ve had a bizarre offseason. The team fired their general manager in early June—months later in the offseason than most teams would make such a move—and then decided they won’t hire a new one until after the 2019 season. These decisions add to the uncertainty surrounding Clowney’s future.
The single-season guarantee of a franchise tag is unpopular among players in a game where every snap of the ball could bring a career-ending injury. Players much prefer the security of a long-term contract. Last fall, Pittsburgh Steelers star Le’Veon Bell opted to sit out the entire 2018 season rather than accept the one-year deal. The team allowed him to enter free agency this spring, and he signed a contract with the New York Jets that could be worth up to $61 million over four years, but which more importantly guarantees him $35 million, more than double what he’d have been assure of earning under the Steelers franchise tag.
Clowney hasn’t indicated that he intends to follow Bell’s lead, but he can comfortably sit out training camp while the players’ union grievance is mediated. He has options besides skipping the season. He could attempt to force a trade—sports blog The Big Lead speculated on teams that might provide a landing spot for the star, while Texans blog Battle Red ran a headline that declared “apparently the Texans don’t want Jadeveon Clowney”—or he might just wait until the day before the Texans’ first game to sign his franchise tender without missing a paycheck.
Clowney’s situation has arisen at an interesting time for the NFL and its relationship with its players. The league’s collective bargaining agreement runs out after the 2020 season. With broadcast and streaming rights set to expire over the next few years, there’s some urgency to cutting a deal soon. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last weekend that it’s “certainly our intent” to sign a new CBA before the coming season. The NFLPA has the franchise tag in its sights as a target for removal in any new deal, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the players approve a large enough concession to make that happen—though perhaps teams could be officially barred from tagging players at anything other than their primary positions or the compensation teams receive if another organization signs a tagged player might be reduced.
And Clowney isn’t the only NFL star in Texas to threaten a holdout over circumstance that could be renegotiated in the next CBA. The Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s reigning rushing leader, has reportedly told friends that he’s planning to sit out training camp in pursuit of a new contract. He’s currently playing under the fourth year of his rookie deal, and he’d like to be paid like the star he is, rather than the unproven prospect he was.
Unlike Clowney, Elliott doesn’t have a strong case that he’s being done dirty. But with two more years as a Cowboy ahead of him—where he’s been the most heavily-used running back in the NFL—he’d like to get paid now, rather than later.
It makes sense, from Elliott’s point of view. The last Cowboys star RB used that heavily was DeMarco Murray, who got more than four hundred touches during his last season in Dallas—a number that usually indicates a player’s being worn down to his nubs—and who subsequently went from an MVP-caliber star to an afterthought. Elliott touched the ball 381 times during the 2018 regular season and also had more than twenty carries in each of the team’s two playoff games. Two more years of that heavy a workload could run Elliott into the ground the way that it did Murray, leaving him to enter free agency with a fraction of his current market value.
Dallas has a lot of players it needs to pay—quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper among the highest-profile—and a new deal for Elliott might be tough for the team to swing. Suggesting the possibility of a holdout is a good way for him to let the team know that the list of players awaiting a new deal is one prominent name longer than they might have thought.
Elliott won’t hold out of games—he hasn’t made enough money in his career to skip those checks—but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the five-year option in rookie deals for first-round draft picks (like Elliott) on the chopping block in the next collective bargaining agreement. It’s been a slow offseason for the NFL, but even now, there’s still a lot to talk about.