During last year’s free agency period, Browns GM Andrew Berry was very busy in getting in lots of able bodies to compete along the defensive line.
The first player inked was DE Cameron Malveaux to a reserve/futures contract. DE Porter Gustin was tendered March 5. Then DE Adrian Clayborn was cut, DE Romeo McKnight was signed along with former first-round pick DE Takk McKinley and DT Malik Jackson in free agency. DE Trevon Young was waived while DE Jadeveon Clowney and DT Sheldon Day were signed the same day as free agents.
Exclusive rights were tendered on Gustin before DT Sheldon Richardson and his rich contract was dropped from the roster. After the NFL draft brought in DT Tommy Togiai, Berry then signed free agent DT’s Malik McDowell and Damion Square plus claimed DE’s Joe Jackson and Curtis Weaver off waivers. DE Ifeadi Odenigbo was placed on the practice squad after being a final roster cut by the New York Football Giants.
Not to mention the players already under contract such as DT’s Jordan Elliott and Andrew Billings plus All-World DE Myles Garrett.
That is a lot of attention devoted to just one position group.
And now fast forward to the end of the 2021 season. The Browns were the 12th best rushing defense in the league allowing 1,857 total yards (109.2 yards per game average). This defense allowed the 10th least yards per carry at 4.2 plus allowed the 9th fewest rushing touchdowns (13). Cleveland’s opponents had just nine rushes of 20-yards plus and a mere two runs that gained over 40-yards.
In a capsule, the rushing defense stood up for most of the season.
Now, they were also torched several times including a season-high 190 yards the Pittsburgh Steelers produced in which RB Najee Harris became a professional football player and his 188-yard effort. In the 45-7 loss against the New England Patriots that group had 184-yards rushing including RB Rhamondre Stevenson’s 100-yard effort. Nine out of their 17 games the Browns’ opponents got over the 100-yard mark.
This rush defense also had 76 tackles for loss and 14 forced fumbles with six recoveries.
With the passing defense, the Browns finished 10th in sacks with 43. Of course, DC Joe Woods can thank Garrett and his 16 sacks, a career high.
Accolades along the defensive line include Garrett who was named to his third Pro Bowl and was selected First Team All-Pro - the second of his career. McDowell was viewed as a player on the rise while Clowney was his usual run-stuffing self; and into the second half of the season found a consistent pass rush. He is currently an unrestricted free agent (UFA) but has proved to be valuable and perhaps re-signed to a longer deal.
McKinley did not do much to cement his roster position and in all likelihood will not be re-signed especially since he is an UFA. Jackson might be in the same boat and is also an UFA. Ifeadi was elevated from the practice squad in Week 14 where he remained.
McDowell proved to be a player that needed a long-term deal done, but after the season he was arrested and sadly may have played his last NFL contest. He is an exclusive right free agent if that even means anything at this juncture. Elliott was just sub-par while Togiai had very few snaps during the first half and was eventually utilized more down the stretch.
To be factual, for the second year in a row next season’s starting four on the defensive front may be Myles Garrett - and three new guys.
It is a high probability that Cleveland will select a defensive tackle as well as a defensive end in the April NFL draft. But in the meantime, the Browns should also bring in several bodies along the defensive line during the upcoming free agency period which begins March 16.
Here’s four possibilities for the Browns.
EDGE Chandler Jones
6’-5”, 265 pounds
NFL draft: 2012 Round 1, pick #21 (Patriots)
Pro Bowls: 4
40 time: 4.85
2021 season: Pro Bowl, 15 starts, 41 tackles, 26 QB hits, 10.5 sacks, 36 pressures, 8 hurries, 17 knockdowns, 12 tackles for loss, 6 forced fumbles, 7 missed tackles
2022 free agent ranking: 5
Cleveland’s answer to giving Myles Garrett a running mate would be completely solved if Berry would just pull the trigger on this one signing. Holy cow. In his 10-year career, Jones has had seven seasons with double-digit sack numbers, including 19 in 2019.
That would be it. End of story and hello consecrated terror for any offensive line.
Finished 2021 with a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 89.8 for pass rush. Has incredible length and a sudden burst off the snap. And if Jones doesn’t get to the QB he will certainly leave a mark that he was there with either a hit, pressure or a knockdown. Do not for one second look at his age and assume this guy has slowed. He made the Pro Bowl this past year if you need further proof.
Offensive tackles just could not take him one-on-one. And he is a three-down player who isn’t a one-trick pony rushing the passer as he is above average in run defense as well. His weakness is he is slow at times to shed blocks but does have a laundry list of pass rushing moves.
