Detroit Lions, NFL Free Agency

Why the Detroit Lions must win the Jadeveon Clowney sweepstakes

If those in leadership of the Detroit Lions want to live to see another season, they must win the Jadeveon Clowney sweepstakes this offseason.

It’s no secret that Matt Patricia, Bob Quinn and company are already feeling the heat this offseason.

After the Lions complete meltdown last season after a competitive September, Patricia’s record as a head coach is a miserable 9-22-1 through two years. To his credit, Patricia’s never had an overly talented roster to work with, and it doesn’t help when Matt Stafford goes down with an injury, but if the team is to somehow eclipse last year’s win total (let alone the six wins from 2018), they need to keep spending.

In particular, the Lions need to reel in one major acquisition: free-agent edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney.

Right now, Clowney has reportedly lowered his ask from $20 million annually to somewhere north of $17 million. Yet even at the initial figure, Clowney is a must-have for the Lions organization—not someone like Clowney but the man himself.

Last season, the team made a big free-agent splash with the addition of edge rusher Trey Flowers, an expensive import from the New England Patriots who was brought in to be the pass rushing cornerstone of Patricia’s rebuilt defense. He was as steady as ever, statistically speaking, with 21 quarterback hits and seven sacks but the Lions need something on the other side to make this defense respectable.

Last year, the Lions had only 28 total sacks—the second-lowest total in the NFL (five more than the Miami Dolphins)—and ranked as the single worst team in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (behind the Dolphins).

The only other player with more than two sacks on the Lions last year was linebacker Devon Kennard and he’s now a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Jarrad Davis had two, and the Lions have reportedly placed the former first-round linebacker on the trade block. Jamie Collins was brought in as a replacement, but his stats have dropped any time he’s left New England. Patricia can only hope being in a similar system can yield similar results.

The front line itself has been completely revamped, but it’s hard to believe the results will yield anything better than last season. Snacks Harrison? Gone. Mike Daniels? He’s out, too. A’Shawn Robinson? Greener pastures. Those performers might be getting older with limited ceilings and/or injury concerns, but it was a dependable trio with experience.

Danny Shelton and Nick Williams are the replacements thus far, but the former is coming off a contract year and the latter just had his first official sack(s) last year at the age of 29. On a deeper line, Williams is a fine rotational lineman and Shelton is a decent two-down anchor. On this line, they’re tasked with too much and supported with too little.

Then again, the Lions have been playing this game all offseason long. Offensive tackle Rick Wagner was released and then replaced with former Eagles lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has started a total of four games in the last two years. Even worse was trading Darius Slay to the Eagles and then being forced to use the No. 3 overall pick in Jeff Okudah to replace him. Okudah is a safe bet as a lockdown corner, but there’s no reason for this team to not employ him alongside Slay for a serious unit upgrade in the secondary.

Here’s the good news in all of this: Cory Undlin is the new defensive coordinator. Paul Pasqualoni’s passive defense gave up every big play exactly when you’d expect them to fall apart most. Undlin’s bound for better performances here even as a change of pace and he’s been given a lot of new players at each level. however, the front seven needs a major infusion of impactful talent—and the draft isn’t going to give it to them if Okudah is the man.

Over the last five years, Jadeveon Clowney has hit the quarterback 80 times, had 68 other tackles for loss, put up 32 sacks, and forced eight fumbles. He also has four defensive touchdowns in that span. Across from Flowers, he would force defenses to respect both sides with the game plan and force the quarterback to make quicker decisions than ever, a real plus when the secondary has been remade with Okudah at the top.

Right now, Clowney’s agents are likely sizing up their offers in order to make a decision at some point, and the Cleveland Browns are one rumored team in the mix. The Seattle Seahawks would like to have Clowney back, too. Several other teams also make sense as a future home for Clowney, including the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, and Buffalo Bills. Pretending as if Clowney will remain available forever with a price that will continue to come down is a mirage.

The Lions are currently sitting on $30.9 million in cap space. Saving a few million every year to bring in the likes of Markus Golden is, at this point, the choice between being employed or not. Clowney is the only true impact player left worthy of a long-term deal—there is something to be said for importing Everson Griffin for a year—unless the Lions are trying to make some trade work (e.g. Chris Jones or Yannick Ngakoue). But again, why surrender draft assets when a proven edge rusher is right there waiting.

The revolving door of middling talent has likely already done in the Lions’ leadership at this point. The losses have already piled up, and even with Clowney, the Lions are likely the bottom-feeders once again in the NFC North. But at least the signing of someone to anchor the other side of the pass rush would give this defense a fighting chance to get better under a new coordinator and a defensive-minded head coach.

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