HOUSTON -- A funny thing happened here Sunday night. Two NFL teams -- the Cowboys and the Texans -- played a game and neither one of them scored 20 points. Not even with the help of an overtime period. Yes, even in the high-flying NFL of 2018, you still can find some pockets of defense being played here and there.
Now, what, you're going to come at me with a list of bad coaching decisions and the fact that the Cowboys don't have any reliable receivers, and you're right about all of that. But plays were being made on defense in this game. Houston bottled up Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas hit Deshaun Watson over and over again. You're still allowed to make plays that stop the other team, even as the rules make it harder and harder.
But the real reasons Dallas-Houston was an important game to watch from a defensive perspective were a couple of star pass-rushers in each team's front seven. The Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence and the Texans' Jadeveon Clowney are both in contract years and project to be among the jewels of a 2019 free-agent class that's going to be all about defense.
Remember how we just finished with the year of the free-agent quarterback? Next year looks like the year of the defensive player. Lawrence will be coming off a franchise-player season in which the Cowboys paid him $17.143 million. Clowney is making $12.306 million in the fifth-year-option season of his rookie contract. Assuming health and continued productivity, these two guys are set to cash in on a market that went through the roof about six weeks ago when Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack signed their record-setting deals.
They aren't alone. Next spring's free-agent pass-rusher market could include Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah (like Lawrence, a franchise player who can't negotiate a new deal until after the season), Philadelphia's Brandon Graham, Seattle's Frank Clark, New England's Trey Flowers and Kansas City's Dee Ford, to name a few. Jacksonville's Yannick Ngakoue is signed through 2019 but could be in line next offseason for a contract extension that helps set the floor for some of those other deals.
And it's not just the pass-rushers. We could be looking at a free-agent safety class that includes Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Potential free-agent cornerbacks include Bradley Roby and Ronald Darby. This market could feature linebackers such as Anthony Barr and Vince Williams and defensive tackles such as Grady Jarrett, Ndamukong Suh and Sheldon Richardson.
Could it really be that -- after a year that appears poised to break all kinds of offensive records -- it's the defensive players who cash in most?
It certainly could. Lawrence sits half a sack off the league lead with 5.5 through five games. He had 14.5 sacks last year, and the Cowboys probably could have saved themselves some money by doing an extension with him in June or July before Donald and Mack blew past $20 million a year. But Lawrence's pre-2017 history included injury and suspension issues, and as one source close to the situation put it, "He had one franchise-type year, and the Cowboys wanted to see another one." Lawrence's franchise tag next year would be $20.57 million, and given where the market sits now, it's hard to see him signing for anything that pays less than about $19 million a year. And even with extensions looming for Elliott, Byron Jones and Dak Prescott over the next couple of years, the Cowboys have enough cap space to pay Lawrence at the top of the pass-rusher market and still get those other deals done.
Many in the industry thought Clowney would sign this past offseason, but a number of factors prevented that from happening. Danielle Hunter signed a below-market extension with Minnesota, which might have hardened Houston's negotiating position, and then the Mack deal went well beyond the market, which likely hardened Clowney's position. He's got his own extensive injury history, which is part of the issue as well. But if Clowney can get through this year healthy, he should be in line to tickle that $20 million-a-year level as well. What's interesting about that as it pertains to Houston is that the Texans usually do deals for their big stars well before they reach free agency, and they often try to tamp down the average annual salary a bit on the grounds that Texans players play at least 10 games a year in states that don't have a state income tax (eight in Texas and one each in Florida and Tennessee). If Clowney is determined to break the bank, he could find himself franchised or looking elsewhere.
Ansah and Graham are a little bit of a different story, since Ansah is 29 and Graham is 30, while Lawrence is 26 and Clowney is 25. But everyone needs pass-rushers, and the age issues could just mean shorter-term deals for bigger money and/or guarantees.
One more wrinkle: At this point, next year's draft projects as a big one for defensive players -- defensive linemen in particular. That was part of the reason Oakland decided to trade Mack for first-round picks, and there might be a team or two that decides to sit out the free-agent pass-rusher market thinking they can find their solution in the draft. But as we saw with the quarterbacks this past year, the top guys will get their money. And in 2019, the money dished out to defensive players could make us all forget how much this season has been about offense.
