Browns' Vernon Trade Is Start of Strong Push for Success in Baker Mayfield Era

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 8, 2019

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates after the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-18 in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns are well on their way toward relevance after years of ineptitude because the organization's approach mimics recent successful turnarounds.

The Seattle Seahawks provided the template. The Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams followed. All three teams found their franchise quarterbacks and built up the rest of their rosters, particularly the defensive fronts, while those signal-callers were still on rookie deals.

The Browns' window for success is wide open for the next three to four seasons as last year's No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield, operates under his initial contract. The Browns have entered win-now mode after last year's seven-game turnaround. This became obvious Friday when the team traded right guard Kevin Zeitler and a 2019 fifth-round pick to the New York Giants for defensive end Olivier Vernon and a fourth-round selection, according to The MMQB's Albert Breer.

In doing so, the Browns flipped Zeitler's $10 million base salary this season for Vernon's $15.25 million payout while maintaining $67 million in salary-cap space, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.

Olivier Vernon (left), Kevin Zeitler (right)
Olivier Vernon (left), Kevin Zeitler (right)Uncredited/Associated Press

Cleveland's financial flexibility is significant on two levels. First, general manager John Dorsey can remain aggressive in free agency. Second, the franchise can keep its core talent intact when extensions come due.

The Browns have multiple positions that still need to be addressed. Defensive tackle, wide receiver, linebacker and nickel corner are considered weak to very poor. The odds Dorsey splurges on each of these positions aren't high, but multiple weaknesses can be addressed thanks to the team's financial standing.

Defensive tackle, in particular, is Cleveland's biggest problem area. Trevon Coley is a replacement-level player and better used in a rotation, not a starting role. A couple of options leap to the forefront as quality veterans to complete the team's already impressive defensive front. Malik Jackson, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars released Friday, per Pelissero, and Ndamukong Suh can be leaders for a young front after experiencing similar turnarounds at previous stops.

Jackson or Suh aligned with Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Garrett—with Emmanuel Ogbah, Chris Smith and Genard Avery as rotational pieces/sub-package options—would provide the Browns with a fearsome front. Defensive tackle, specifically 3-technique, must be addressed in some manner because it's a glaring hole. Dorsey should double down with a capable veteran and significant draft pick.

The Browns also own 10 draft selectionsincluding six in the first 132 overallto further supplement a burgeoning roster.

At linebacker, the organization has already moved on from Jamie Collins. More reliable tacklers comfortable working in space will further cement the team's front seven. Jordan Hicks is the obvious option to fit those requirements.

Nickel corner is flush with free-agent talent after the Browns decided not to extend a restricted offer to Briean Boddy-Calhoun, according to Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. Dorsey has a history with Steven Nelson, whom he drafted for the Kansas City Chiefs. Tyrann Mathieu, Bryce Callahan, Brian Poole and Justin Coleman are pending free agents as well.

Offensively, Cleveland could take some hits. The team re-signed left tackle Greg Robinson, but Breshad Perriman may not return after a breakout campaign. A vertical threat to serve as the scheme's primary X-receiver is necessary to take the top off opposing defenses. Tyrell Williams is the best available free-agent wide receiver and a perfect fit. According to Cabot, the Browns have a "strong interest" in the 6'4", 204-pound target.

Zeitler was exceptional last year and led all guards in pass-blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus. The Browns' offensive interior was arguably the league's best. Austin Corbett will now step into a starting role after being the 33rd overall pick in last year's draft. A first-time starter will experience rough patches and most likely will not be the game's highest-graded pass-blocker at his position. Friday's trade made a significant statement, though.

The Browns have placed an emphasis on making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Dorsey's history indicates how significantly he values the four cornerstone positions: quarterback, left tackle, cornerback and pass-rusher. He has spent first-round picks on those spots each year he's been a general manager.

For now, Vernon's added presence takes the pressure off since all four have been addressed. His addition presents a simple concept: The defense will create pressure in waves. The 2013 Seahawks had Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett and Clinton McDonald. The 2017 Eagles featured Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Derek Barnett and Vinny Curry. This past year's Rams collapsed pockets with Suh and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald.

Some cliches ring true: A team can never have too many good pass-rushers. The Browns now have two of the league's best, as PFF noted:

Pro Football Focus @PFF

The Browns now have last season's 13th and 14th highest-graded edge defenders on roster. https://t.co/kNqgzDBa3Z

Ogbah hasn't developed to expected levels after being the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 draft. To better understand how much of an improvement Vernon is, the 28-year-old defender managed 15 more total pressures on 82 fewer pass-rush snaps, according to PFF's Mike Renner. Furthermore, Vernon was more effective even though he suffered a high-ankle sprain prior to the regular season and missed five games.

Ogbah's situation speaks to a larger-picture approach. He is a free agent after the 2019 campaign. The Browns weren't happy with his production and pursued an alternative. But that won't always be the case. Asset allocation will be vital as the Browns evolve over time.

The aforementioned salary-cap space won't just be used on free agents or trade acquisitions. After years of incompetence, the Browns began to draft a legitimate core worthy of retention.

Over the next two offseasons, Cleveland will negotiate or start negotiations for potential long-term extensions with free safety Damarious Randall, linebacker Joe Schobert, strong safety Jabrill Peppers, tight end David Njoku, Ogunjobi and Garrett. A massive chunk of change will go their way as agreements are reached. Like the Seahawks, Eagles and Rams, the Browns will be able to do so because Mayfield's balloon payment is still a few years down the road.

A franchise quarterback means everything in the NFL. A promising signal-caller on a rookie contract means even more. The Browns are ready to compete for postseason berths and a potential championship because Mayfield's contract provides the necessary flexibility to build a complete roster.

Friday's trade shows Cleveland is taking the necessary steps to become one of the league's best squads.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.