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Browns veterans we believe will not be back - and why

A look at several Browns experienced players that may find a new home in 2021 

Cleveland Browns v New York Giants
Olivier Vernon
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

An NFL franchise builds their core roster through the college draft. And while those younger players are paid to play, a franchise will build and plug holes through the free agent market.

This year, the Browns have 17 Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), four Restricted Free Agents (RFA) and four Exclusive-Rights Free Agents (ERFA). That does not mean that GM Andrew Berry won’t let all of them sign elsewhere; it just means that their contracts are up and negotiations are ongoing, stalled or non-existent as the club has no intentions on re-signing.

Many of the names on the free agent list are starters such as DE Olivier Vernon, S Andrew Sendejo, K Cody Parkey, LB B.J. Goodson, DT Larry Ogunjobi, LB Malcolm Smith, S Karl Joseph and CB Terrance Mitchell. Others were key contributors this past season such as WR Rashard Higgins, or became injured like KR JoJo Natson.

Whatever the circumstance, Berry will decide which players he will access to keep and which to send along their way and wish them luck.

Then there are veterans who remain under contract, yet don’t appear to be earning their helmet stripes. Should Berry continue to pay these guys in the hope that they will finally come around and be productive? Or perhaps cut or trade a few that have value.

Here is a look at six veterans we feel will have a new helmet decal this season - in no particular order.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

S Andrew Sendejo

Age: 33

NFL seasons: 10; UFL seasons: 1

Drafted: 2010 undrafted

2020 cap number: $2.23 million

Thomas Moore:

The Browns signed Andrew Sendejo to a one-year deal for 2020 with the expectation that he could be a veteran player who could occasionally hold down the fort for a short period of time if called upon.

A training camp injury to second-round draft pick safety Grant Delpit, combined with the slow development of Sheldrick Redwine, meant that Sendejo ended up starting 14 games — his highest number since 2016 - and the results were not pretty.

Sendejo finished with the team’s lowest coverage grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) at 41.6, allowed five touchdown passes, the sixth-most in the league among safeties, and missed 14 tackles, although it seemed like a lot more.

In addition, opposing offenses could count on the Browns’ defense to be out of a position several times a game, and helping to communicate the call to the defense was supposed to be one of the reasons why Sendejo was on the field.

It was a shocking drop off for a player that had been solid the previous three seasons, as PFF noted at the time of Sendejo signing with the Browns:

Not everything was his fault, but moving on from Sendejo is likely the easiest call that Berry will have this off-season.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

DE Olivier Vernon

Age: 30

NFL seasons: 8

Drafted: 2012 3rd round (pick #72) Miami Dolphins

2020 cap number: $11 million

Barry Shuck:

Vernon is good cop, bad cop. He arrives with bright and shiny credentials complete with Pro Bowl hardware and the anticipation of being a quarterback’s nightmare. The perfect bookend to Myles Garrett.

And that is sometimes true. Against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 8 this past season while everyone else was tanking, Vernon had two sacks, four tackles, two QB hits, two tackles for loss, and played 83% of defensive snaps. Then there were the two sacks against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14. Three sacks, five tackles and four QB hits in the Philadelphia Eagles contest.

Then on the flipside, count eight games with zero sacks and an additional two with a single sack. 10 games with three or fewer tackles. A dozen games with two or fewer QB hits including four games without even getting near the opposing signalcaller. 36 total tackles for a 15-game season is nothing to call his grandma about.

Nine sacks is a decent year, but not for the bank Vernon is getting paid - not to mention the paltry 3.5 sacks the year before.

Before the 2020 season, Vernon agreed to restructure his contract in order to remain a Cleveland Brown. He was due to be the highest paid player on the roster at $15.25 million, but settled on a cap number of $11 million - all guaranteed.

And then there is the injury bug. Two MCL sprains in his knee limited Vernon to playing just 10 games in 2019. When healthy, he is arguably the second best defensive player on the field behind Garrett. This season, he had an inguinal groin pull in Week 5 against the Colts which constricted him the following week. In mid-September, he was limited with an abdomen muscle strain Grade 2.

The answer is to draft a young pass rushing stud in the early rounds of this year’s draft who can remain healthy and not break the bank. Then, if that player plays a roller coaster season like Vernon, the new guy isn’t grossly overpaid for minimal return.

Houston Texans v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

DT Larry Ogunjobi

Age: 26

NFL seasons: 3

Drafted: 2017 3rd round (pick #65) Browns

2020 cap number: $2.38 million

Thomas Moore:

Heading into the 2020 season, it appeared that defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to be one of those rare draft picks to earn a second contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Ogunjobi is durable — he has played at least 14 games every season with the Browns - but his production fell off this past season and he was arguably the weakest link among the starters on the defensive line; finishing with an overall grade of 51.4 from PFF including just 53.9 against the run.

If he is willing to take a team-friendly deal, the Browns would probably be open to bringing Ogunjobi back and have him be part of a rotation at defensive tackle with Sheldon Richardson, Jordan Elliott and Andrew Billings - who is expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

But with Ogunjobi’s estimated market value to be a bit more than $9 million a year - according to Spotrac - and the Browns having other issues to deal with, general manager Andrew Berry will likely let Ogunjobi continue his career somewhere other than Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

S Karl Joseph

Age: 27

NFL seasons: 4

Drafted: 2016 1st round (pick #14) Oakland Raiders

2020 cap number: $2.43 million

Barry Shuck:

If ever there was a position of disaster in 2019 it was the safety group. GM Berry set out to remedy the situation by signing both Sendejo and Joseph as seasoned veterans. His thought process was to have experienced guys come in and tutor both the rookie Delpit and young Redwine. That was the plan.

