Imagine what the morning of March 15th, 2012 must have been like for Chris Clemons. He was probably eating his breakfast with ESPN on in the background when it got announced that Mario Williams signed a $100M free agent contract with guarantees totaling $50M. Clemons probably spit out his coffee.
He has collected 37.0 sacks in the last five seasons without missing any games, even while getting only partial playing time in places like Philadelphia. Williams has piled up 48.5 in the same time period while missing 14 games. Clemons has out-sacked Williams 22.0-13.5 in the past two seasons, and yet will have made $12.6M when this current contract ends after this season. Williams will make that about 1.5 seasons into his new deal.
Age matters in the NFL, and Williams being 27 to Clemons 30 has amajor impact on their valuations. A guy like Robert Mathis, 31, is a better comparable for Clemons to watch, and he was likely thrilled to see the 4 year, $36M deal Mathis signed a couple weeks before Williams. Mathis has 20.5 sacks the last two seasons, and plays a similar pass-rush focused role as Clemons.
Daydreaming about $36M probably gets interrupted by the realization that John Schneider will never spend that kind of money on a 31-year-old free agent defensive end. That means Clemons will enter the final year of his deal playing for a team that will not pay him his next contract. Another productive sack year will lead to a sizable free agent deal somewhere else, but any fall-off or injury could cost him tens of millions of dollars. Every snap, every walkthrough, could have massive repercussions. Fans will be quick to point out the millions of dollars he is getting paid to play this season, but how many people would be able to ignore the surrounding circumstances? Not many.
Now Bruce Irvin gets drafted in the first round. Pete Carroll is glowing like a rescue flare as he talks about how he has waited his whole career to get a LEO like Irvin. Clemons plays LEO, and has done a damn good job of it, thank you very much. It becomes just another sign that things are winding down in Seattle.
Seattle doesn’t stop there. They add Greg Scruggs in the 7th, a guy who projects as a LEO as well. Dexter Davis is coming off an injury, and will be getting snaps as a situational pass rusher. The battle is not to replace Clemons. Irvin was clearly drafted for that. The battle will be to see if someone can take the spot Irvin will play this year and Raheem Brock filled the last two. Brock played for roughly $1M each season. That’s the level Schneider is willing to pay for a defensive end in his early 30s.
Four of the top 20 sack artists in the NFL last season were 31 years or older. Clemons will have to have another productive season, stay healthy, and find a system that suits his talents. After all, he played for two other teams and never had more than 8.0 sacks. Posting another double-digit sack season will get him money from someone, just not Seattle.
Clemons has silently been a force against the run as well. He’s made terrific goal-line and 4th down tackles. He is an emotional leader on the team, and has been able to get his sacks away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. Replacing him will require more than finding 11.0 sacks.
The 2012 season will be a delicate dance for the front office and Clemons. Both are well aware of the situation. Seattle is hoping to turn a corner this season and become a Top 5 NFL defense. Doing that with a distracted or dejected Clemons will be far more challenging. The hope would be that the promise of a big free agent payday and would keep him bringing maximum effort. Carroll also counts on natural competitive spirit to kick in. Nobody likes getting their ass handed to them on the field.
A first salvo was fired when Clemons did not show up for any of the voluntary OTAs thus far. He is the only player who has not attended without a publicized reason (e.g., attending a funeral). It is a plot line worth monitoring. It is easy to forget that the game we love is played by people, with predictable human emotions. How Clemons handles his will play a major role in how this season unfolds for the Seahawks.