CLEVELAND, Ohio — Browns GM Andrew Berry’s complete overhaul of the defense continued this week with the signing of Jadeveon Clowney and the surprising release of Sheldon Richardson two days later.
It means three-fourths of the Browns’ 2020 starting defensive line is gone, including Larry Ogunjobi and Olivier Vernon. The lone returning starter on the line is Myles Garrett, who should benefit tremendously from the flurry of moves this offseason.
All told, the defense could have as many as eight new starters in 2021, and that’s not counting the upcoming draft picks. The bounty includes Clowney, safeties John Johnson III and Grant Delpit, linebacker Anthony Walker, defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings, and cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Troy Hill.
Here’s an inside look at how the Browns landed Clowney the second time around and what happened with Richardson:
Don’t give that Richardson jersey away just yet
The Browns and Richardson parted on good terms, and he could return to Cleveland if he doesn’t get a better offer elsewhere. The Browns still like Richardson a lot and believe he can contribute this season, but $12 million was more than they wanted to pay for a player who will be 31 in November. Saving that amount on the cap with only $1.66 million in dead space was too good to pass up.
Clowney’s signing wasn’t the only reason Richardson was let go. It was a culmination of moves this offseason, including the signing of 10-year defensive tackle Malik Jackson and the return of tackle Andrew Billings, who took the COVID opt-out last season because of his asthma.
Richardson loved it here, and as he posted on Instagram, “it was just starting to feel like home.’’ Releasing him now gives him the chance to catch on with another team if he can, but don’t be surprised if he ends up back here in that No. 98 jersey.
Why Clowney didn’t sign here last year
Clowney wasn’t really on the Browns’ radar at the start of free agency in 2020, largely because they had already made big commitments to Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper, and Case Keenum.
But when Clowney was still available two weeks into free agency, the Browns jumped into the mix, offering him more money on a one-year deal than anyone else, and making a competitive multi-year offer. So why did he take less money — one year, $13 million — to sign with the Titans last season?
Many factors played into it. For starters, Clowney’s market value wasn’t what he expected last season — one ESPN report stated he wanted $20 million a year — and that threw him. The pandemic also played a role, preventing him from making visits and taking physicals.
In addition, he was leery of joining a Browns team coming off of a 6-10 season with well-documented dysfunction, including yet another coach and GM firing. Baker Mayfield had regressed under Freddie Kitchens, and no one knew what coach Kevin Stefanski was about.
The Browns were patient with Clowney throughout the process and gave him time to sort things out. But they ultimately moved on and restructured the contract of Olivier Vernon, reducing his salary from $15.25 million to $11 million guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Clowney fired his agent Bus Cook, who also represents Myles Garrett, and hired Kennard McGuire just before signing with the Titans.
How Clowney became a Brown in 2021
Clowney’s view of the Browns was much more favorable this offseason, and he was intrigued by the idea of joining a Super Bowl contender. But coming off a surgically repaired torn meniscus, he wasn’t comfortable taking a physical early on in free agency.
The Browns moved forward, signing Takk McKinley as their No. 2 edge, and were comfortable with that. About a week later, Clowney said he’d love to visit, and ultimately spent a full day at the Browns’ facility on March 24, meeting with coaches, front-office personnel and other staff members. The visit went extremely well, with Clowney explaining why he had reservations last offseason and what transpired during the season.
Clowney left the building without an offer, but with a general agreement that he’d think it over and get back to the Browns.
At that point, he had interest from other teams, including the Ravens and Colts. Both are contenders, which was important. He also has family in Baltimore and likes Lamar Jackson a lot. But he was so interested in the Browns that he didn’t visit anywhere else. He also loved the idea of playing with Garrett, who would take pressure off of him the way J.J. Watt did in Houston.
In the end, it came down to the Browns and Colts, who also have a player who draws double-teams in DeForest Buckner. As Clowney mentioned in his introductory press conference, that kind of help is important to him.
What’s more, he knew he’d have a starting role in the Browns defense as the No. 2 edge opposite Garrett in a scheme that’s conducive to his style of play. He also knew they had McKinley, who’d get some reps in his place and save some wear and tear on him.
For Clowney, money wasn’t everything this time around. It was a chance to win, to have a prominent role and to be in a great environment. He gladly signed the one-year deal worth $8 million, with incentives to make another $2 million based on playing time and sacks.
What Clowney’s role will be here
Clowney is the perfect complement to Garrett because of their different styles of play. Garrett, who finished sixth in the NFL with 12 sacks, plays with speed and finesse. Clowney is more powerful and disruptive. Like Garrett, he can play all across the line of scrimmage, and some of his best pressure comes from inside. That’s crucial in Joe Woods’ defense, which requires two ends who can do it all.
Regardless of where Clowney lines up, he’s an elite run defender and an above-average pass rusher. He can play on the inside and on the edge. He’s no Garrett when it comes to sacking the quarterback, and has mustered only three sacks in his last 21 gams. But he had 22 pressures through 10 weeks last season, which was tied with Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt and Joey Bosa.
Teams will never know where Garrett and Clowney are lining up, and they can be creative in finding favorable one-on-matchups. At times, they’ll have three first-round picks on the line in Garrett, Clowney and McKinley. Jackson can also rush from inside or out.
Clowney gets a bad rap for injuries, but he’s actually been more durable throughout his career than Vernon, starting 14, 16, 14 and 11 games before missing eight last season with the torn meniscus. He’ll likely miss a handful of games this season, but at $8 million, it’s good value.
Essentially, he’s an overqualified No. 2 edge, and at a much cheaper price than most of the top free-agent edge rushers this offseason.
What it means for Takk McKinley
The Browns were prepared to go with McKinley as their No. 2 edge this season, but now they have a much stronger rotation than anticipated.
The former 2017 No. 26 overall pick of the Falcons, McKinley will still get plenty of playing time, both in the base defense and sub packages. With the NFL increasing from 16 to 17 games this season, and the Browns hoping to go deep into the playoffs, McKinley will help keep the other two ends fresh.
The Browns also figure to be playing with a lead a lot this season, with plenty of opportunities to rush the passer.
The Browns talked to McKinley and his agent before Clowney’s visit and before his second, and were upfront about the situation. He was comfortable with the plan and knows he’ll still get plenty of snaps as the third end.
What it means for the NFL Draft
Clowney’s signing won’t preclude the Browns from drafting an edge-rusher at No. 26, given that Clowney and McKinley are both on one-year deals and they could need another No. 2 edge after this season. But it also frees them up even more to draft another position in the event of a tie. They can select a cornerback, a receiver or any other impact player at a premium position that falls to them at 26.
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