Now, for 2021, there apparently is going to be a different plan. And this time the objective is to sign two other free agent safeties who are competent and don’t abandon assignments. While Sendjo was durable he missed a lot of tackles, Joseph is a sure tackler and is a solid player but gets outreached quite a bit.

Joseph received a 53.3 grade from PFF - the second highest safety rating on the Browns behind Ronnie Harrison. He had 67 tackles which is where he shines especially coming up in run support.

It would not surprise anyone to see him back in orange next year especially since he comes with an economy price tag; but he is a bit undersized (5’-10”) for the taller receivers and especially tight ends he faces. This past season he just may have hit his ceiling and had an up-and-down year.

While with the Raiders, Joseph was plagued with injuries but was basically durable with Cleveland. He did suffer a hamstring injury during a practice session in October and played through it in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, but then missed the next two games.

Simply put, there are just a lot better options in this year’s free agent market than Joseph despite his low salary. If another seasoned veteran with more talent could be signed for not much more, then why wouldn’t Berry do this?

There are also some key safeties that could be drafted with one of the two third or fourth-round picks the Browns own this year. It is doubtful that Berry will wait for the draft to ink another safety - and it may or may not be Joseph. There are multiple reports swirling that the Browns are targeting Anthony Harris of the Minnesota Vikings instead.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

CB Kevin Johnson

Age: 28

NFL seasons: 5

Drafted: 2015 1st round (pick #16) Houston Texans

2020 cap number: $2.38 million

Thomas Moore:

Cornerback Kevin Johnson was another played added on a one-year deal in 2020 through one of those “low-risk, high-reward” deals that appeal to so many fans.

A former first-round pick by the Texans who never lived up to that selection due to injuries, Johnson ended up playing 13 games for the Browns, making six starts, as the team dealt with injuries at the cornerback position throughout the season.

Johnson was decent at keeping receivers out of the end zone — he only allowed one touchdown pass while playing 54 percent of his defensive snaps in the slot position — but opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 106.8 when they targeted Johnson, and his overall PFF grade of 51.4, including 52.6 in coverage, is not going to cut it on a Browns team looking to have more cornerbacks on the field.

The Browns have higher aspirations going into 2021, so it appears that Johnson’s one season in Cleveland will be more than enough for the team.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

TE David Njoku

Age: 24

NFL seasons: 3

Drafted: 2017 1st round (pick #29) Browns

2020 cap number: $3.03 million

Barry Shuck:

First off, if there was an award for “Most Improved Player” this past season, it would go to David Njoku based on his newly-found blocking techniques. A spectacular athlete who was known for his hands only and a poor blocker, he improved his blocking tremendously this year. Njoku shined against the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoff loss.

In fact, in the second half of the 2020 season Njoku may have been the best tight end on the Browns. So, why would the Browns get rid of him? Simple economics.

Cleveland did pick up his fifth-year option which keeps him in-house. He is set to make $6.013 million in 2021. Njoku’s cap number this past season was $3.03 million.

Njoku had 19 receptions for 213 yards with two touchdowns and just 29 targets. Austin Hooper had 70 targets. Harrison Bryant was targeted 38 times. Those 19 receptions ranked seventh on the Browns, which include being behind OBJ’s numbers who was lost for the year in Week 7. With Njoku’s paltry stats, he earned almost $105,000 per target and over $159,000 per reception.

One would expect a lot more production out of a first-round pick playing in his fourth season.

Njoku doesn’t seem to be thrilled with his role in Stefanski’s offense used more as a blocker. This offense is heavy-reliant on the tight end position. Going forward, does anyone believe the Browns are going to continue to pay $6 mil for low production numbers as just a good blocker? Stephen Carlson is a fine blocker and only gets paid $675,000 for his work.

Then there is the trade issue. During training camp last year, Njoku stated he wanted to be traded on July 3. Less than a month later, he rescinded that request. Next, at the trade deadline it was reported that he was ready for a trade.

Recently Njoku was a guest on the “Jim Rome Show” on February 5. He appeared non-committal on his continued tenure with Cleveland:

“We got Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant. Those two guys I have much respect for,“ stated Njoku on Rome’s show. “At first it put me in an interesting position. I was confused because the Browns took my fifth-year option. At the same time I keep hearing Kevin Stefanski’s offense is very tight end oriented. I was optimistic.”

Rome then asked Njoku where that left him in relationship with the Browns with the talent level in the tight end room plus the added depth, and is he still in the right spot with the right team.

“I have no comment at this moment. I am just going to let everything handle itself in the near future,” Njoku responded.

Hooper was paid $4 million last year and is set to make $8.25 million this season. So, what is the possibility of having one tight end making over $6 mil and another taking home over $8 mil? In the history of the NFL, has there ever been that much spent on the tight end position in a single season? Anyone?

Right now, Njoku has trade worth. Even if it is something like a third-round pick, there is value with him. Berry should unload one of the highest-paid tight ends, and he just signed Hooper to a huge contract last season.

Here is a guy that apparently is unhappy, has low production numbers, is getting paid to be the starter yet has started only six games in the past two seasons, isn’t getting any targets and has asked to be traded.

That makes Njoku expendable.

Poll

As the GM of the Browns, which of the six players listed would you keep instead?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    S Andrew Sendejo
    (17 votes)
  • 5%
    DE Olivier Vernon
    (173 votes)
  • 29%
    DT Larry Ogunjobi
    (909 votes)
  • 22%
    S Karl Joseph
    (696 votes)
  • 10%
    CB Kevin Johnson
    (325 votes)
  • 31%
    TE David Njoku
    (963 votes)
3083 votes total Vote Now