Given that the Seahawks were standing nearly naked in the 2019 draft, few fans likely regret the trade with Kansas City that helped clothe the Seahawks with players who contributed to an 11-win regular season and two playoff games. But having to spend this week watching DE Frank Clark’s big grin from Miami at the Super Bowl, chagrin is an acceptable feeling too.
The twinge comes from the failed effort to replace Clark’s pass-rushing prowess, the single largest weakness in the Seahawks’ otherwise fairly remarkable season, tying for 29th in NFL with 28 sacks.
On “opening night” of the the annual media over-indulgence Monday, Clark’s podium turn produced an unabashed reminder of what the Seahawks were missing.
“I don’t put myself in the category of no other guy,” he said. “I don’t compare myself to no other defensive end in the league. I feel like my skill set is unique, especially, you talk about Frank Clark when I’m healthy, I don’t feel like there are a lot of defensive ends who can compete with me or play football at the level I play at.
“I play at an extremely high and aggressive level, where I don’t tolerate a lot of stuff that offensive players try to do. I’m sure (49ers celebrated TE George Kittle) is going to block and do all those good things and make catches and stuff. But at the end of the day, Frank Clark is going to be on the field and they have to see me.”
And hear him too.
He was particularly effusive after the Chiefs’ 35-24 win over Tennessee in the AFC Championship, when he followed up his controversial pre-game brag, in which he claimed essentially that RB Derrick Henry was a big guy but not necessarily a big deal, with action.
After three consecutive games rushing for a total of 588 yards, Henry was held to 69 yards and 19 carries. After jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, the Titans scored seven points the rest of the way, and Henry had seven yards in the second half.
In his post-game TV interview, Clark, who had four tackles and a sack, suggested that the Chiefs defense, a middling outfit most of the season, was now “best in the world.”
In the week prior to the game, Clark told NFL Network he was not fazed by Henry.
“He’s not hard to hit,” he said. “He’s just a big guy — 240, 245, 250 — honestly he should be running harder at his weight and at his size. I don’t see no difficulty in tackling him . . . He’s just easy, to me, up front because I don’t look at any running back like they can’t be tackled. He’s not one of the best guys at breaking tackles to me, honestly.”
Clark was showing that swagger in 2018, when he led the Seahawks in sacks with a career-high 13. But he was also going to be expensive to keep, even though he wasn’t among the top 20 pass rushers, as graded by Pro Football Focus. And if someone were later to claim that the Seahawks were worried about what might become of Clark after a long-term deal with big money, I would not swoon with shock.
The Seahawks prepared to hold onto him for a year with a franchise tag at $17.1 million, but heading into the draft with only four picks, they needed to bust a move for inventory. The Chiefs, having lost the AFC Championship, but with a brilliant quarterback in Patrick Mahomes on a rookie contract, and starting with a new defensive coordinator advocating change to a 4-3, were eager for Clark while they were a Super Bowl-caliber team.
Coach Andy Reid was happy to part with first- and second-round picks, plus a swap of places in the third round. The Chiefs immediately signed the 6-3, 265-pound Clark to a whopper deal of five years and up to $105 million, with $63.5 million guaranteed.
The Seahawks turned the picks into DE L.J. Collier (first round, 29th overall), WR DK Metcalf (second, 64th) and LB Cody Barton (third, 88th). With Clark’s franchise tag off the books, they signed in May free agent DE Ziggy Ansah to a one-year deal for up to $9 million. They still had money left over to accommodate in September the trade acquisition of DE Jadeveon Clowney.
The Chiefs appeared then to have been a little foolish, and the Seahawks looked set to have a potentially above-average defense.
Didn’t work out.
Ansah never fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. He played only nine games, with 26 tackles, 16 QB hits and 6.5 sacks. Collier was worse. After spraining an ankle in training camp, he played sparingly in 11 games, accumulating three tackles. Fellow rookie Barton barely played until LB Mychal Kendricks was injured late in the season, then was forced into three starts, including both playoff games, for which he was not ready.
In the final game in the cold and dark of Green Bay, neither Ansah nor Collier played, and Barton was credited with three assisted tackles.
Clowney did contribute — seven tackles, two QB hits, one tackle for loss — but when it came time for third-down stops late in the game, Clowney, troubled for the second half of the season with a core injury that would require post-season surgery, couldn’t apply pressure.
He had some splendid moments and games in 2019, but never was the consistent force the Seahawks had hoped.
Like Ansah, he’ll be a free agent in March. As a condition of the trade, the Seahawks relinquished the right to the franchise tag. It seems as if Clowney, depending on health, of course, looks to be among the best in class and thus subject to a bidding war.
For all the nice words Clowney, 26, has said about his single year in Seattle, he’ll likely end up with the highest bidder, which could mean earning as much or more than the Chiefs wound up paying Clark, also 26. It’s hard to say whether the Seahawks, with about $60 million in cap space, want to buy in at that level with so many other needs.
Since Ansah is unlikely to be asked to return, if Clowney leaves, the Seahawks D-line is degraded, particularly if DT Jarran Reed, who regressed from his impressive 2018 season, doesn’t bounce back. If Collier doesn’t get full traction in 2020, the Seahawks’ grade at the top of the draft will take another take another Wile E. Coyote plunge to the canyon floor.
The Chiefs defense, meanwhile, has given up an average of 15.7 points in its past seven games, including second-half shutdowns in the playoff games against the Titans and Texans.
As Clark mentioned with all the swagger he learned as a Seahawks defender, the 49ers, and the sports world, will have to see him.