Why Olivier Vernon and Why Not Kevin Zeitler
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The Friday before the opening of the “new league year” in the NFL has now become an annual tradition for the Cleveland Browns in terms of adding new faces to the team via trade. Last year, general manager John Dorsey came out swinging, acquiring Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry, and Damarious Randall and also trading away Deshone Kizer, Danny Shelton, and Jason McCourty. This year there were not as many trades made by Dorsey last Friday — actually just one — but much like last year’s acquisitions, this year’s addition has potential to pay big dividends for the Orange and Brown.

In the early afternoon on Friday, March 8, 2019, Mike Garafolo of NFL Network blew up my phone up (and others)with the report that Dorsey had made another splash days before free agency. After all, Dorsey and New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman did talk about a trade … except it was not Odell Beckham Jr. that the Browns would be acquiring. Instead, Dorsey elected to acquire a much-needed addition to the team’s pass rush at the cost of losing the best pass protecting guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Browns acquired pass rusher Olivier Vernon from the New York Giants in exchange for right guard Kevin Zeitler. Additionally, the Browns received the Giants fourth-round pick this year (No. 132) and in return, the Giants received Cleveland’s fifth-rounder (No. 155).

Last season the Browns ranked 23rd in the NFL in team sacks (37), resulting in a pass rush grade of 64.2 by Pro Football Focus which is ranked 28th in the NFL. Outside of Myles Garrett who finished with a 7.3 PRP (A formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer) which ranked 20th in the NFL, Cleveland only had one other player rank within the top-50 (Genard Avery). Emmanuel Ogbah (LAST) and Chris Smith (T-153 with 175 pass rush snaps) both produced quite underwhelming PRP scores.1

Clearly, a veteran pass rusher was needed in Cleveland, which led to the Browns acquiring Vernon. His exact fit is yet to be determined, considering the Browns have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks.  Last season in New York, Veron played 84 percent of the time from the right side of the defensive line — 61 percent from “right end outside,” 23 percent from “right outside linebacker.” In 2017 he played 78.5 percent from the right side and 67.6 percent in 2016. He still finished 22nd last season in PRP, despite an injury-plagued season. 

As of right now, the plausible idea is that in Wilks 4-3 base defense, the Browns will roll with Garrett on the right side of the football in a three-point stance and keep Avery in a two-point stance at linebacker … as of now. This would place Vernon in Ogbah’s place on the left side defensive line (Ogbah played on the left side 60 percent of the time last season.) I would imagine the Browns would like to keep Avery in the role he was in last season (situational role player) and sign/draft a starting standup linebacker.

It is likely Ogbah is dealt away but if not, he would provide decent depth on the defensive line.  A secondary reason Vernon was acquired (outside of his ability to get to the quarterback) was for the Browns to create depth behind their premier pass rush. Doing so would allow Avery (and maybe Ogbah) to complement Garrett and Vernon, instead of leaving them on the field the entire game (much like they did last year with Garrett.)

Now, where that additional depth comes from is still a great question. Will it be Ogbah rotating in if he is not traded? Will it be a free agent such as Alex Okafor (ranked 43rd in PRP), Markus Golden (ranked 49th in PRP, 208 pass rush snaps), or John Simon (90th in PRP, 121 pass rush snaps). Or perhaps could they look for a depth piece in the draft, such as Anthony Nelson (Iowa), Chase Winovich (Michigan), or Christian Miller (Alabama). After all the Browns have five picks in Rounds 2 through 4 and I would say landing an edge rusher with one of those five picks is likely.

Acquiring a premier pass rusher like Vernon required the Browns to give up a player worthy of the same status — and they did just that in trading away right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Last year Zeitler was phenomenal for the Browns. He had the second-best pass blocking grade among all offensive linemen (best among interior offensive linemen) allowing three sacks, one quarterback hit, seven quarterback hurries, and 11 pressures. Considering the Giants brutal offensive line (Graded 25th last season), Zeitler was an obvious upgrade for New York.

Moving Zeitler allowed the Browns to shed $32 million worth of salary cap space tied into … yes, a guard. The re-signing of Greg Robinson after a surprisingly good season and the drafting of Austin Corbett at pick No. 33 led the Browns to feel comfortable with moving one of the best guards in the business in Zeitler.

It is not exactly crystal clear what the Browns intentions were when drafting Corbett (a left tackle in college) out of Nevada with the first pick in the second round, as there were many initial propositions. With Joe Thomas retiring some thought he could play left tackle, others thought he could play left guard (moving Bitonio to left tackle full-time), or to replace J.C. Tretter at center (a free agent after this season.) Cleveland tried Corbett at left tackle in camp and that failed … miserably, resulting in Bitonio playing left tackle the majority of the pre-season (what a shit show that was … *sees Hue Jackson*.) So, Corbett played every snap in the pre-season at left guard and was not featured in the regular season playing meaningful minutes on the offensive line.

Now, Corbett’s role is crystal clear. He will replace Zeitler at right guard, some big shoes to fill. Whether or not this will even become half of success is yet to be seen. I would not put it past Dorsey to venture into free agency with a few names in mind as a backup plan (pun intended) if Corbett does not settle into his new position. Could they look in the direction of former Eagle Chance Warmack (coming off an injury), Quinton Spain (Tennessee), or Erik Kush (Chicago)? We will find out this week. 

I do not believe Dorsey is done trading just yet but his first move was a splash. The Browns ultimately got just what they wanted: a good pass rusher opposite of Garrett and to relieve $32 million in salary cap space for a right guard. The trade was a win-win for both teams and now we wait and see what Dorsey has up his sleeve next. The legal tampering period officially starts today, so be aware that a few moves could be made as early as today.

  1. Editor’s Note: Individual pass rush stats are of edge rushers with 50 percent or more pass rush snaps unless otherwise noted. []