One of the biggest focuses for the Cleveland Browns this offseason will be adding to their secondary and one tantalizing option might be current New Orleans Saints corner Marshon Lattimore. The devil is in the details and pulling off a trade could be extremely tricky for the Browns, which comes with a fair amount of risk.
The Saints are in the worst salary cap situation in the NFL. They pushed everything in for the final season of Drew Brees and they will find their way in compliance by letting free agents walk, cutting some veterans and restructuring a ton of contracts. Even if the salary cap is at its lowest, the Saints would still by $65 million or $23 million more than the Cleveland Indians projected 2021 payroll.
That might have them dealing some young players they will have a challenge affording in exchange for draft picks to help them jumpstart a rebuild.
One potential option that could be traded is former first round pick and Ohio State Buckeyes corner Marshon Lattimore, who is set to earn $10.244 million in 2021. A trade could being them back draft assets as well as lighten their salary cap burden.
Lattimore was one of the best corners in the league his rookie season. He has not been as good since then, living off reputation to some extent, but he's still an extremely talented player that offers both size and tremendous physical ability at a critical position. 6', around 200 pounds with elite speed and explosion and turning just 25 years old in May, he can be an elite corner if he can get back to the level of play he showed as a rookie.
The good news for the Browns is if they were to acquire Lattimore, along with Denzel Ward, they would have a pair of corners who can basically man up anyone in the NFL. They could play zone to throw off tendency and try to confuse opponents, but both players are betters suited to man up and run with opposing receivers.
That could be a massive benefit to the Browns pass rush, forcing quarterback to hesitate and hold the ball longer which would allow Myles Garrett and company to get to the quarterback.
It could also free up the Browns safeties, which figure to be a huge part of the defense and allow them to focus on the run and patrol passing lanes. At least for the moment, the Browns safeties cost next to nothing and if they were to draft a player like Trevon Moehrig in the first round of the NFL Draft, they could really put a stamp on the group without committing themselves financially. It would balance out the cost of the roster.
The bad news is how challenging it will be to get a deal done. Consider the fact the Browns would be trading Lattimore for the right to sign him to an extension. It wouldn't make sense to pay what will be a reasonably high price for a one-year rental. They would immediately take on the $10.244 million he's due in 2021, then add on an extension to that deal. And that deal has to be good enough for Lattimore has to agree to it.
That absolutely comes with risk. The Browns could also work with Denzel Ward on an extension this offseason. If they do that, they will not only potentially have a great corner duo, they'd be paying top dollar for them, as much as any team in the NFL. If they play great, it's worth every penny. If not, it's a significant financial liability. But if a team is going to go down, go down with freaky athletes with productive backgrounds who don't get themselves in trouble off the field. It doesn't hurt that Joe Woods, the team's defensive coordinator has spent much of his career coaching defensive backs.
Everything from their ages to their physical talent to what they've shown on the field gives plenty of reason to believe they can be exceptional together. It simply has to happen, which includes staying healthy. That is another area in Lattimore's favor as he's played 64 games, including seven postseason games in his first four seasons. He's missed seven regular season games in that period.
That's trickier with Ward, who has has missed substantially more time in his career, missing nine of his 48 regular season games.
So what would the Browns need to offer to get Lattimore?
They don't want to give up a first or second round pick as those are extremely valuable assets for the Browns. Those pick represent incredibly cheap contracts on players that should be able to contribute almost immediately. The goal is for those picks to be used on two contract players. It's also one of the increasingly fleeting opportunities for the Browns to really upgrade their roster.
That would start the Browns offering one of their third round picks. Perhaps they throw in a day three pick or a conditional pick, perhaps even a pick swap later in the draft. The Saints might be more interested in getting a 2022 draft pick as well.
Seemingly, if the Saints were willing to take a third and fifth round pick in this year's draft, the Browns would jump on it. A third this year and a fourth next year might be acceptable, though not quite as appetizing for the Browns. It's not a great year for talent and the uncertainty due to the pandemic make 2022 picks more attractive.
Lattimore's contract could put the Browns in select company among contenders trying to make a trade as they are likely to be one of only a few teams with championship aspirations that can take on his contract. They would need to create money elsewhere on the roster, but they can make it work.
Lattimore might want to play for a contender and embrace the opportunity to play at home, being from Cleveland, but the Saints don't care if they trade Lattimore to a contender. A bottom dwelling team with tons of cap room could offer an early third round pick would likely be more attractive to the Saints, trying to maximize their return in trade.
That's the rub. As much as the Browns might love the prospect of adding Lattimore to this secondary, they only have so many options to sweeten the deal after offering a third round pick. They are inherently at a disadvantage to make a deal with teams selecting at the start of the round
If the Saints are looking to move Lattimore, the Browns should and will almost certainly investigate. It just may come down to the fact their draft assets aren't worth as much as inferior teams.