And the dude is extremely durable. Jones had three different body sprains before tearing a ligament in his thumb in 2019. None of these ailments required him to miss a game as he has averaged 750 snaps per season. In 2020 he suffered a Grade 3 bicep tear in Week 5 that landed him on IR. Last year: no issues.
Jones plays fast and is known for being a hustler with a great work ethic. Physical and plays with strength. Disruptive. Very athletic who has turned into an excellent player over the years.
Can you visualize Garrett on one side and Jones on the other? Whatever it takes to sign this dude, GM Berry, please break the checkbook.
Contract Projection: Two years, $33.5 million ($16.75M per year, $24 million total guaranteed)
DT Folorunso Fatukasi
New York Jets
6’-4”, 318 pounds
NFL draft: 2018 Round 6, pick #180 (Jets)
Pro Bowls: none
40 time: 5.29
2021 season: 15 starts, 46 tackles, 6 QB hits, 0 sacks, 8 pressures, 4 hurries, 4 knockdowns, 5 tackles for loss, 0 forced fumbles, 4 missed tackles
2022 free agent ranking: 69
On the surface a more popular choice might be the Chicago Bears DT Akiem Hicks who is one of the best run defenders in the league. But Hicks will be 33 this year, and Cleveland has already tried that experiment with the aged veteran Malik Jackson this past season with mixed results. So perhaps some youth would make more sense. Plus, Hicks will demand somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million a year and analytics dictate paying defensive ends that kind of money, but not defensive tackles.
Fatukasi is not a stud pass rusher. He is quietly one of the best run defenders in the league and maybe the most unheralded in this regard. His PFF grade last year was 86.2 and was the Number 2 run defender. He is able to wreck havoc for the opposing pocket, but run defense is his forte. He is very durable.
A man with plenty of power, Fatukasi can be a game disrupter and is a three-down player. Is a coaches dream who has a high motor, is disciplined with low maintenance. He has the girth and power to handle the interior work even if that means another player can get to the QB. A true hustler who will fight every snap. One negative is that he won’t make many plays outside his own box especially trailing the play.
Contract Projection: Three years, $12 million ($4M per year, $6 million total guaranteed)
DE Jadeveon Clowney
6’-5”, 255 pounds
NFL draft: 2014 Round 1, pick #1 (Texans)
Pro Bowls: 3
40 time: 4.53
2021 season: 14 starts, 37 tackles, 19 QB hits, 9 sacks, 36 pressures, 8 hurries, 17 knockdowns, 11 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 7 missed tackles
2022 free agent ranking: 13
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Clowney had a decent year with Cleveland in 2021. But if he re-signs with the Browns, expect a multi-year deal.
Clowney has always been a force against the run, but the second half of the season he turned up the pass rush and it produced dividends. He still has explosiveness with power. Will miss tackles on occasion, but is a three-down defender. The Browns will not find a better end in regards to run defense.
Has had his list of injuries in the past, but was durable this past season. He is best in the clutch who still has elite speed coming off the edge. Strong at shedding blocks. Is able to rush inside which gives him versatility.
Contract Projection: Three years, $30 million ($10M per year, $18 million total guaranteed)
EDGE Haason Reddick
6’-1”, 235 pounds
NFL draft: 2017 Round 1, pick #13 (Cardinals)
Pro Bowls: none
40 time: 4.52
2021 season: 16 starts, 68 tackles, 18 QB hits, 11 sacks, 33 pressures, 14 hurries, 5 knockdowns, 12 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 4 missed tackles
2022 free agent ranking: 31
Cleveland’s need for another pass rusher ends with Reddick. A speed demon coming off the edge who had 11 sacks this year plus 12.5 in 2020 – the fourth most of any defender in this two-year stretch. High ceiling for this player who appears undersized until you attempt to block him after that first quick step. His PFF grade in 2021 was 70.4.
Elusive off the corner with speed from the get-go as well as pursuit. Has earned positive grades against the run although getting into the backfield is what he does best. Extremely durable having missed only one game in five seasons (and that was a COVID issue). Has 323 total tackles in his career so the man can get to players and take them down.
Very athletic with excellent pursuit skills. Makes big plays in the backfield and closes quickly. Has great hand placement and a wide variety of pass rushing moves with speed to bend the corner.
Few edge rushers have sacked opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate than Reddick in the past two seasons.
Contract Projection: Three years, $35 million ($11.67M per year, $18 million total guaranteed)
What say you? Which of the four highlighted players would you sign for 2022?
This poll is closed