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The Seahawks are making a worthwhile bet by trading for Jadeveon Clowney

It’s a high-priced roll of the dice for the Seahawks, but it’s clear they believe they’re contenders.

Houston Texans v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The Texans were hesitant to commit to former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The Seahawks appear ready to make that gamble, although they’ll have to wait.

The Houston pass rusher was traded to Seattle on Saturday, bringing his tantalizing physical talent to the NFC West ... for one season, at least. The Seahawks won’t be allowed to extend Clowney’s contract beyond 2019 until after the season is officially over. That makes the trade — which cost the Seahawks a pick and two players — a risk.

Clowney received the franchise tag from the Texans in March, giving the team until the middle of July to negotiate a long-term deal with the pass rusher. No contract got done and Clowney chose not to sign his franchise tender. Instead, he sat out all of training camp and preseason.

To facilitate the trade, Clowney will have to sign the tender, guaranteeing him $15.967 million for one season with the Seahawks (who are only on the hook for $8 million of that). But it also leaves a very real possibility that Clowney leaves Seattle as a free agent next spring.

That’s not all. He also brings a history of injury concerns and good, but not great, output over the course of five seasons in the NFL. Clowney hasn’t quite lived up to the standard that made him the top overall pick of the 2014 Draft.

But with 18.5 sacks in his last two seasons it’s a good roll of the dice for the Seahawks.

The Seahawks are swinging for the fences

It’s possible that Clowney could turn down contract offers from the Seahawks early next year and instead hit the market as a free agent. It’s also possible that he could disappoint and Seattle would be just fine letting him walk.

If he leaves, the Seahawks will have tossed aside nearly $8 million, a third-round pick, and two players for a one-year rental. His departure in free agency would likely net Seattle a compensatory pick in 2021.

Still, the Dolphins’ reported pursuit of Clowney was puzzling. It’s a risk that only truly makes sense for a team that thinks it can win a Super Bowl right now. The Seahawks are that team.

Seattle was supposed to be in a rebuild last year. The defense lost Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor, forcing it to start over and rely on Russell Wilson’s brilliance more than ever. Despite that roster turnover, the Seahawks won six of their last seven regular season games to make the playoffs as a wild card team.

Now, the Seahawks defense is retooled and reloaded. Earlier in the offseason, Seattle signed former Lions pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah to its defensive line. He’ll be paired with Clowney on a defense that has the best middle linebacker in the NFL in Bobby Wagner.

The Seahawks traded away Frank Clark to the Chiefs, but get Clowney for much less.

It also helps that Clowney reportedly wants to be in Seattle. That mitigates the risk that the pass rusher is just going to be around for one season. He pushed back against the possibility of a trade to the Dolphins, but Tom Pelissero of NFL Network says Clowney made it clear that he wanted to join the Seahawks.

The biggest question is whether Clowney will produce at the level he’s capable of.

Has Clowney hit his ceiling?

Clowney is five years in to an NFL career, the last three of which he’s played at a high level. The former South Carolina star put an injury-riddled start in his rear view to start 44 games since 2016. Over that span, his Texan defense ranked first in points allowed in 2016 and fourth in defensive efficiency in 2018, making the postseason in each of those years.

But was Clowney a driving force in that success, or just a cog in a machine that was bigger than him?

The newly minted Seahawk was part of a swarming pass rush that featured J.J. Watt in the middle of the line and linebackers like Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney flanking him. While Clowney was an important part of that equation, he wasn’t the engine that drove it. That would be Watt, without whom the Houston defense performed much worse than it did without Clowney:

Texans defensive ranks, the Clowney years

Year Watt games Clowney games Points allowed rank Yards/play allowed rank
Year Watt games Clowney games Points allowed rank Yards/play allowed rank
2014 16 4 7 6
2015 16 13 7 5
2016 3 14 11 3
2017 5 16 32 29
2018 16 15 4 12

There’s some explanation needed here, as that 2017 season featured an often-gassed defense in a lost season that saw quarterback Deshaun Watson end his rookie campaign after only six starts. The team wasn’t airtight even with Watt playing at an All-Pro level in 2018, but there’s a noticeable difference in Houston’s performance with its star defensive lineman on and off the field compared to how the team did with and without Clowney.

Clowney wasn’t indispensable, but he was still very good. The linebacker/defensive end’s continued growth saw him level up his run-stuffing game as Houston held opponents to only 3.6 yards per carry — second -owest in the league. He’s a constant presence in the opposing backfields, making 53 tackles for loss and adding 59 QB hits over the past three seasons.

That added proficiency against the run was made possible, in part, by a budding ability to shed blockers and duck inside. While he does the majority of his damage on the edge, Clowney’s best performances have been the ones where he’s able to keep tackles on roller skates by blasting through the edge of the pocket one play, then swim inside to either bum rush a backpedaling guard or slide through a narrow gap on the interior of the line. This versatility allows him to line up in several different positions and make a difference from each one.

That’s first-team All-Pro Quenton Nelson he’s throwing backwards like a toddler in that sack, by the way. Clowney might not have had a highlight moment quite as epic as the time he nearly beheaded a Michigan running back, but he’s still the player who can do that. And that ability to blow up plays works wonders for his teammates.

Is that a product of his potent blend of speed and power, or did he thrive because the Texans were loaded with threats? Any extended time spent double-teaming Clowney meant allowing Watt, McKinney, or Mercilus extra opportunities to breach the trenches.

That will dial up the pressure considerably for a player who has been very good and is now expected to be one of the best players in the league. Clowney has the chops to live up to that standard; it’s not like he hasn’t completely embarrassed good offensive lines who’ve attempted to double-team him in the past:

Where do the Texans go from here?

Houston boasted one of the league’s most powerful defenses the past five seasons thanks, in part, to Clowney’s presence. But that ability to swarm opponents resulted in a single postseason win against a Raiders team that started Connor Cook at quarterback.

Clearly, something needed to change.

Shipping out Clowney flips an asset for whom the Texans were unwilling to commit a major chunk of long-term cap space. The third-round pick is a disappointing but unsurprising haul for a player who was likely to leave anyway. The players acquired by the Texans are confusing, though.

Deshaun Watson was sacked an NFL-most 62 times in 2018. The Texans addressed the situation by drafting Tytus Howard and Max Scharping with two of their first three picks. Still, relying on rookies from Alabama State and Northern Illinois to fix things is a stretch. The presumption was that Clowney could be moved in exchange for an offensive lineman.

On the other hand, it may also be a stretch to believe a Seahawks castoff will fix things up front. Either way, the Texans needed to upgrade their offensive line and this represented a chance to try. Although they did it later in the day by trading for Laremy Tunsil, that was another costly deal for the Texans. The Clowney trade was an opportunity that wasn’t taken and two linebackers — each of whom were backups in Seattle — were acquired instead.

The clear winner of the trade is Seattle, who made it very clear that it expects to be a contender.

Clowney has the chops to make an average defense good and a bad defense presentable. Even if he’s hasn’t been the season-long trajectory changer J.J. Watt is, well, only three or four defensive players actually are.