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Matt Calkins: Seahawks follow NFL’s safe game with big-time pass-rushers by tagging Frank Clark

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark (55) defends against a rush by the Dallas Cowboys during an NFC wild-card NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Michael Ainsworth / AP)
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark (55) defends against a rush by the Dallas Cowboys during an NFC wild-card NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Michael Ainsworth / AP)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – About 20 minutes after the Seahawks beat the 49ers in Seattle last December, defensive end Frank Clark had some words for his former teammate. A few days earlier, Niners cornerback Richard Sherman had dubbed Seattle a “middle of the road” team, which didn’t sit well with Clark.

So following the victory, Clark declared that the Sherman era was over in Seattle, and that this was his defense now. Judging by his pending salary, he might not have been wrong.

Clark later clarified on Twitter that he meant to say “our” defense, not “my” defense, but the dollars suggest he may be the Seahawks’ most valued player on that side of the ball. When Seattle placed the franchise tag on him Monday, it fully guaranteed that Clark would earn $17.1 million next year, which is more than any Seahawk not named Russell Wilson.

I suppose Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider always thought this was a possibility, but Clark performing the way he has over the past four years – particularly in 2018 – likely came as a pleasant surprise. If the rest of the league knew he would rack up 13 sacks last season and 32 over the past three, Clark wouldn’t have been the 63rd pick in the 2015 draft.

Has his run-stopping ability been under scrutiny? Sure, which may have been why he didn’t make the Pro Bowl despite being tied for seventh in the league in sacks. But he has done enough to prompt Seattle to take a significant salary-cap hit next season.

A few paragraphs earlier, I wrote that Clark may have become the Seahawks’ most valued player on defense. Anyone who has watched Bobby Wagner play likely thinks that’s blasphemous, and maybe it is.

Wagner has made the past five Pro Bowls, been named first-team All NFL in four of the past five seasons, and is widely considered to be the best linebacker in the league. So how could anyone include Clark in the same breath as him if we’re talking about value? Well, because money-wise, pass rushing has become the defensive version of quarterback.

Nobody ever thought Case Keenum or Blake Bortles or Ryan Tannehill were better at their jobs than Julio Jones, but they have higher base salaries because they throw the ball and Jones catches it. Quarterbacking has been deemed the most important skill set in the NFL, but crushing the QB is now a close second.

From Von Miller to Aaron Donald to Khalil Mack, the highest paid defensive players are almost always the guys tallying double-digit sack totals. And it appears GMs are terrified to find out what the asking price for them might become.

It was no accident that Kansas City’s Dee Ford, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney and Dallas’ Demarcus Lawrence were all franchised Monday, too. The tag allows organizations to keep a designated player for one season, but the price for said player increases significantly each year they do it. Teams seemed to feel this was a safer route than allowing players such as Clark to test the open market and potentially start a bidding war that earns them $20 million or so a year.

“It’s kind of like being at a dance in junior high, nobody wants to be the first one on the dance floor,” said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who now writes about salary cap issues for “If one of those guys is in the $20 million range, then you’re going to have to pay all of them.”

It will be interesting to see if Seattle and Clark ever reach a long-term deal. Considering Wilson’s contract expires after next season, it’s going to cost the Seahawks an insane amount of money if they want to keep those two.

If they draft a pass-rusher in the first-round, that may be a sign they’re hoping to find someone who makes Clark less necessary going forward. But that’s just speculation for now.

In the meantime, Carroll and Schneider deserve some credit for their foresight. They’ve taken some blows from the media over their drafts lately, but when you look at how Clark (and Tyler Lockett) has panned out, their work in 2015 suddenly looks pretty good.

So from a football standpoint, the front office has earned any acclaim it might get. And Clark, well he definitely earned his money.

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