Here are some things we know about the Minnesota Vikings in free agency so far.
1) They’ve been more than willing to give generous, short-term deals to veterans in an effort to find immediate starters.
3) A starting defensive end from last season, Ifeadi Odenigbo, was not retained despite being a restricted free agent.
All signs point to them acquiring an edge rusher at some point. Maybe it’s a high draft pick. Maybe it’s a surprising trade. Or maybe there is one more marquee free-agent signing still to come. Maybe Jadeveon Clowney?
Indeed, this would be a big splash, and the Vikings aren’t swimming in money. But reporting from the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling indicates that Anthony Barr‘s restructure cleared up far more cap space than originally reported, giving Minnesota over $10 million to spend when business opened on Wednesday. They even gave a small chunk to Ameer Abdullah, who will return for a fourth year with the Vikings.
Clowney is a high-end 28-year-old edge rusher but has had a strange few years trying to find a permanent home in the NFL. Instead of getting a lucrative extension with the Houston Texans, who selected him first overall in 2014, Clowney played out his fifth-year-option season. In 2019 the Texans franchise tagged him and subsequently traded him to the Seattle Seahawks. Clowney played well enough in 2019 that a long-term deal seemed merited, but the pandemic stunted the free-agent market while Clowney held out for $20 million annually. His ambition to sign a contract requisite of the league’s top edge rushers burned him. Waiting until after the draft hurt his leverage even more as teams filled their holes with draft picks while Clowney spent the summer unemployed. He finally caved the week before the regular season, signing a one-year, $13 million with the Tennessee Titans. That’s not chump change, but it also ranked just 18th out of all annual values for defensive ends.
Injuries are ostensibly holding clubs back from committing to Clowney. The former top pick missed the second half of the season in Tennessee last year to get his second meniscus surgery since entering the league. There have also been core muscle injuries, back injuries, and multiple arthroscopic knee surgeries.
While he’s only played the full 16 games once in his seven-year career, Clowney has still managed to play 14 or more in three seasons (2016-18), and he made the Pro Bowl in each one. As recently as 2018, Clowney was the ninth-ranked edge rusher in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, with the second-highest run defense grade. Even in his half-season with the Titans, Clowney ranked 26th despite not recording a sack.
That said, Clowney’s injury history and his failure to record a sack have reduced his price. Once again, he could be looking at a prove-it season. A one-year deal may also be smarter on his part, considering the rising salary cap next season and his presently depressed value.
Meanwhile, the Vikings need an edge rusher to complement Danielle Hunter, and they — as much as any other team — would value Clowney’s stinginess against the run, even if his sack totals are low. Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson has said that he is more concerned with pressures than sacks.
Minnesota has just enough money to make a competitive offer to Clowney, who is unlikely to command the $13 million he made last year. But do they have the patience? Just like a year ago, Clowney may not want to blink at a smaller offer, and the veteran edge rusher market has yet to be fully set. One-year-deal candidates like Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, and Carlos Dunlap are still available, and their prices could drive up Clowney’s cost. Conversely, they could also reduce it.
Agree or not with the Vikings’ free-agency approach, they’ve decided to supplement their young roster with costly, ready-to-play veterans rather than rolling the dice on mid-level free agents. It seems like the goal is to construct a team that can win in 2021, even if some of the pieces don’t stay long in Minnesota. Clowney would be a win-now acquisition with high upside if he remains healthy.
The Vikings may as well swing for the fences now that they’ve committed to this path.
Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters.