And then there was one.
Six players, including Texans defensive end/outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, were designated as franchise players in early March. Clowney's franchise tag is for $15,967,200, which is 120 percent of his 2018 salary. All but Clowney have signed long term contracts. Two of the players, defensive ends Frank Clark and Dee Ford, received their deals in connection with trades to new teams.
The Texans and Clowney were unable to reach an agreement before the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts. By NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, the Texans are prohibited from signing Clowney long-term until after the 2019 regular season ends on December 29.
Clowney remains unsigned. He is trying to minimize the risk of a serious injury by missing training camp, which is something some other unsigned franchise players have done in the past (Le'Veon Bell, Eric Berry, Dwayne Bowe, Jairus Byrd, etc.). Since Clowney isn't under contract, the Texans can't fine him $40,000 for each day of camp he misses. Clowney has been tentatively planning on returning to the Texans shortly after their third preseason game versus the Cowboys on August 24 according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. Texans head coach Bill O'Brien couldn't give a timeframe when asked last week about Clowney coming back.
Clowney reportedly filed a grievance through the NFLPA to be classified as a defensive end instead of a linebacker once getting a long-term contract this season was no longer permissible. The NFL Management Council listed Clowney as a linebacker when the Texans franchised him. There's a $1,170,800 difference between the $17.128 million defensive end designation and Clowney's current $15,967,200 tag number.
For tag purposes, a player's position is determined by where he participated in the most plays during the prior season. The Texans paid Clowney $1 million more than the $12.306 million fifth-year option price for linebackers selected in the top ten of the 2014 NFL Draft last year to resolve a dispute over his position designation.
What Clowney should be fighting over
Clowney should be making a clause that would prohibit the Texans from using a franchise or transition designation on him in 2020 (i.e.; a prohibition clause) more of a priority over increasing his 2019 pay through a grievance. He isn't restricted to just playing for his
franchise tender with the Texans now that the long term deal deadline has passed. Clowney is allowed to negotiate his one year salary and other conditions relating to his franchise player status.
It is customary for franchise players who don't get long term deals to play for the tender amount. The lone exception is Jason Pierre-Paul. The edge rusher signed an incentive laden one-year deal with the Giants in 2015 worth up to the prorated amount of his franchise tag after severely injuring his right hand during a Fourth of July fireworks accident that kept him from being physically cleared to play football until seven weeks into the season.
Obtaining a prohibition clause won't be easy. A few franchise players have been able to negotiate a provision preventing a franchise or transition designation for the following year.
It hasn't happened in over a decade though. A franchise player hasn't gotten this type of provision since 2008 when the Titans gave defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth a conditional prohibition clause. It was triggered by Haynesworth making the Pro Bowl, having at least 60 percent defensive playtime, or 53 percent defensive playtime and the Titans winning at least 10 games or ranking in the top five in total defense.
Conditional prohibition clauses were also agreed to by teams in 2007. Linebacker Lance Briggs' clause with the Bears required him to have at least 75% playtime on defense. Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel's provision was contingent on him having at least 60% playtime on defense or the Patriots winning at least 12 games. Offensive tackle Jeff Backus and cornerback Nate Clements received the last unconditional prohibition clauses in 2006 with the Lions and Bills respectively.
An inability for the Texans to restrict Clowney, who was named to the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive year in 2018, again would ensure him getting his true market value next year. On the open market, Clowney conceivably could command more than the five-year, $105 million contract averaging $21 million per year and containing $65 million in guarantees ($48 million fully guaranteed) the Cowboys gave defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence as a franchise player in April.
Clowney proposing to drop the grievance in exchange for the prohibition clause may make sense, especially if his camp and/or the Texans believe he has a pretty good chance of his challenge prevailing. It's never happened before but it would be interesting to know whether any franchise player places enough value on having a prohibition clause that he would take a one year salary that's slightly less than his franchise tender in order to get one.
Rumors of the Texans trading Clowney began gaining traction last week. A Clowney trade is easier said than done.
Several factors complicate a trade. Since players with unsigned tenders can't be traded until under contract, Clowney essentially has veto power on being dealt. The multi-year contract restriction also applies to any team acquiring Clowney in a trade.
The inability to sign Clowney long-term in conjunction with a trade should limit the draft choice compensation the Texans can get in return. Under ordinary circumstances, the Texans would likely able to get something between the second round pick the 49ers gave the Chiefs for Ford and the first round pick the Seahawks received from the Chiefs to get Clark.
If trade talks become serious, Clowney should make it abundantly clear he won't exercise his de facto no trade clause provided the one year contract he signs has language preventing him from being designated as a franchise or transition player in 2020. Insistence on this clause would be an additional complication.
A team must have enough salary cap room to absorb Clowney's current franchise tender of $15,967,200 in order to trade for him. Just over half of the NFL's 32 teams have enough cap space to fit in Clowney's franchise tender. Practically speaking, the number is less because of the change of salary cap accounting on September 5 when all players under contract start counting instead of the top 51 players. $2 million to $4 million of cap room is routinely lost with the change, which teams are already factoring into their cap management.
To make matters worse, the CBA also expressly prohibits any discussions about a new contract or any type of agreement in principle now that would go into effect after the regular season ends. The penalties would be an effective deterrent from violating the rules. Clowney and his agents, Bus Cook and Donald Weatherell, would be subject to a fine up to $500,000. Commissioner Roger Goodell could impose a fine for as much as $6.5 million on the team where up to two first round picks could also be forfeited. The team employees involved could be facing a year suspension and would have the same financial exposure as Clowney and his agents.
Clowney spends the 2019 season playing for the Texans because there are too many obstacles for Clowney to be dealt unless Houston is willing to accept less than reasonably expected in draft choice compensation or a player for player trade materializes. A trade to the Redskins is an intriguing possibility. Left tackle Trent Williams is a Redskins holdout. In addition to wanting his contract addressed because of the left tackle market dramatically escalating since signing in 2015, Williams hasn't been happy about how the Redskins' medical staff handled a growth on his scalp that was surgically removed early in the offseason. The Redskins are
reportedly open to moving Williams for something substantial in return. Left tackle is an area of need for the Texans.
Clowney signs his franchise tender in time to be ready for Houston's season opener against the Saints on September 9. Since Clowney doesn't get a prohibition clause, he is franchised again in 2020.