The Cleveland Browns have the league’s best defense this year. Currently, this group has allowed the fewest passing yards with 895, the least amount of first-down passing conversions (38), the lowest completion percentage (53.8%), the fewest completions (84), and had allowed the fewest points scored until the Indianapolis Colts laid 38 points on them last week and now rank fifth.
Right out of the gate in Week 1, the Browns’ defense was exceptional. After eight weeks of league play, they remain a dominant unit.
During the off-season, GM Andrew Berry did some tinkering with this group. Several defenders were allowed to seek employment elsewhere or were outright released.
In their place, Berry signed in free agency DTs Dalvin Tomlinson, Maurice Hurst, and Shelby Harris, and then drafted Siaki Ika. In the defensive backfield, free agency brought into the safety group Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod while Berry inked undrafted rookie Ronnie Hickman. Cameron Mitchell was drafted with the cornerback unit with Mike Ford signed as a free agent and Kahlef Hailassie was claimed from the Kansas City Chiefs.
The linebacker room had minimal changes with undrafted rookie Mohamoud making the roster and special teams ace Matthew Adams signed in free agency.
The defensive end position received its fair share of improvements. In free agency, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was signed, a trade was made for former Minnesota Vikings Za’Darius Smith (ZDS), and Isaiah McGuire was drafted.
Let’s concentrate on the defensive end position a bit.
Ogbo is listed as the backup to perennial Pro Bowler Myles Garrett. On the other side at left DE, ZDS is the starter with second-year player Alex Wright and McGuire as his backup.
The initial idea here was Garrett and ZDS would become these freight trains that would wreak havoc in the offensive backfield while Ogbo and Wright would provide resting periods for the two starters.
In Week 1 against the reigning divisional champions Cincinnati Bengals, that was pretty much what happened. Garrett had 43 snaps (76.8%), two tackles, four QB hits, one tackle for loss, and a sack. ZDS’s contribution was 37 snaps (66.1%), two tackles and four QB hits. Ogbo had 34 snaps (60.7%), three tackles, one QB hit, one tackle for loss, plus one sack. Wright played on 15 snaps (26.8%) with one tackle. Ogbo ended up playing both left and right defensive end as the substitute in that game.
As Cleveland’s record currently stands at 4-2-0, this has pretty much played out the same in each game with Garrett and ZDS getting the most snaps while Ogbo and Wright come in to give the starters a blow.
Except within this system, there is an alarming stat: ZDS isn’t gathering many productive numbers like he has in the past.
ZDS had a great college career with 44 sacks while playing for East Mississippi Community College before transferring to the University of Kentucky. He was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2015 where he had 16 starts in four seasons. Despite leading his club with 8.5 sacks in the final year of his rookie contract, the Ravens allowed him to sign with the Green Bay Packers in free agency.
The Packers inked ZDS to a four-year $56 million deal. That season, he showed his true essence by collecting 13.5 sacks, 22 knockdowns, 55 tackles, 50 pressures, 13 hurries, one forced fumble, and 37 QB hits. The following season he netted 12.5 sacks, 11 knockdowns, 52 tackles, 39 pressures, 12 hurries, four forced fumbles, two pass defenses, two fumble recoveries, and 23 QB hits. During these two productive seasons, he also had nine missed tackles.
At this point, ZDS was viewed as a disruptive force and a game-wrecker. He made the Pro Bowl in both of these seasons.
In his third year with Green Bay in 2021, he reported to training camp with a back injury and landed on the Non-Football Injury list. When he was able to participate, he practiced sparingly. The 29-year-old ZDS suited up in Week 1 and played just 18 snaps but soon thereafter was placed on IR. 10 days later, he had back surgery. He would not be activated until January 12 in time for the playoffs.
In the interim, the Packers had converted his salary into a signing bonus which left ZDS with a cap hit of $28.1 million that saved the franchise nearly $16 million in cap space for the following season if they released or traded him.
Usually, back injuries will destroy linebackers and defensive linemen. It was assumed that ZDS’s abilities would be diminished despite the surgery being a success. At this point, was he damaged goods? His job is to bang against 300-pounders for 60 minutes.
In March of 2022, ZDS would have been responsible for a $27.7 million cap hit, but instead Green Bay released him. He then signed a three-year deal with the Vikings for $42 million.
