It’s gotten a little too quiet for the Indianapolis Colts all of the sudden in free agency.
After two major moves recently saw general manager Chris Ballard bring in All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and 8x Pro Bowler Philip Rivers, the Colts are still sitting on a projected $28 million of total salary cap space—having just released veteran starting cornerback Pierre Desir and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer this past weekend.
The biggest remaining fish, Seattle Seahawks’ pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, is still out there amidst the stormy sea—and it’s highly possible the Colts are monitoring his market in murky waters—hunting for free agency’s last ‘white whale’. (*Note to reader: For a fun fact, whales are actually marine mammals.)
Nevertheless, get the harpoon guns ready just in case, Colts fans.
The sticking point for Clowney right now is not that he isn’t considered a really good player by potential suitors, but because he wants too much money—reportedly at one point asking for $20 million per year and having just turned down a $17 million annual deal from the Miami Dolphins.
That, coupled with some lingering durability concerns—as Clowney has only played a full 16 games once in his career, as well as a lack of sack output—having never reached double-digit sacks in a season—has meant that Clowney is currently treading water in free agency, buying his time—and not taking the early bait.
Now, the Colts have to be smart with any future major moves, as the team still has to consider re-signing its young core players such as Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, and Ryan Kelly to lucrative multi-year deals here shortly.
That being said, the Colts could get as much as $46.375 million coming off the books from their two highly priced quarterbacks, Rivers and backup Jacoby Brissett next offseason (and another $10.4 million from Andrew Luck and Brian Hoyer’s dead money cap hits as well). Not to mention, the salary cap will only increase each year too.
With the Colts currently in ‘win now mode’ with this offseason’s already big acquisitions—which doesn’t necessarily mean jeopardizing the long-term future, Clowney could make quite a deal of sense for Indianapolis if it’s on a short-term deal—something that he may reportedly be open to.
If it was say a 1 to 2-year deal, making $18-20 million per year, the Colts should be heavily interested. Here’s why:
The Colts may be moving on from 30 year old starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard—who started 12 games for Indianapolis last year and remains a free agent.
However, it doesn’t mean that the Colts won’t miss the veteran’s run-stopping ability, pass rushing push, and overall versatility along their defensive line.
Enter Clowney stage left.
At this point of his career, the 27 year old defensive end may be more highly regarded for his ability to defend the run than his overall pass rushing prowess—and that’s okay.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Clowney received a +87.3 grade overall which was the 12th best among all ‘edge’ defenders—including a +80.8 run defense grade (also 12th best at his respective position).
He was PFF’s 2nd best edge defender against the run just a season earlier in 2018 and has been stout against the run throughout his entire career:
At the same time, both are speed pass rushers, who aren’t as strong against the run as Clowney—and could benefit from keeping their legs fresh purely for pass rushing purposes (similar to what the Colts eventually did with defensive end Josh Thomas and former franchise great Dwight Freeney back in the day—having Thomas play purely on run downs to save Freeney’s fuel for what he did best).
Now, Clowney is too good of an overall player to limit solely to a “two-down run stuffer”, but he does immediately upgrade the Colts defensive line on obvious running downs—much like Sheard did in similar situations.
Outside of Clowney’s superior talent and athleticism, the main difference between Sheard and Clowney is that Sheard—at 6’3”, 268 pounds has more bulk than Clowney (6’5”, 255 pounds)—which has allowed Sheard to kick inside to defensive tackle on passing downs.
It’s unclear if Clowney would be nearly as effective in such a versatile role—although he’s much stronger than his actual listed size indicates.
For what it’s worth, it looks like Clowney has had prior success pass rushing from the inside—albeit sometimes standing up:
Jadeveon Clowney is an elite run defender, but he’s not a spectacular pass-rusher.
Seattle can maximize his value by deploying him at edge defender on early downs and moving him around on passing downs to give him favorable matchups; he THRIVED in this role with Houston. pic.twitter.com/LW6lS7Fm61
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) August 31, 2019
2. Clowney is a Better Pass Rusher than He Gets Credit For
Yes, Clowney has never had a double-digit sack season and is coming off just a 3.0 sack year for the Seattle Seahawks in 2019—but that doesn’t paint the entire picture of his overall effectiveness in actually getting after the opposing quarterback.
(For what it’s worth, he did come awfully close with 9.5 sacks, a career high in 2017).
