How Olivier Vernon contract impacts Browns' interest in Jadeveon Clowney
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Browns, Olivier Vernon, Jadeveon Clowney

What does Olivier Vernon restructure mean for the Browns pursuit of Jadeveon Clowney?

The Cleveland Browns have been linked to Jadeveon Clowney throughout the entire offseason, but that shipped likely sailed on Tuesday morning. News broke that Cleveland had renegotiated Olivier Vernon’s contract to reduce his cap hit for 2020, while guaranteeing most of his new money.

This likely takes one team out of the Clowney sweepstakes, which has to end at some point.

Vernon was originally acquired via trade last offseason when the Browns sent guard Kevin Zeitler to the New York Giants. Drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2012, Vernon spent four years in South Beach, collecting a career-high 11.5 sack in 2013 and generating 36 quarterback hits in 2015. He signed a five-year $85 million deal with New York, and totaled 22 sacks and 56 hits over three season in the Big Apple. Vernon dealt with injuries, missing nine games from 2017 through 2018.

While not a game-wrecker, Vernon is a very good player when healthy. He plays the run well and his pass rushing is underrated. The Browns traded for him in order to give superstar Myles Garrett a solid complement, and that’s exactly what Vernon was.

His 3.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2019 doesn’t look like a great statistical performance, but Vernon was fulfilling his role well; he was applying consistent pressure and stopping the run, even if he wasn’t getting the big sack numbers. In Weeks 6 through 9 (Cleveland had a bye in Week 7), Vernon registered 17 pressures and put together a dominant all-around performance against the Seattle Seahawks.

Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury late against the Denver Broncos, and was rushed back into action in Week 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving after 10 plays due to a re-aggravation. If we remove the final two games that he played, where he was hurt, Vernon had 33 pressures in eight games. That’s solid production, and with improved depth on the Browns defensive line this year, Vernon should be even better in 2020, as long as he can stay healthy.

That caveat is an important one. Vernon has missed a total of 15 games over the past three seasons. He’s an effective player, but he obviously can’t make an impact if he’s hurt. The Browns signed free agent EDGE Adrian Clayborn to a two-year deal, who will be spelling Garrett.

Due to a nerve condition, Clayborn plays exclusively on the right side. The majority of both Garrett and Vernon’s snaps also came on the right side. It will be interesting to see how new Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods decides to rotate the three rushers. It’s likely we could see all three of them on the field for third downs, with Garrett rushing from the inside at the three-tech defensive tackle spot.

Vernon was owed over $15 million in 2020, which is fair for a player of his caliber, but his injury history makes that number quite risky. The Browns do have plenty of cap space available right now, but they’ve been aiming to save that, continually rolling it over in order to pay for the multiple big extensions that are coming (Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Garrett to name a few). Saving as much money as possible in order to roll over the maximum amount is smart. But paying Vernon $15 million to miss a large chunk of the season would not be ideal.

Clowney would be an upgrade on the field (the two aren’t that far apart, but that’s beside the point), but more importantly, he would have been less likely to miss time, or at least significant time. He missed three games in 2019 and one in 2018. Signing Clowney to a one-year deal for less than $15 million would have been ideal.

That way, Cleveland saves money, gets a better player, reduces the injury risk and would get a compensatory pick when Clowney presumably signed a long-term deal elsewhere in 2021. Even if Cl0wney wanted something closer to $19 million. there was still an argument to be made that the move made sense for the Browns.

Signing Clowney to a long-term deal wouldn’t make as much sense, unless he was willing to give the team a significant discount, something like $45 million over three years. The Browns are in a good spot financially, but they can’t afford to play big money to two defensive ends long-term, and Garrett’s new deal will likely be the largest in history for a defensive player.

Either way, signing Clowney meant that Vernon would have to be released. None of his $15 million cap hit was guaranteed for 2020, so there would be no dead cap for doing so. The optics that a move like that presents is another topic. But with Tuesday’s news, cutting Vernon to sign Clowney becomes impossible.

Vernon’s cap hit for 2020 is now $11 million, which saves the Browns over $4 million. The tradeoff is that $11 million is now fully guaranteed, meaning no matter what, Vernon isn’t going anywhere. There’s always the chance he could re-sign in Cleveland next year at a cheaper rate, but those odds probably aren’t that great.

Clayborn is signed for two seasons, and at the age of 32, he’s a short-term rotational player. The Browns really don’t have anyone else at the position. 2018 third-rounder Chad Thomas has done nothing to this point, and the rest of the depth chart is filled with undrafted free agents. There is no long-term partner-in-crime for Garrett, which means EDGE is still a big need, even though the top of the depth chart is in good shape.

There are still other free agents available who could make a big impact, Everson Griffen, Vinny Curry and Cam Wake to name a few. But it’s unlikely the Browns will want to turn around and spend their extra money. Rather, EDGE will likely be addressed in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the class looks to be quite good at this point, although we’re still quite a ways out.

For Clowney, not a whole lot changes. He reportedly has declined offers from Cleveland, and has received interest from the Seattle Seahawks (his previous team), Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders. He’ll sign somewhere, it’s just a matter of time. He’s far too good of a player to stay a free agent. The question is whether he’ll sign a one-year deal to try and increase his value for next offseason, or sign a reduced long-term deal for the added security.