Andrew Berry has been relentless in chasing down certain edge defenders.
The Browns hope their new defensive ends will be as persistent in their pursuit of opposing quarterbacks.
Jadeveon Clowney signed a one-year contract with the Browns on Wednesday, when the three-time Pro Bowl selection visited team headquarters in Berea for the second time in a span of three weeks, a person familiar with the deal confirmed to the USA TODAY Network. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not been announced by the team.
With the move, Berry secured another defensive end who eluded him last year in his first offseason as general manager of the Browns.
Berry signed defensive end Takk McKinley to a one-year, $4.25 million contract on March 18 after trying to acquire him four times in 2020.
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Now the Browns have three defensive ends who were first-round draft picks, two of whom were selected first overall.
The Houston Texans picked Clowney at No. 1 out of the University of South Carolina in 2014. The Browns chose All-Pro Myles Garrett at No. 1 out of Texas A&M University in 2017, the same year the Atlanta Falcons took McKinley at No. 26 out of UCLA.
The Browns discussed trading for McKinley last year before the Atlanta Falcons released him. Then Berry submitted three waiver claims for McKinley, but he bounced from the Cincinnati Bengals to the San Francisco 49ers to the Las Vegas Raiders because the Browns were behind those teams in the waiver order.
Berry went after Clowney last year, too, and the Browns reportedly offered him more money than any other team in 2020. Their price point for a one-year deal reached $15 million, according to Sports Illustrated, and they also attempted to lure him with a three-year, $57 million contract, per NFL Network.
Instead of joining the Browns a year ago while they were coming off a record of 6-10, Clowney eventually signed a one-year, $13 million deal with the Tennessee Titans, reuniting with coach Mike Vrabel, a Walsh Jesuit High School graduated who had previously worked with Clowney as a position coach and defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans.
Since then, the Browns have reversed their fortunes, going 11-5 last season under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski to earn their first playoff berth in 18 years, then capturing their first postseason victory in 26 years before being eliminated in the divisional round.
It wasn’t nearly as good a season for Clowney, 28, because an injured left knee derailed his second run with Vrabel.
Clowney played just eight games last season, missing the final seven of the regular season and failing to register a sack all year. He landed on injured reserve Nov. 21 and had surgery Dec. 6 on torn meniscus cartilage, according to NFL Network. He finished with 19 tackles, including four for loss, six quarterback hits, four passes defensed and a forced fumble in half a season.
Despite Clowney’s modest production last season, he maintained his status as a favorite of ProFootballFocus.com, ranking 19th among the 109 qualifying edge defenders the website graded in 2020. He ranked 19th of 104 in 2019 and 11th of 104 in 2018.
PFF ranked Clowney as the fourth-best edge defender in free agency this offseason, trailing only Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, J.J. Watt of the Arizona Cardinals and Carl Lawson of the New York Jets. They have been off the market for a month or more. The Browns pursued Watt before he chose the Cardinals on March 1.
Olivier Vernon finished one spot behind Clowney in PFF’s rankings, tying for 20th among edge defenders last season. Vernon started opposite Garrett the past two years and racked up nine sacks last season, second on the team to Garrett’s 12. But Vernon also suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the Jan. 3 regular-season finale, became an unrestricted free agent March 17 and is not expected to return to the Browns.
The Browns also cut defensive end Adrian Clayborn and let defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Vincent Taylor leave in free agency this offseason.
They have replaced those linemen with Clowney, McKinley and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, another free-agent pickup. They expect to have defensive tackle Andrew Billings back after he signed with them last year, but opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Clowney, listed as 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, made the Pro Bowl each season from 2016-18 and was voted second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2016. From 2016-2019, he was one of only three NFL players with at least 60 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and 150 quarterback pressures, according to Sportradar. His best pass-rushing production came in 2017, when he had a career-high 9½ sacks and 21 quarterback hits, and 2018, when he had nine sacks and 21 QB hits.
He has started 74 of the 83 regular-season games in which he’s appeared and has compiled 255 tackles, including 32 sacks, 86 QB hits, nine forced fumbles, 18 passes defensed, an interception returned 27 yards for a touchdown and eight fumble recoveries, three of which resulted in touchdowns. He has 20 tackles, including 1½ sacks, five QB hits and an interception in five playoff games.
The Browns are Clowney’s fourth team in as many years. In 2019, the Texans franchised him on March 4, he signed his tender on Aug. 31 and the Texans traded him on Sept. 1 to the Seattle Seahawks for outside linebackers Barkevious Mingo, formerly of the Browns, and Jacob Martin and a 2020 third-round pick. He had three sacks in 13 regular-season games and another 1½ in two playoff games with the Seahawks. Then he became an unrestricted free agent.
Clowney hasn’t played a full season since 2017, and he has been injured at each of his past two stops. He suffered a core muscle injury with the Seahawks in Week 10 of the 2019 season, missing three games and choosing to delay surgery until the offseason. Then his most recent knee injury occurred while he played for the Titans. He had microfracture surgery on his other knee, the right one, as a rookie with the Texans.
Yet the Browns clearly believe a healthy Clowney could help them achieve their goal of reaching a Super Bowl for the first time.
Berry’s mission this offseason has been to upgrade every level of the defense, and he’ll continue the effort in the April 29-May 1 draft. Berry could still take a defensive end in the first round (No. 26 overall), but the addition of Clowney points to cornerback being the most likely route.