Free agent pass rushers for the Browns to consider in the 2021 offseason

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Jeff Risdon
·8 min read
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Finding someone to start at defensive end opposite Pro Bowler Myles Garrett is one of the Browns’ biggest needs this offseason. Garrett is a viable defensive player of the year candidate, but the other DE spot is filled with uncertainty.

Olivier Vernon is a pending free agent and also tore his Achilles in December. Even if the Browns want him back, betting on Vernon is risky. Current reserves Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson have roles but not as starters.

The primary focus here is on defensive ends who can align in a 4-man front, but more versatile OLB-type EDGE players can work in Joe Woods’ defense too.

Here are a few pending free agents for the Browns to consider. All listed here will be unrestricted free agents one the 2021 offseason begins.

Carl Lawson, Bengals

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Browns fans should know Lawson well from his first four seasons with the rival Bengals. It's understandable if he's not a prominent memory, however. The Bengals never really committed to playing Lawson as extensively as their fan base hoped, despite his impressive first step, refined hand usage and closing burst to the quarterback that jumps off game film. Lawson comes off a season where he managed "just" 5.5 sacks in Cincinnati but showed a more developed and dynamic all-around game. He's a viable double-digit sack master with more playing time and a better supporting cast--both of which would be in play for Lawson in Cleveland. https://twitter.com/dlinevids1/status/1362137033678876672?s=20 Lawson figures to have many suitors, but he is the highest-end talent on the market under age 30 (he turns 26 in June).

J.J. Watt, ex-Texans

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By now, Browns fans are well-versed on Watt and his availability. Depending on the source, the three-time defensive player of the year has somewhere between mild interest and extreme desire to join the Browns. He is free to be signed at any time, but Watt doesn't appear to be rushing his decision. Now 32 and having battled a couple of severe injuries, Watt is more short-term. But he can absolutely still play at a high level and his experience and leadership make Watt very attractive for the right price.

Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

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One of the most pleasant free agent signings in recent years, Barrett exploded in his two seasons with the Buccaneers after being a part-time starter in four years with the Broncos. He led the NFL in sacks with 19.5 in 2019 and helped key the ferocious pass rush that catapulted Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title earlier this month. Now he's a free agent again and will be a heavily coveted one. Barrett isn't an ideal scheme fit for how the Browns played defense in 2020; he's much more of a traditional odd-man front OLB than an in-line 4-man DE. He wins with quick feet and using explosive power in his hands and shoulders by starting with some space between him and the offensive tackle. Barrett is definitely worthy of investigating for the Browns, but his style and his price tag probably make him more valuable to another team. The thought of him and Garrett lining up next to each other is pure unadulterated nightmare fuel for opposing offensive coaches, though.

Melvin Ingram, Chargers

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After nine seasons with the Chargers, Ingram is one of the most accomplished pass rushers on the market. He did not have a great 2020, failing to record a sack in just seven games, but prior to that Ingram had earned a spot in three straight Pro Bowls. Ingram brings the benefit of having played (quite well) across the lineup from a dominant end with the Chargers in Joey Bosa. He's a great No. 2 rusher capable of playing in the exact role Vernon has done the last two years in Cleveland and doing it with more speed and consistency, too. There are drawbacks with Ingram. He's played in just 20 games out of 32 in the last two seasons due to injuries, and he turns 32 this summer. He's not topped seven sacks in a year since 2017, and prior to Bosa's arrival, Ingram was a disappointing creator up front.

Matthew Judon, Ravens

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Judon has a Pro Bowler in each of the last two seasons with the Ravens, but it seems unlikely he'll be back in Baltimore. The team used the franchise tag on Judon last offseason and was rewarded with a career-high 9.5 sacks and the most consistent play of his career in doing the other facets of playing EDGE. Sometimes other people perfectly capture something well enough that it just needs to be given credit. Here's what Pro Football Focus said of Judon in their free agency preview,

The Ravens' blitz-happy scheme certainly helps create mismatches and unblocked pressures, but even with those factored in, Judon has an above-average pass-rush grade over the past three years. The caveat is the expectation that he'll become a "10-sack guy" in any system. Judon fits best as a situational rusher who can take advantage of mismatches and be used as a pass-rush/spy weapon against athletic quarterbacks.

Sounds like exactly what the Browns are looking for, huh? Plucking Judon away from the division rival Ravens makes his appeal a little sweeter, too.

Romeo Okwara, Lions

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Okwara erupted in 2020 for a career-high 10 sacks on a Detroit defense where he got almost no help or schematic advantage. It matched his career total from his first four seasons, spread between the Giants and Lions. At 6-4 and 265 strong pounds, Okwara fits the bill as a hand-in-the-dirt rusher. He wins more with relentless effort and energy than actual technique, though his hand usage and rip move did noticeably improve in his breakout campaign. Okwara is just 26 (in June) and has more room for growth. His run defense and tackling are not assets, however. He seems like a player the Browns would sit out on in the initial wave of free agency and pounce after the market settles, if Okwara is still unsigned.

Tarell Basham, Jets

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Basham stepped up in his fourth NFL season, notching career-highs across the statistical board. That includes 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, none of which was bigger than his strip-sack of Baker Mayfield in the Jets' stunning win over the Browns in December. Basham projects better as a No. 3 EDGE than as a starter, but he does have some traits the Browns seem to covet. He's long, powerful and sturdy against the run; he's the most positionally responsible player on this list as an outside run defender. Cleveland needs that too, though the Browns need someone who can disrupt and finish as a pass rusher more. The soon-to-be 27-year-old Basham does have some promise as a player who can do more when surrounded by more talent. He shouldn't be the only solution, but if paired with a first-round pick or another higher-end veteran, Basham could be a nice, economical fit.

Haason Reddick, Cardinals

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Reddick is hitting the market at the right time. The 26-year-old is coming off his best season, one where the Cardinals finally figured out to not have him worry about playing off-ball LB and instead just focus on making plays in the backfield. He racked up 12.5 sacks and forced six fumbles in 2020, each more than doubling the combined output of his first three seasons. He's added some bulk to help play EDGE almost exclusively and it paid off, though he's still lighter than what the Browns have preferred. It's always worrisome to pay big money for a one-year wonder. Reddick was a massive disappointment for Arizona as its first-round pick in 2017 before last year. But letting him do what he thrived at in college seems to have brought the spark back that made Reddick a top-15 pick coming out of Temple.

Other options the Browns shouldn't chase after

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Jadeveon Clowney - three sacks in his last 21 games over two seasons for the former No. 1 overall pick. Clowney, his oft-surgically repaired knee and his game are not aging gracefully. Aldon Smith - very impressive talent, but trusting the troubled Smith is not something these Browns need to risk. He missed four full seasons battling addiction issues that rival Josh Gordon's demons. Leonard Floyd - unless the Browns are converting to a predominant 3-man front, Floyd isn't a great fit. He's a 3-4 OLB exclusively. Good player, not a good fit. Trey Hendrickson - Hendrickson wowed the NFL with 13.5 sacks for the Saints in 2020. The spike up from being a situational reserve with modest success in a contract year is fantastic for him but scary from a free agent buyer's standpoint. He's the kind of EDGE who speed rushes the passer even on 3rd-and-1 against a jumbo package. Hendrickson is an electrifying pass rusher and will be compensated as such, and I just don't see the value for the Browns.

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