After Za’Darius Smith Trade, Cleveland Browns Have No Excuse Not To Contend in 2023

    Za'Darius Smith is one of the league's best pass rushers. His addition erases another hole on the Cleveland Browns' D. They're out of excuses.

    Trading for Za’Darius Smith erases yet another hole on the Cleveland Browns’ depth chart. From a talent perspective, few holes remain for them. But for some time now, many of us in the football world have glanced over at the Cleveland Browns roster and thought, “This team could contend in the AFC North.”

    Cleveland Browns Trade for Za’Darius Smith

    Aside from their 11-win season in 2020, a year that they still only managed to place third in the North, they have been consistent underachievers.

    Sure, without Deshaun Watson returning to his on-field form as a Houston Texan, none of this matters. But it was the Cleveland defense that let the organization down a season ago. It was particularly weak up the middle. The additions of Dalvin Tomlinson and Siaki Ika should help quell that concern. Meanwhile, Smith is coming off double-digit sack totals in three of the last four seasons.

    MORE: Free NFL Mock Draft Simulator With Trades

    The only time he failed to reach that mark was when he opted for back surgery after his first game as a Packer, an injury that he claims stemmed from a weightlifting injury sustained early in Green Bay. And that injury led to a somewhat nasty divorce between the two.

    “I came down to here,” he told GoLongTD.com. “To a nobody. To everybody in building. I was like, ‘Damn, why am I being treated like this? I brought the culture. I helped change this s—. Why the f— am I the one being treated like that?'”

    Now, Smith goes from rushing opposite of Danielle Hunter to arguably the league’s best in Myles Garrett.

    Za’Darius Smith Gives Cleveland Browns’ Defense Zero Excuses

    It doesn’t matter how you slice it; Garrett is arguably the league’s foremost pass-rushing expert. No 270-pound man should have the type of flexibility he possesses. Nobody should be able to battle through a shoulder injury the way he did in 2022 to rank 10th in total pressures, first in overall win rate, while also ranking at the top of win rate on true dropbacks. He won nearly 3% more often than Micah Parsons and 5% more often than Nick Bosa.

    But what makes Garrett so lauded is how impressively he wins. Brandon Thorn studies sacks every season, and nobody has been more impressive as Garrett. While T.J. Watt has accumulated more production from a sack perspective, Garrett’s wins have been of much higher quality. Last season only Hasaan Reddick had a higher sack score.

    Smith wasn’t too shabby last season for Minnesota, either. He ranked 13th in sack score, fifth in total pressures, fourth in total win rate, and 10th in win rate on pure dropbacks. Unlike Jadeveon Clowney, Smith is a true technician on the outside.

    MORE: Cleveland Browns Schedule 2023: Dates, Times, TV Schedule, and More

    Watt and Highsmith are a great duo. Parsons and Lawrence are dangerous for Dallas. Reddick and any of the Eagles’ five other uber-talented edge rushers could contend as the most disruptive duo. But none are more dangerous on paper than Garrett and Smith. Sprinkling in Ogbo Okoronkwo and hopefully improved Alex Wright and Cleveland not only has insane top-end talent but solid depth on the edges.

    There’s a conglomeration of talent on the back end that never quite “got it” under Joe Woods’ tutelage. A season ago their defense ranked 23rd in DVOA and 25th in EPA. Anything below a top-half unit in 2023 would be an abject disaster for a team that is throwing every asset they have toward competing NOW! Jim Schwartz should help that by implementing some good, old-fashioned K.I.S.S.

    “I honestly just think it’s just keeping things more vanilla,” (Greg) Newsome said. “When you got the talent that we have on the defense, just calling base stuff, just allow us to go out there, keep our eyes on the quarterback and just play ball. So I feel like Joe did a great job in the second half of the year with just realizing ‘You know what, alright, maybe we don’t need to call everything, let’s just shorten the menu down and just let those guys go out there and play.’ And I think when we did that you can kind of see how the take over started.”

    If the Browns underachieve again in 2023, Kevin Stefanski might not have a seat at the table anymore.

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