To Pay or Not to Pay: Breaking Down the Frank Clark Situation

In what should come as news to precisely no one reading this, Ian Rapoport has reported that Frank Clark is threatening to hold out.  In itself, this comes as a bit of a surprise.  For while it was only last week that the Seahawks used the 2019 franchise tag on their breakout DE1, Clark told reporters back in October that he and his agent had taken out an insurance policy.  Ostensibly to guard against injury, it shouldn’t be considered an improbability that Clark’s team also did so in anticipation of getting tagged in 2019.

In the week since that announcement, Clark has (at least on social media) expressed no real disappointment or frustration, even going so far as to recruit — in albeit a very loose sense of that term — at least one player (Kwon Alexander, now a future 49er) to the Seahawks.  This tracks with other comments and statements that have come from Clark’s camp since, including Clark himself stating that he played with two injuries last year, and that he expects to have an even better season in 2019 than he did in 2018.  By all accounts, Clark expected to be tagged, and being $17 million wealthier — as well as having the opportunity to play another contract year, but one in which he’d join Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and Jarran Reed as potential free agents — seemed just fine by him.

A week later, though, Clark’s camp has leaked that he will not sign the tag or participate in training camp unless a long term deal is made.  By way of background, teams and players have until July 15 to negotiate a deal that would invalidate the tag.  And if the 2019 training camp schedule is anything like its 2018 counterpart, this deadline would lapse before training camp begins.

Conventional wisdom, among fans at least, is that the Seahawks would be foolish to risk losing Clark.  He was overwhelmingly their best pass-rusher last year, and he plays a position at which the Seahawks are already very sparse.  Moreover, for the first time in the past few years, the Seahawks are not in a dire cap position, and can afford to pay him.  He also seems to have established himself as a defensive leader, if not a team leader, and parting ways with him would result in an intangible loss beyond whatever loss in production the Seahawks would face in 2019, which presumably would be substantial.

If you’ve read and made sense of anything I’ve written — a feat in itself — you will know that I pretty much always side with labor over management.  Management almost always has all of the power, often casting players into the role of Oliver Twists, acutely aware that, at best, they have maybe ten years to earn as much wealth as they can.  And yet, in this case, and in spite of all these considerations, it’s complicated. Or should be.

To begin with, let’s consider Clark and his likely demand first.  Under the tag, according to Over The Cap, Clark is the fifth-highest paid edge rusher.  That top five includes DeMarcus Lawrence, another tagged DE, and the top ten includes the also-tagged Jadeveon Clowney and Dee Ford.  Assuming that Clark will expect more than he would be paid under the tag –let’s say at least $18M APY — he would become the third highest-paid DE (of the under 30 crowd) in 2020, beneath only Chandler Jones (who will turn 30 and has no guaranteed money in 2020) and Khalil Mack.  Of course, this rating could fluctuate depending on the other tagged pass-rushers, which is a huge question in itself; if someone like Lawrence or Clowney signs a long-term deal for more than 18, we should be certain that Clark will want more.

Without a doubt, Clark’s 2018 season puts him in a position to deserve a rewarding contract, but the question must be: how rewarding?  PFF graded Clark at 77.4 in 2018, or the 18th best edge defender.  Also according to PFF, he was tied for 10th among DEs in terms of total pressures, with 67 total pressures, a pass-rush win percentage and pressure percentage of 17.5%, with a pass-rush productivity of 10.1 (18th out of 68 qualifying 4-3 DEs).  Another PFF article on free agent edge rushers noted that Clark did not play a single game last season in which he recorded less than 2 pressures, further attesting to consistency as one of his best traits.

The point of this isn’t to question whether Clark is a good pass-rusher or not, because the numbers indisputably point to his talent.  The question is whether Clark is good enough to be paid at a rate befitting the third best pass-rusher in the game.  And to be sure, while some would wonder if the question was itself dumb, or pointless, it’s worth noting that, when one parts the paywall, Clark’s pressure rates were not too far removed from Dante Fowler — by efficiency at least — who just signed a one year, $14M contract.

The second point of consideration is that 2019 is likely to be one of the deepest for defensive linemen in recent memory.  Matt Miller’s 2019 Big Board, for example, puts 7 DL in the top-10, and 19 in the top-50; none of his Big Boards so far this decade have had more than 5 DL in the top-10 for comparison, and only 2013 had more than 3.  While this is only representative at best, conventional wisdom shouts that, for teams in need of pass-rushers, this is the draft in which to fulfill that need.  Now, obviously, this only becomes relevant if the Seahawks trade Clark for at least a first-rounder; if the team trading for Clark has a high enough pick in 2019, the Seahawks could either pick up a premier pass-rushing rookie, or potentially convert that one pick into two picks in the 20-50 range.  The move would also free up enough cap space for the Seahawks to sign at least one vet pass-rusher.  To be sure, it would be a risk to expect that one or two rookies, and one or more vets, could match or exceed Clark’s production, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

However, when we think about what makes a thing complicated, it ordinarily isn’t the easily measured or tangible considerations that spring to mind.  And that’s the simplest truth here as well.