Per Pro Football Focus, Clowney received their 17th highest pass rushing grade (+79.1), which was three spots behind Chicago Bears’ All-Pro Khalil Mack and two spots ahead of another All-Pro, the Dallas Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence for perspective.
Clowney has not lived up to his enormous pass rushing hype coming out of South Carolina as the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft (as a defensive monster), but to say he isn’t an impact pass rusher at the professional level is simply untrue:
Sitting on $27.9M of cap space, it’s been quiet for the #Colts as of late in free agency.
Is another big move imminent?
Some more Jadeveon Clowney food for thought (*on a short-team deal): pic.twitter.com/cQq4jUzFy4
— Luke Schultheis (@LuckAtLuke) March 25, 2020
Below, in 2019, Clowney won around 25% of his pass rushes, and that was despite being double teamed at one of the league’s highest rates (~26%) in the entire league among all edge defenders:
Double team rate as an edge (x) by pass rush win rate as an edge (y) for the 2019 regular season.
PRWR = rate pass rusher beats blocker in 2.5 seconds.
ESPN metrics, NFL Next Gen Stats data. pic.twitter.com/zJagMBty3Y
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 30, 2019
If Clowney were to be signed by the Colts and consistently double-teamed as a pass rusher, it could mean that veteran Justin Houston and emerging pass rusher Kemoko Turay would be facing more one-on-one blocking off the edge—as well as All-Pro Deforest Buckner potentially in the interior—which would provide improved overall quarterback pressure.
If no double teams consistently come Clowney’s way, he could be that much more effective in his win rate all together and ultimately, getting after the quarterback:
There’s an old football cliche that a team “can never have enough impact pass rushers”.
In today’s passing league—where pass rushers are always held at a premium, that couldn’t be any more true.
The Colts have two impact pass rushers already, former Pro Bowler Justin Houston and emerging young pass rusher Kemoko Turay—with last year’s second round pick, Ben Banogu, continuing to develop and show flashes.
However, Houston just turned 31 years old with a lot of football mileage—and has battled injuries during recent seasons, while Turay is coming off a season-ending broken ankle surgery—meaning the Colts may be wise to be a little careful with both in 2020.
As Colts fans saw last year, losing one of their top pass rushers—like when they lost Turay for the year after Week 5 can mean an inconsistent outside pass rush the rest of the way.
In that regard, Clowney can not only keep the Colts other pass rushers’ legs fresh throughout the course of a game—constantly rotating in and out, so everyone’s tank is near full, but also as a veteran insurance policy—should they lose someone to a significant injury:
More Ballard: “One of the things we really sold him on was we want to be able to play eight guys (on the DL). You would hope when you get it right, the most anybody is playing is 60, 65 percent (of snaps). That way you’re getting a rotation where they’re not wearing down.”
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) March 27, 2019
The Colts could have three impact pass rushers: Clowney, Houston, and Turay always rotating—with one mission, getting after the quarterback at all costs, and potentially even three impact interior pass rushers: Clowney, Buckner, and Denico Autry—if Clowney can prove successful in kicking inside on obvious passing downs.
If the team could also add Clowney to the mix—along with Buckner, Houston, and Turay, they would have one of the most dominant defensive lines in all of football. (As well as a stingy front seven, with All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard making plays right behind them).
Much like their offensive line has given the team a true identity on offense, a Buckner-Clowney offseason pairing would help transform the Colts defense in a similar fashion—much like Quenton Nelson and Braden Smiths’ arrival did offensively in 2018.
Simply put, Clowney’s a really good all-around football edge, who could immediately upgrade the Colts along their defensive line—and in a big way:
I think one of the things we’ve lost in the “What position does he play?” convo in Houston (fair) and the “He’s riding the No. 1 OVR pick wave” convo (also fair) and the “He’s a better run defender than pass rusher” convo (still fair) is that Clowney is still a really good player https://t.co/UuSArnaJpn
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) March 25, 2020
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has consistently preached winning in the trenches since his arrival to Indianapolis in 2017 as well.
As such, it’s time for the Colts to take advantage of this rare opportunity in the open market and capitalize quickly on a complete, special talent like Clowney—and not let free agency’s last ‘white whale’ get away ahead of a 2020 season where they could seriously contend for a Super Bowl.