The Cleveland Browns are looking to improve their defense this offseason and an area needing a major upgrade is defensive end. Given the current free agent market, a name that Andrew Berry should consider bringing in is former number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney finds himself without a new contract two weeks into free agency and his market could begin to dry up. The former first round pick is only 27 years old and is looking to cash in with a long-term deal. Sadly, for Clowney many teams aren’t very receptive of paying him a market value contract. It is rumored that he is looking for $20 million plus annually, a deal that is in the same range as Demarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark’s contracts last year. For many football fans that would seem like an easier negotiation given Clowney’s freakish athletic ability and on-field potential.
The issue Clowney faces is that his performance last season and lack of a double-digit sack year is hard to warrant a long-term contract of that nature. In contract years both Demarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark produced double-digit sack seasons, with 10.5 and 14 sacks respectively. Clowney although a disruptive presence and great in the run game, doesn’t offer the same potential pass rush productivity. Before being franchise tagged and traded to the Seattle Seahawks, Clowney finished the 2018 season with 9 sacks. He played out the year hoping to cash in big this offseason, but he severely missed the mark with only 31 tackles and three sacks last season. Now this level of production doesn’t warrant twenty million a year, but it could make the Browns players in the Clowney sweepstakes.
Multiple veterans have met their exodus out of Cleveland to create cap space and there is still debate for other veterans on the roster. There are two veterans with contracts that could place them on the chopping block. Those players are OT Chris Hubbard and DE Olivier Vernon. Hubbard is highly at-risk of being cut following the contract handed out to RT Jack Conklin, while Vernon holds the franchises highest cap hit and couldn’t stay healthy last season. The focus here is Olivier Vernon's contract and the Browns ability to sign Jadevon Clowney if Andrew Berry decides to move on from the high cost defensive end.
Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has already begun his roster purge of players that don’t perform to the level their contract suggests. These players have been released to create sap space to sign free agents and manage the team’s cap flexibility. Cornerback T.J. Carrie was the first player affected by these cuts, as Berry released him to save $6.35 million in cap space. Carrie was a decent contributor in the Browns secondary but there are higher expectations for a defensive back making over eight million dollars a year than just average nickelback play. This was a prime example of a player not performing to the level his billing would suggest.
Other cuts were made for players with concerning injury history and their 2020 cap hit. Unfortunately for the Browns this involved two veteran players, one being fan favorite LB Christian Kirksey and the other S Morgan Burnett. Burnett was the more obvious cut of the two because of the Achilles injury he suffered last season and being a thirty-one-year-old safety on the back end of his career. Christian Kirksey’s release was a topic of debate given that he signed a four-year contract extension back in 2017 but dealt with injuries the previous two seasons. After it was obvious Berry had no intentions of resigning LB Joe Schobert to a market value deal, the writing was on the wall for Kirksey and with his release the Browns saved $7.55 million in cap space.
Vernon is set to make $15.5 million this season and commands a significant portion of the salary cap. He joined the Browns last year via trade for OG Kevin Zeitler, to provide a significant edge presence opposite Myles Garrett. Needless to say, the swap has not worked out given the team’s whole at right guard and Vernon’s limited production. Last season, Vernon finished with 26 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 10 games. Majority of the season Vernon struggled with a nagging knee injury and there is no guarantee he will return to his old self given he turns 30 this season. These two concerning factors, of an expensive salary and meager production are reasons Berry may look to move on.
Given the salary the Browns are set to pay Olivier Vernon that money could be used to sign Clowney to a short-term deal. The move could work out great for both sides, as the Browns get younger and more talented on the edge, while Clowney gets another chance to earn a market value contract. The new collective bargaining agreement will increase players’ salaries after 2021 under the new TV deal which means more money in the next contract. Clowney could really benefit from signing a short-term deal in Cleveland because he would join DE Myles Garrett and have more one-on-one opportunities to showcase his pass rushing potential. An increase in pass rushing productivity and a double-digit sack season could give the him the contract he seeks even if it’s not with the Browns.
The ideal offer for both sides would be a two-year deal worth $37 million including incentives to maximize Clowney’s earning potential. This sort of deal offers $18.5 million annually and would be slightly more per year than Trey Flowers’ contract with the Detroit Lions. The salary would be a three million dollar increase from Vernon’s current cap hit but it is worth the small fee given two years of commitment from one the leagues premiere edge players. It is definitely a move the Browns could pull off having an excess of $48.16 million in cap space available even with Chris Hubbard’s contract on the books. Jadeveon Clowney would provide a definite upgrade over Olivier Vernon and gives defensive coordinator Joe Woods another weapon. Andrew Berry should pick up the phone and give Clowney’s agent a call because upgrading the defensive end group is a must this offseason.