On Monday night, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will suit up for the Titans. He could have been playing today, for the Saints or the Ravens.
He’s not in New Orleans or Baltimore (we’re told that it would have been Baltimore, not New Orleans) because the league put the kibosh on the possibility of the Browns or the Jaguars signing Clowney and then trading him to the Saints or the Ravens, respectively. It’s still unclear why the NFL refused to allow it to happen.
The knee-jerk, on-the-fly explanation was that, basically, teams can’t trade cash and/or cap space. That’s precisely what would have happened with Clowney. Cleveland or Jacksonville would have signed him and paid a sizable chunk of his 2020 compensation before trading him to New Orleans or Baltimore. The destination team would have surrendered a draft pick and/or a player to compensate the signing team for paying part of Clowney’s salary.
Efforts over the course of the past six days to get a more thorough and detailed explanation for the league’s position on the matter have been unsuccessful. Which leads to this inescapable conclusion: The teams involved should have just done it, and the league wouldn’t have been able to stop it.
As the saying goes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Although that approach doesn’t entirely apply here (and isn’t always the best way to go, anyway), the Saints and Ravens erred in asking for permission. They should have just done it.
How could the league have stopped it? Browns or Jaguars sign Clowney. Permissible. Browns or Jaguars then trade Clowney the next day to Saints or Ravens. Also permissible.
As to the idea of not trading cash or cap space, that bridge already has been crossed. In 2017, the Texans traded quarterback Brock Osweiler and a second-round pick to the Browns. Basically, the Browns bought a second-round pick for absorbing $16 million in cash and cap obligations under Osweiler’s fully-guaranteed 2017 salary. If the league allowed that trade, there’s no way it couldn’t have allowed Clowney to be signed and partially paid by one team and then traded to another team.
Indeed, last year the Texans did just that with Clowney. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the Texans signed Clowney to a one-year, $15 million deal, paid $7 million of the amount, and traded him to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and two players. The league let it happen.
The difference, of course, was that the Texans held Clowney’s contractual rights via the franchise tag. But, still, the transaction consisted of the Texans paying $7 million in cash and cap space to get value from the Seahawks for Clowney.
So why didn’t the Browns/Saints or Jaguars/Ravens just proceed? The concern was that, if the league stepped in and prevented the trade, Clowney would have been stuck with a team he didn’t want to play for.
Still, that likely wouldn’t have happened. The logic of preventing a trade quickly collapses when considering the implications. Would the Browns have been prevented from trading Clowney to anyone at any point before the trade deadline?
The concern here arose from the bang-bang sequence of signing Clowney then trading him. And since the league was able to keep it from happening simply by saying “no” to a set of circumstances that hadn’t actually become ripe, the league never had to do what common sense and a fair reading of all applicable rules suggest would have happened if the Clowney sign-and-trade had unfolded: The deal would have gone through.