The biggest news for the Cleveland Browns this week was the official release of J.J. Watt from the Houston Texans. Maybe they would have been better off trading for him to ensure they got him as opposed to being forced to try to sell him on Cleveland, but they have a real case to make to Watt or anyone else on joining this team. If not Watt, the question for the Browns is the type of edge rusher they want for this defense.
Watt's talent would be a game changer for the Browns who as reported by Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com have already notified his camp of their interest in the three time defensive player of the year.
Watt also is a tremendous fit for Joe Woods has in mind for the defense. Getting smaller and faster in the back seven makes it valuable to have defensive linemen with size up front. The former Texans star consistently demands double teams, which would be difficult enough on a front with Myles Garrett and Sheldon Richardson, but it protects the players behind him.
In other words, whether it's the six defensive backs Woods has suggested he aspires to play in base or rolling with a few linebackers, they should have more freedom to fly around and make plays.
To this point, Woods has exclusively targeted bigger defensive ends for his scheme. He obviously inherited Garrett and Olivier Vernon, who have size, but the team signed Adrian Clayborn (6'3" 280), Joe Jackson (6'4" 275) and attempted to sign Jadeveon Clowney (6'5" 255 which looks like his weight when he first got to South Carolina) as well as Everson Griffen (6'3" 273).
The Browns could target a edge rusher that's smaller and plays primarily on their feet like Woods had when he worked with the Denver Broncos when they had Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on the roster.
It's only been one year, but to this point the Browns haven't done that. Watt certainly fits the mold (6'5" 288), but he's good enough that if a defense can't figure out a way to use him, it's time to find a new coordinator.
That's the question facing the Browns if they are unable to land Watt. Do they stay trying to go with bigger ends to protect the second level of the defense or opt for more speed to keep the opponent off balance?
The other obvious benefit with Watt would be that it allows the Browns to focus almost all of their offseason efforts for the defense in the secondary. They need another defensive tackle, whether that means re-signing Larry Ogunjobi or going in a different direction, which in itself is a rabbit hole.
If the Browns find a three-technique defensive tackle they like, do they move Jordan Elliott to nose, where he might be a better fit? Or do they exclusively look for another nose to rotate with Andrew Billings, who should be back after opting out for the 2020 season, keeping Elliott behind Richardson? It may be entirely about the best player and adjusting from there.
In addition to a starting defensive end, the Browns need two starting corners and another starting caliber safety in order to achieve big nickel or base dime defense Woods seeks. It would still be a pretty big surprise if the Browns invest anything meaningful into the linebacker position. Their priority is everything else first, but this list does not account for depth.
The goal of free agency should be to find one good player to add to this defense. Not just a guy who can be penciled in to start, but one that elevates that side of the ball. Ideally, they would be at defensive end or a boundary corner, but a safety would be fine too.
That's what makes Watt such an attractive target. He's an outstanding player that could have a great couple of years with the Browns like Ware in Denver or Julius Peppers with the Green Bay Packers. Watt would be the second best player on the defense the second he steps into Berea.
Trey Hendrickson and Carl Lawson both look like good options if the Browns can't land Watt, but while the worry with Watt is staying healthy, the concern with those two is taking the step to be a truly great threat off the edge.