As has already been reported, Clark’s draft stock diminished significantly after his arrest for a domestic violence charge in 2014 resulted in his being dismissed from the University of Michigan’s football team.  While Clark accepted a plea deal that resulted in only a misdemeanor, which included minor fees but no jail time, the incident was serious enough for every team to pass on drafting him in the first round (and many in the second round). This slide was in spite of production in school that rivaled the best collegiate pass rushers of 2014, including luminaries such as Joey Bosa and Myles Garnett (who PFF graded second and fourth, respectively that year, under Clark).  And while, yes, it is peripherally true that Clark wasn’t officially charged with anything strictly DV-related, any conversations between the prosecutor and Clark’s then-girlfriend remain outside of the record of the case.  That, when coupled with the frequency of DV accusers changing their stories because of fear of retaliation, the hope for reconciliation, or some other dependency (usually financial), should be enough to cast at least some doubt on why the charge was diminished so significantly.

To say that the NFL has a domestic violence problem is a galactic understatement, but a substantive part of that is both a failure to treat the problem consistently, and to deal seriously and directly with the problem itself.  These failures produce scenarios in which flagrant instances of DV, especially when caught on video, become almost sensationalized, often times leading to a player becoming effectively blackballed from the league, but most often only when the player isn’t especially good to begin with.

In cases like Clark’s, where there isn’t direct evidence, or where the evidence is ignored or controvertible, there’s no clear notion about how to deal with it.  Which means that teams are often left to their own devices, and enough teams have demonstrated that their football needs overwhelm their ethical concerns that leaving a team to its own devices is tantamount to doing nothing.

Now, many fans will point to Clark’s spotless record as proof either that he was innocent to begin with or that he is a changed man.  While the former point seems disingenuous, the latter isn’t as easily dismissed.  But it too misses the mark.  As some readers may recall, back in 2017, Clark reacted like a petulant child when a woman reporter (and beloved member of Seahawks Twitter at that) merely referenced the Clark story in connection with a piece she had written about Greg Hardy, who was then also dealing with domestic violence issues.  The argument that Clark hasn’t changed, or hasn’t changed enough, could consist of no more than screenshots of his original tweet and then, uh, “apology”. (Whether the non-apology or the secondary one that reads like a PR manual is immaterial.)

Questions and answers demand context, so let’s do that.  Any argument that suggests that people are incapable of change is spurious or delusional.  Whether Clark has changed, or changed sufficiently must be answered by each fan; the Seahawks brass have affirmatively insisted that Clark did not need to change, which we should at the very least roll our eyes at, at least a little bit.

But there is very obviously a bigger question about what to do with players who commit acts of domestic violence.  Imposing a lifetime ban on players so convicted seems like a solution that is ripe for the kind of intersectional inequities brought about by race and class that have contributed to the utter blight that is our own carceral state, but doing nothing is equally a non-solution.  The answer, as it often does, must lie somewhere in between.

For me, there is no answer, just conflict.  I don’t not root for Clark, but what I do do is ambiguous at best.  My fandom resides between the poles of wishing Clark could be expelled from the game permanently and thinking there is nothing wrong, a murky middleground with no real special attraction or curb appeal.

In about six months, we’ll begin cheering again, in earnest.  Cheering is a vague act, though; when pressed, I’m not even sure what I’m cheering for.  Players, sure, but I don’t doubt that the feel of cheering, that gut-wrenching commingling of rage, horror, and elation, would dissipate even when the last of my favorite players is traded or cut, or retires.  So whatever it is, it isn’t just players. Coaches, maybe? Pete Carroll enraptured me with an attitude of let the people be who they want to be, up until he decided that that was too difficult, at least in some cases*, and our own white-shod field marshal has had his own troubling relationship with at least one dude who has very problematic views on women.  Maybe I’m not rooting for any singular human thing, so much as I am for the feeling itself, a state of being that is (supposed to be!) better than most drugs, without the side-effects or illegality.

* See, e.g., Michael Bennett

I don’t know.  What I do know, though, is that Frank Clark’s presence on that team that is the recipient of my fandom is a blemish.  Every time Clark makes a play, I struggle. Centering myself, here, though, is operative: my fandom is my own, so of course I’m being selfish, and cognizant of the simple fact that the Seahawks without Frank Clark would be a worse team.  But the upside? Peace of mind.

Like I said, it’s complicated.