The answer's complex and a lot depends on the compensation involved. A report out there pegs the Falcons needing their 2014 first-round pick (No. 6 overall), their 2014 second-round pick (No. 37 overall) and their 2015 first-round pick.
More on that in a second. First the pros and cons of acquiring Clowney.
Optimists of the deal point to Thomas Dimitroff's success in making a previous move up the draft board for elite talent. Grabbing Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft cost Atlanta quite the bounty but you can reasonably make the case they won that trade. Would the Browns give up Brandon Weeden, Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Owen Marecic and a fourth-round pick straight-up for Jones right now? Yes, yes they absolutely would.
Jones didn't win the Super Bowl for Atlanta but he was leading the NFL in receiving yards per game in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending injury against the Jets. He's a game-changing, transcendent talent.
Clowney could be the same type of talent and he fits a position of need for Atlanta. Drafting for need is dumb unless the best player in the draft plays the same position. And, man, does Clowney check both boxes. He's the consensus top player and he gets after the passer like few players we've seen come out of college football. He single-handedly made it OK to use the word "freak" again during draft profiling. Atlanta was terrible rushing quarterbacks in 2013, finishing with just 32 sacks, 29th in the league.
See? Many reasons to love this potential move. But it's not all puppies and sunshine up in here.
Just like you can point out the Falcons won the deal for Julio, you can point out they also lost the Julio deal. How does that work? Well, the Falcons shouldn't get credit for the Browns being terrible at drafting football players. With the Taylor pick, Cleveland could've landed Cameron Jordan (drafted three picks later) or Muhammad Wilkerson (drafted nine picks later). With the Little pick, Cleveland could've gotten Randall Cobb (drafted five picks later).
We don't even need to go further: would Cleveland trade Mo Wilk and Cobb for Julio? No the Browns wouldn't, and they definitely wouldn't if they had to also throw in another first-round pick.
Atlanta suffered in 2013 because it lacked depth. Hitting on a group of players (admittedly easier in hindsight) with the picks the Falcons shipped to Cleveland would make them a much stronger and deeper team right now.
Back to Clowney. The question becomes whether Atlanta is "one player away." It's hard to fathom that it is, primarily because no team is a single player shy of constructing a perfect roster in today's NFL. There's a churn that comes with building a constant competitor and it involves successfully selecting cheap, quality players in the draft, retaining the right personnel and avoiding high-cost whiffs in free agency.
The Falcons had one of the worst six records in the league last year, so it's not like they were knocking on the door. There were lots of injuries last season and Atlanta should be luckier with those in 2014. Atlanta also played lots of young players last season, so its overall talent and depth should improve based on a year of experience.
Losing picks to land Clowney would sap that depth though. Let's take 2015's first-round pick off the table. If Dimitroff's giving up that to move up five spots it's too much and I suddenly hate the deal. (Unless the Texans and Falcons SWAP first-rounders next year in an awesome game of draft roulette. Now that would make 2014 interesting.) Personally I think giving up a second-round pick in 2014 would actually be an alright deal for both sides. Houston is only moving down five spots, they can still get a player they want and there's no added pressure on a quarterback they drafted in the top spot over Clowney.
But that might not be enough to actually pull it off. So let's give Houston three picks: Atlanta's No. 6 pick, Atlanta's second-round pick (No. 37 overall) and Atlanta's fourth-round pick (No. 103 overall).
We're also taking the hindsight approach and giving the Falcons better picks than the Browns took because, well, they're not the Browns. Sorry, Cleveland. (Also, Pete Prisco graded the Cameron pick higher than the Taylor pick and the Cobb pick higher than the Little pick at the time. It was just a Browns thing, y'all.) For the 2014 picks I used NFL Draft Scout's prospect rankings and picked in the pick range or below overall.
And, for the record, I love Julio Jones and supported the trade for him at the time.
|With Trades||Without Trades|
|Player||Position||Year||Pick No.||Player||Position||Year||Pick No.|
|Julio Jones||WR||2011||6||Cameron Jordan||DL||2011||21|
|Jadeveon Clowney||DE||2013||1||Randall Cobb||WR||2011||59|
|Kyle Van Noy||OLB||2014||37|
So which set of players would you prefer?
No doubt the left side is a lot "sexier" in the sense of how good Jones and Clowney are/can be. But that right side has the makings of, I think, pushing the Falcons a lot closer to being a Super Bowl contender than the left side.
Suddenly the offensive line -- perhaps Atlanta's biggest problem in 2013 -- has a ton of depth and looks like a strength.
You can manipulate this some too: give the Falcons Whitney Mercilus (drafted by the Texans, ironically enough) instead of David DeCastro and Jace Amaro (a Tony Gonzalez replacement of sorts) instead of Van Noy.
It's easier to wiggle around because we're talking hypotheticals, but it's also easier because we're talking more players. It's critical to obtain elite talent in the NFL. But "stars and scrubs" rosters will struggle; ask the Detroit Lions, a team loaded with top-heavy contracts from the old CBA, how that works out.
It gets even murkier if you start talking about more compensation for the Texans. Would they really take just two extra picks to move out of the top spot? There doesn't appear to be a bananas market for Clowney, at least like there was for Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012. No surprise there. Moving out of the top spot would mean reducing pressure on a potential quarterback pick for the Texans. Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater wouldn't be compared in perpetuity to Clowney's production.
Atlanta's 2015 first-round pick is probably -- definitely? -- on the table as well. If a team's in win-now mode and needs to bounce back from a bad season, nothing's more popular than mortgaging the future.
For all we know, the Texans may be fine sticking with Clowney unless they get a bounty of picks. And maybe the Falcons prefer moving their first-round pick (an unknown number at this point obviously) instead of giving up the 37th best player in a stacked draft while trying to win now.
There's no question, at least in my mind, that Clowney is "worth" the top pick. He's the best player in this draft and he could single-handedly change a defense. He will absolutely change the way offenses plan for defenses.
But it's not as easy as debating whether Clowney is worth the top pick in the case of the Falcons. There are complex layers of football economics built into the debate. Acquiring elite talent at the top of the NFL Draft sounds like a smart plan, but it comes at a cost.
If the Falcons decide to be bold for the second time in the last three years, we may find out just how much.