Some other things Week 5 taught us:
Schefter: Garrett's decision to punt was 'passive'
Adam Schefter says that Jerry Jones "has made his career taking risks," and his coach Jason Garrett did the opposite on Sunday.
Jason Garrett is in real trouble this time
For years, the Cowboys' head coach has enjoyed more job security than most people have wanted to believe. He was handpicked by owner Jerry Jones, who feels very strongly about Garrett personally and really, really wants to end up being right about Garrett being a successful NFL head coach. Jones' reputation for impatience with coaches is an outdated one. Garrett has had the job since 2010. But there were whispers around this team at the end of last year that Garrett was finally on thin ice, and the sense around the Cowboys now is that he needs at least a playoff appearance (and maybe a playoff win or two) to ensure a return in 2019.
Sunday night, when Garrett decided to punt the ball away on fourth-and-1 late in overtime didn't help. Jones said after the game, "That was time for risk." It's never good when the owner is publicly criticizing your decision 15 minutes after you make it. The Cowboys are preaching patience with a young offense and a passing game they believe will come together before it's too late. I absolutely do not believe they would make a head-coaching change during the season. But if the offense is still sputtering in December and they miss out on the playoffs? This might finally be it for Garrett.
The Eagles really should trade for Le'Veon Bell
Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported Monday night that the Eagles have no plans at this time to trade for Bell, even though Darren Sproles and Corey Clement are battling injury and Jay Ajayi is now out for the year with a torn ACL. And even though they cleared enough cap space with a Fletcher Cox restructure that they could if they wanted to. But I'm here to say they should do it, and you never know how teams' plans can change.
The Eagles have backs. Once Clement and Sproles are whole, they join Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Josh Adams in a backfield with which Doug Pederson can probably work. But they added Ajayi last year when they already appeared to have enough there. Howie Roseman is one of the most aggressive trading GMs in the league. And the Eagles' offense looks stuck in the mud. The Cox restructure enables them to make a move even if they don't know what that move will be yet. There are still a couple of weeks left until the trade deadline. The list of available backs (and defensive backs, by the way, which they also need) will only grow longer. And Pittsburgh's motivation to trade Bell could fluctuate up or down over the next two weeks. Bell in the Eagles' offense would return them to clear-favorite status in a jumbled NFC East.
Case Keenum might not finish the season as the Broncos' starting quarterback
Keenum had a season-high 68.6 completion percentage in Sunday's loss to the Jets, and his two touchdown passes were his first since Week 1. But it was his third straight game with a QBR under 30 (that's on a scale of 0-100, with 50 as the average), and it was the Broncos' third straight loss. Keenum has five touchdown passes against seven interceptions this year, and the Broncos are sitting in the bottom half of the league in all the team passing stats. Don't be surprised if Chad Kelly gets a start or two if things don't pick up -- yes, even though Keenum got the big contract. John Elway is under a lot of pressure to figure out the quarterback position in Denver, the coaching staff is on thin ice and they've shown they're not afraid to change if something isn't working.
The Saints are only going to get better
A little bit of concern about the early-game losses on the defensive side of the ball Monday, but throwing Mark Ingram right back in there and seeing how big a part of the offense he still is even with Alvin Kamara putting up MVP numbers reminded us what this offense is capable of doing. The Saints were the only team in the league last year that finished top five in rushing and passing, and with Drew Brees still humming along at age 39, they're set up for big things. Atlanta is in big trouble, and Tampa Bay is wobbling after a hot start. The Saints don't play Carolina until Weeks 15 and 17, but at this point, that looks like the only team in their way of an NFC South title. The Rams are justifiably favored at this point to win the NFC, but the Saints were one of the preseason favorites for a lot of good reasons. Just because they wobbled out of the gate and the Rams didn't doesn't change the fact that this is a loaded team angry about the way last year ended and determined to make the most of however many years Brees has left.