From Minnesota to Cleveland
Right out of the gate, ZDS had once again found his mojo with the Vikings. Now completely healed, he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October with 6.5 sacks, 14 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and one batted pass. In Week 8, he was selected NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
For the season, he had 17 starts, 44 tackles, 10 sacks, 37 pressures, 15 knockdowns, 11 hurries, 15 tackles for loss, 24 QB hits, one forced fumble, five batted passes, and earned his third Pro Bowl nod. He also had five missed tackles.
At this juncture, ZDS was one of five players in the NFL who had totaled double-digit sacks in three of the last four seasons. Garrett was also in that group. That equates to 36 sacks in ZDS’s last three full seasons. His lone injury was a knee contusion in Week 10.
Berry then made a trade to bring ZDS to Lake Erie. He sent a 2024 fifth-round pick plus a 2025 fifth-round selection, while Cleveland received a 2025 sixth and seventh. As part of the deal, most of a scheduled $9.45 million base salary was paid by Cleveland in a restructured contract.
ZDS’ contract with the Browns is essentially a one-year deal for $10.5 million.
Suddenly, the Browns had this outstanding duo of sackmasters roaming their opponent’s backfields. Bringing in another stud pass rusher was viewed as the key catalyst for this defense going forward. What could go wrong?
What could go wrong? Lack of production.
Yes, it is just six games into the season, but where are all of these huge numbers ZDS was compiling while with the Packers and Vikings?
ZDS has started all six games. He has played 230 snaps (66.09%). So, the dude is playing quite a bit.
But here are his stats: 10 total tackles, one tackle for loss, seven QB hits, 10 pressures, six knockdowns, three hurries, one forced fumble, and a single sack.
Four of his 10 tackles came in Week 7 against the Colts. His lone sack was also in this game six games into the season. Four of ZDS’s QB hits came in the opening game against the Bengals. In three of the six games, he has accrued two stats or less.
Where is the production? Where are the monster sack numbers?
DE Za'Darius Smith is in the injury tent. Had to be helped to the sideline by the #Browns training staff— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) September 19, 2023
ZDS has been somewhat durable this year so far. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2, he injured his leg on a play where QB Kenny Pickett completed a 25-yard toss to WR George Pickens. It appeared to be a non-contact injury as he was seen not being able to put weight on his leg and was helped to the sideline where he went into the injury tent. Later, he stood on the sideline before re-entering the game after a Cleveland score.
In the blowout loss to the Ravens in Week 4, he jogged off the field and got hurt on a tackle of QB Lamar Jackson, then ventured into the medical tent.
The Browns are the fourth club ZDS has played for. When he first came to Cleveland, he said he was happy to get a fresh start. He came with Pro Bowl hardware and a ton of production. So far in just six games, that hasn’t been the case. While with Green Bay he was elected captain and had mega-numbers.
At that point with the Packers, ZDS expressed his desire to have his contract renegotiated after his consecutive Pro Bowl years. Then the back issues surfaced which changed the dynamics of his situation, halted his production, and altered his leverage. As the back injury and recovery from surgery lingered, there became a wedge between the player and management regarding money.
At one point, ZDS removed any mention of the Packers from his Instagram bio. He lost his captain status. Something had to happen for ZDS to lose the team’s trust and respect, but that remained to be seen and, in the end, he was allowed to sign elsewhere.
Who is quietly having a better season for the Browns is Ogbo who has zero starts but has played in all six games. His stats include 15 tackles, five QB hits, seven tackles for loss, six pressures, two knockdowns, one hurry, one fumble recovery, and 2.5 sacks. He has played 204 snaps (58.62%).
Get this: after a hot start in 2022 grabbing eight sacks, ZDS had just 0.5 sacks in his final seven games with the Vikings. Now after six games with Cleveland, he has just one. 1.5 sacks in his last 13 games are a valid indication that something is amiss with this player.
Needless to say, he isn’t the same dominant force he has been and was the reason the team traded for him. He hasn’t been able to disengage offensive linemen like in the past. The amount of pressures has tapered off considerably. Last year, those numbers peaked at 6.1 per contest to 3.3 going down the stretch. This year it is 1.7 per game.
He was brought to Cleveland to be another star edge rusher and help provide impressive numbers on an exceptional defense.
The Browns are in a critical stage of the schedule. This defense will need the power and speed of ZDS to show why he is a great run defender and pass rusher.