With J.J. Watt's decision to sign with the Arizona Cardinals, the Cleveland Browns turn their attention to other options for the defensive end position opposite Myles Garrett. Rather than focusing attention on players that could be tagged and effectively taken off the market, the focus for now is on a handful of pass rushers that will almost certainly get to the open market for the Browns to truly consider.
Watt was a great option that could've been a transformational player across from Myles Garrett. Signing with the Cardinals does work out for the Browns in two areas. First, he decided early, so while he's not going to be playing for the Browns, he's also not dragging this out to where it could impact pursuit of other players. Perhaps the Browns could have used that for cover to get someone else, but they don't get strung along as was the case with Jadeveon Clowney last year.
Second, Watt signing with the Cardinals doesn't really change the balance of power in the NFL or have a major impact on the Browns. He's not going to the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans, which could be direct rivals for the Browns for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. While the Browns will likely face Watt with the Cardinals in the 17th game this season, if the Browns were to get to the Super Bowl, it's difficult to imagine the Cardinals will be there. Had he gone to the Green Bay Packers or Los Angeles Rams, both teams in position to contend, that might have made them prohibitive favorites.
Watt not choosing Cleveland is a little disappointing, but hardly the end of the world. There will be some options that will hit the open market that the Browns could be in the mix to sign.
Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans Saints
The Saints are at least $60 million over the salary cap and they can't afford to tag anyone, so their free agents will have their chance on the open market. Trey Hendrickson was their third rusher, so it would be even more difficult to keep him.
Hendrickson seems like the ideal player to put across from Garrett. He offers a tremendous combination of size, length and speed. An explosive, up field rusher seems ideal to pair with Myles Garrett, especially if they can generate pressure from the interior.
Hendrickson is coming off a breakout year in which he amassed 13.5 sacks and generated 33 pressures. It's also the first season he was a full time player as he's exclusively operated as a rotational option up until this point.
The question the Browns have to answer about Hendrickson is whether they believe he had a fluke season or if he's truly turned a corner. He's an elite athlete, won't turn 27 until December and has never really been injured.
There's plenty of reason to believe in making a significant investment in Hendrickson to put across from Garrett. He's the player the team can most easily put there for several years.
Pro Football Focus is projecting Hendrickson to get a 4-year deal averaging $12 million per season with $25 million guaranteed.
Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens aren't going to franchise him a second time and he's made it pretty clear he wants to test the open market. That doesn't mean he couldn't ultimately end up going back to the Ravens, but they are likely going to be more focused on retaining Yannick Ngakoue, which could see Judon going elsewhere.
Judon is a talented pass rusher coming off a down year statistically. He still produced six sacks and generated 32 pressures. In 2019, he had 9.5 sacks, a career high, along with 31 pressures. He's never been a double digit sack guy and he may not be.
Judon is not regarded as a run defender, but he's better than most might think. He's big enough to be an every down defender and has missed few games over the course of his career.
The hitch with Judon is he turns 29 years old in August and he's looking to get paid, understandably. He's never suffered a major injury which hopefully bodes well for sustaining his level of play over the next few seasons. Judon isn't Watt, so balancing the salary and length of the deal could be tricky. Nevertheless, he could be an option opposite of Garrett.
Pro Football Focus is projecting Judon to get a 4-year deal averaging $17 million per season and $36.5 million guaranteed.
Takkarist McKinley, Atlanta Falcons / Las Vegas Raiders
The Browns tried to claim McKinley from waivers three or four different teams last season as he was dealing with a groin injury. Perhaps they were just curious about him, but they might simply want him on their team. A bust relative to where he was drafted, McKinley is now a 25-year old pass rusher with intrigue.
McKinley started his career with 13 sacks in his first two seasons and in his best season, 2018, he had seven sacks and 25 pressures. In 2019, he recorded just 3.5 sacks and 20 pressures followed by basically a lost year in 2020.
He hasn't been particularly good, but he hasn't been bad either. It's just not clear what a team can truly get out of him at this point. McKinley can be a solid run defender who can be an energy rusher.
McKinley isn't good enough on his own at this point to lock down the position, so signing him would come with the caveat there is more work to do.
Pro Football Focus projects McKinley to get a 3-year deal averaging $9.5 million per year and $18 million guaranteed.
Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Football Team
Kerrigan will be 33 years old in August and his last year in Washington, he was a designated pass rusher in a rotation with Montez Sweat and Chase Young. He recorded 5.5 sacks and produced 13 pressures in that role.
It would have to be on a deal similar to the one that Adrian Clayborn has, not much higher than the league minimum. If he's willing to do that, he might be able to provide an upgrade as a fourth defensive end.
The Browns would still need to find a starter, be it elsewhere in free agency or the NFL Draft. Porter Gustin, who was in that role last year had seven pressures and did not record a sack. This would be an area where team could potentially improve on the margins.