With under a week to go before the 2020 NFL season kickoff, two Super Bowl-caliber teams were willing to go to unprecedented lengths to sign Pro Bowl edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
According to NFL Network, the Saints front office had discussed a deal in which an unnamed team would have signed Clowney to a one-year, $15 million contract with a $5 million signing bonus, then would immediately traded him to New Orleans for a second-round pick and an additional player in order to circumvent salary cap constraints. The remaining $10 million would have been the Saints’ responsibility.
Clowney, 27, had been on the free agent market since the Seahawks’ playoff run was quelled in the wild-card round against the Cowboys in January. The injury-prone lineman had reportedly been seeking a huge payday upwards of $21 million a year, similar to the blockbuster contracts Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Bears’ Khalil Mack received in recent years.
While not explicitly mentioned, NFL Network postulated that the Saints’ mystery third-party that would essentially purchased a second-round pick was the Cleveland Browns based on their available cap space and willingness to buy draft capital in the past.
Pro Football Talk later reported that the Baltimore Ravens had also expressed interest in a sign-and-trade deal, similar to the Saints plan but with the Jaguars instead of the Browns.
The Browns, Seahawks and Dolphins were all rumored to have made bids for Clowney earlier this offseason, none of whom met his price.
Despite injuries and a spotty showing in 2019, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick would have been an impactful addition to any team, including the Saints, whose Super Bowl window is closing quickly with 41-year-old Drew Brees under center.
Both the Saints and Ravens are currently favored to win their respective divisions, and both have the second-best odds to win the NFC and AFC Championships.
The reason the Saints hadn’t made an earlier run at Clowney is their salary cap situation. The team is carrying the third-highest cap liability in 2020 with just $1.4 million in total cap space this year according to Over The Cap. New Orleans is also projected to have the least amount of cap space in 2021 and is overleveraged by a whopping $74.4 million, making it highly improbable The Saints could make a competitive offer to the former Seahawks defensive end without serious maneuvering.
“We felt like we got close,” head coach Sean Payton told reporters on Monday. “We weren’t able to match the money and that’s one of the challenges each year, when you’re going after a player — what type of place do you have. … And it was one thought, just creatively relative to, essentially, having a team sign a player, take some of the financial burden away from the team they trade him to, and essentially then get a draft pick back.”
The Ravens, who have a bevy of young talent led by 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, are also in significantly better shape financially with $11.3 million in 2020 cap space (17th-most in the NFL) and $42.1 million in projected 2021 cap space (7th-most in the NFL).
“Fundamentally, you can’t trade cash,” one league executive told NFL Network and the creative deal was ultimately shot down by the league on Saturday evening.
On Sunday, Clowney signed a one-year contract the Tennessee Titans worth $12 million. Titans general manager Jon Robins had been monitoring the situation throughout the offseason and called Clowney a “good fit” for the organization back in June. The deal carries an additional $3 million in incentives and the opportunity to “cash in again in 2021 if he has a big season,” Rapoport wrote on Twitter, as the team will not be allowed to franchise tag the star DE next year.
Clowney reunites with former Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who now serves as the Titans head coach.