Browns May Not Love Olivier Vernon's Salary, But The Alternatives Are No Better
Even if defensive end Olivier Vernon isn't worth $15.5 million this season, the Cleveland Browns need him more than he needs the Browns. Healthy, Vernon was the second best player on the defense last year behind Myles Garrett, providing a massive advantage the first half of the season, helping short-circuit Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, giving them a golden opportunity to beat the Seattle Seahawks and serving up the Los Angeles Rams to an offense that couldn't capitalize. For a team that is trying to compete now and take steps forward, they don't have much leverage in negotiating with Vernon.
The Browns are likely to ask Vernon to restructure to open up some additional salary cap. And maybe Vernon and his agent would accommodate them on that front, but he's set to walk after this season anyway, so he may be perfectly happy to stand his ground for the full $15.5 million. The problem for the Browns is the previous general manager left them with a group of defensive ends that are largely unplayable. Outside of Garrett and Vernon, the rest of the edge players on their roster include Chad Thomas, who can't play dead, Porter Gustin, Bryan Cox Jr. and Robert McCray III, who didn't play last year.
In the event Vernon held his ground and the Browns opted to release him, they quickly become a desperate team when it comes to looking for edge help. The Browns aren't in a position to be competitive to go after players like Yannick Ngakoue, who could easily command a contract worth $17 million annually. They can try to cobble together a couple mid tier fee agents, but they may find themselves in a position where they have to overpay them, which is the problem they are already facing.
No, Vernon's not going to get $15.5 million on the open market. But whatever he gets, which could easily approach $10 million, it won't be in Cleveland. The moral high ground still leaves them with a massive hole at defensive end. To this point in his career, Vernon has earned $73.3 million. Maybe an extra $2 or $3 million is incredibly important to him, so he takes a small pay cut to stay with the Browns, but it just doesn't come off as a credible threat.
The Browns should look to address defensive end in the draft for life after Vernon, but with him in the fold, they can address it from a position of strength as opposed to chasing after a need. With offensive tackle likely to be their first pick of the draft, it would almost force them to take an edge player with one of their next three picks, regardless of the value, which is hardly ideal.
Vernon's contract figure may be cumbersome, but it takes care of itself after this year. The Browns have a very credible defensive end opposite Garrett that dominated multiple games last year, allows them to add edge help through free agency and the draft on their terms, and when he leaves in free agency next year, his parting gift could be a compensatory pick.
Most, if not all of Vernon's $15.5 million is going to go right to Myles Garrett in 2020. Currently, Garrett is slated to earn a little over $9.6 million in 2020. If the Browns simply pick up his fifth year option, he would then earn around $16 million in 2021. That's $6.4 million from the $15.5 million going to Garrett, leaving them with $9.1 million to operate with for that year. They still have to account for the money that is going to Garrett on his contract extension in 2021.
More likely, Garrett and the Browns will skip the fifth year option and go right to negotiating a massive contract extension to keep Garrett on the Browns for the next six or seven years, averaging in excess of $20 million per season. If that first year is close to $25 million, it completely encapsulates what Vernon was making this year. In that scenario, it's potentially Garrett and Vernon for one more year to then go to just Garrett. In 2021, they are already going to be making the same calculation when it comes to Denzel Ward and Baker Mayfield, so they just don't have much room to add multiple big contracts in free agency that cut into that space. In that sense, Vernon's contract, however ugly the number may be, fits right into where the Browns are headed anyway, but offers the opportunity to pick up a draft pick down the road.
The Browns have multiple avenues for cap relief.
Chris Kirksey - $7.55 million
T.J. Carrie - $6.35 million
Chris Hubbard - $4.68 million
Morgan Burnett - $3.375 million
Freeing themselves up from those four contracts would add $22.1 million in salary cap space, giving the Browns some flexibility to operate in signing their own players like Joe Schobert, if they choose to pursue that path, as well as making some moves in free agency. They aren't in a position to throw a ton of money around because of what's coming on the horizon, but they could add one premier free agent. Based on what's available in free agency as opposed to what's going to be coming in this year's NFL Draft, the most prudent move would be targeting a free safety with players like Anthony Harris and potentially Justin Simmons entering the open market.
They can certainly see if Vernon is open to taking a small paycut, but it's difficult to imagine he's going to give up $5 million this year, unless they plan to add years. There's just not much incentive for Vernon to do the Browns a favor when he's gone after this year anyway. Maybe he's willing to give up $2 or $3 million, because that would be more than he can get on the open market, but that's hardly a game changer for the Browns salary cap structure for this year or next. Vernon being the highest paid player on the Browns this year may not be ideal, but it's not nearly the problem its made out to be and the front office's options seem limited.