Training camp has begun for teams all across the NFL, and the Cleveland Browns are ready to bounce back from a disappointing 2019 season. In this preview, we analyze the Browns edge rushers ahead of the 2020 NFL season. Cleveland’s defense looks very different than it did last year and is being molded into a base dime package. That means the EDGE defenders will have to perform at a high level, both against the run and the pass. Are they up the challenge?
Browns Training Camp Preview: Cleveland’s Edge rushers in 2020
The Browns have a tremendous three-person rotation
Cleveland’s 1-2 combo of Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon started to dominate in 2019 when injuries to Vernon and Garrett’s suspension threw the position group into chaos. With Garrett back and Vernon healthy, there aren’t many comparable pass rush duos in the NFL today.
Garrett ready to contend for Defensive Player of the Year
Before his six-game suspension for hitting Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in the head with his own helmet, Garrett had logged 10 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 18 QB hits in 10 games. Through his first 37 NFL games, Garrett has an impressive 30.5 sacks, For reference, Hall of Famer (and all-time sack leader) Bruce Smith had 26.
Garrett is on a potentially legendary trajectory, and the Browns correctly realized this and extended him early. They gave Garrett a five-year $125 million extension that made him the most expensive defensive player in NFL history, at least until the Los Angeles Chargers Joey Bosa beat him by $10 million the next week. That deal keeps Garrett in Cleveland through to the 2026 season. If he stays healthy, Garrett should be a DPOY candidate and could easily lead the league in sacks.
Vernon is excellent when healthy
Acquired from the New York Giants in exchange for right guard Kevin Zeitler, Vernon had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019. That was despite a knee injury in Week 8 that forced him to miss six games and had him playing on one leg in the two late-season matches he appeared in. Hitting 3.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, and 11 QB hits may not seem like high numbers, but Vernon played the run well and got pressure at a solid clip. He was on a tear before getting hurt and should be even better in 2019 as he’ll be able to rotate more, staying fresh and reducing chance for injury.
Adrian Clayborn is one of the most underrated EDGEs in the league
Clayborn comes to Cleveland on a two-year deal after spending four of the last five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, with the New England Patriots his home in 2018. He’s 32, so he isn’t a long-term solution, but should excel in his role with the Browns. Clayborn has never had gaudy stats, but he is a consistent player and was among the most disruptive edge rushers in 2019.
He plays almost exclusively on the right side due to a nerve condition, and will likely see 400-450 snaps, but those should be high-quality snaps. His presence will allow Garrett and Vernon to get some much-needed rest while keeping a starting-caliber player on the field.
Depth players competing for a roster spot
Porter Gustin seeks to recapture his early collegiate form
Even with his injuries and positive Adderall test at the 2019 NFL Combine, it’s a wonder that Gustin wasn’t drafted. At 6-4 255 pounds with excellent athleticism, Gustin struggled to stay healthy at USC, but his production on the field was stellar.
As a senior, he played in just six games, yet logged 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He was signed by the Browns in early November, and was active for six games, finishing with 13 tackles and one sack. If Gustin can stay healthy, there should be a spot for him on this team.
Robert McCray faces an uphill battle
Like Gustin, McCray was signed late in the season after injuries had ravaged the Browns pass-rush depth. He appeared in the final two games of the season, logging one tackle. The undrafted second-year man out of Indiana is undersized at 6-1 273 pounds, and it would be surprising to see him beat out the other players in this group.
Chad Thomas will try to shed the bust label
Thomas was selected with the third pick of the third round in 2018 and has been mostly ineffective thus far. He barely played as a rookie, failing to register a statistic in four games. Despite having a significant role in 2019, he didn’t do a whole lot with it. He finished with four sacks, six tackles for loss, and four QB hits in 16 games. His sacks typically came on plays where he was cleaning up, not creating the pressure.
Thomas has great size at 6-5 280 pounds, but is a mediocre athlete and doesn’t play the run well. His roster spot is far from guaranteed, especially since the man who drafted him (John Dorsey) is no longer in charge.
The Browns’ projected depth chart at edge rusher
It’s unclear whether the Browns will keep four or five edge rushers. If they roster only four, Chad Thomas may end up as the odd man out.
Starters – Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon
Primary backup – Adrian Clayborn
Fourth-string – Porter Gustin
Fifth-string – Chad Thomas
Cleveland reportedly made a better offer to Vinny Curry than the one he accepted with the Philadelphia Eagles, so it’s clear that the team is not completely satisfied with this group. Garrett, Vernon, and Clayborn are a great rotation, but with Vernon’s lengthy injury history, and the fact that edge rushers get rotated in and out so much, it makes a lot of sense to go four-deep with starting-caliber players.
There could very well be one or even two new players on the depth chart here by the time Week 1 rolls around. Final cuts from other teams will be interesting to watch, but even before that, there are still some free agents who would be excellent additions. Jadeveon Clowney is off the table, and Everson Griffen likely is as well. However, both Jabaal Sheard (a former Brown) and Cameron Wake are still good players who can contribute in a defined role, and shouldn’t cost too much.
Players who will likely miss the cut on the depth chart
McCray seems very unlikely to make the team, given his limited playing time in 2019, smaller stature, and average athleticism. Meanwhile, Thomas needs to have a big camp to stick around. The Browns don’t seem to be valuing the linebacker position very highly, so it’s conceivable they’ll keep just five, or perhaps even four players there, which could open up a roster spot for Thomas. But even if that happens, a player cut from another team could replace him before the season’s start.
Cleveland may be prioritizing the secondary moving forward, but that doesn’t mean the edge rushers are not incredibly valuable. The Browns have one of the game’s best defensive players in Garrett and will need the unit around him to take a step forward if the defense as a whole is to improve from its poor showing in 2019.