BEREA, Ohio -- Though free agency is a week away, the Cleveland Browns already missed out on one of their free-agent targets. Despite Cleveland’s pursuit, three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt, who was eligible to join another team before free agency since the Houston Texans released him, signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
Finding a defensive end to pair with their own potential defensive player of the year, Myles Garrett, remains a priority for Cleveland, with Olivier Vernon, 30, unlikely to return coming off a ruptured Achilles. Fortunately for the Browns, plenty of intriguing options figure to be there once free agency officially begins.
Teams can begin negotiating with agents of players on other teams starting March 15. Here are four potential options for the Browns at defensive end, with insight on those players from the ESPN NFL Nation reporters who have covered them:
NFL Nation take: “Dupree didn’t play his first complete, healthy season until 2019 -- and he proved when he’s healthy, he’s nearly unstoppable. The 2015 first-round pick had 20 sacks in his first four seasons, but in the last two seasons Dupree racked up a combined 19.5 sacks including eight in the first 11 games of the 2020 season. Dupree’s year ended prematurely in 2020 when he sustained an ACL tear against the Baltimore Ravens in early December, but Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said he’s on track in his recovery in a recent call with local media. With his chemistry with T.J. Watt and his ability to glue the locker room together, he’s the kind of player the Steelers would love to keep around -- but their cap struggles will keep them from doing that. A year ago, they were able to bring him back on the franchise tag. This year, though, another team is going to get an opportunity to sign a big-time player.” -- Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor
My take: Pittsburgh’s cap issues could provide an opportunity for the Browns to swipe a key player away from a divisional rival at a position of need. Because Dupree is coming off an injury, the Browns could snag him for a bargain while keeping their flexibility, too, by, potentially, offering him a short-term deal loaded with incentives. That would allow Dupree to get back out on the market once he’s proven he’s healthy again -- and after the salary cap goes up following the impending new rights deals.
NFL Nation take: “If the Bengals don’t use the franchise tag on him, Lawson is expected to be one of the top edge rushers available on the market. Lawson had just 5.5 sacks last season, but several other metrics show he was as disruptive as any full-time edge rushers in the league. In fact, among those players who had at least five sacks last season, Lawson ranked in the top five in quickest snap release, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. One of the others in the top five? Myles Garrett . If the Browns paired Lawson and Garrett together, that could be one of the most devastating end combos in the NFL.” -- Bengals reporter Ben Baby
My take: Lawson probably won’t come cheaply. And he’s sure to have other suitors. But despite notching only 20 sacks in his four NFL seasons, he ranked 14th in the league last year among edge defenders with a pass rush win rate of 20.1%, besting the likes of Yannick Ngakoue, Bradley Chubb and Khalil Mack. Lawson is also just 25, the same age as Garrett, and could be installed into Cleveland’s long-term young core, instead of a short-term rental.
NFL Nation take: “Hendrickson was one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2020, breaking out in his fourth season after his first three years had been relatively quiet. Even the Saints didn’t see it coming, since they tried to sign Jadeveon Clowney the week before the season started. So all bidders will have to decide just how realistic it is that Hendrickson will be able to sustain that kind of production.
But it’s hard to argue with 13.5 sacks (tied for second in the NFL), 53 pressures (sixth) and 37 hurries (sixth). And he compiled those numbers in just 15 games while playing just under 60% of New Orleans’ snaps. There are reasons to buy into the turnaround. Sean Payton said the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder finally found the “perfect weight and strength” after getting a little light early in his career. He was also consistent from start to finish, with at least three sacks in each quarter of the season.” – Saints reporter Mike Triplett
My take: Because 2020 was Hendrickson’s first -- and so far only -- season as a productive starter, he might be more affordable than some of Cleveland’s other targets. Though the sample size is small, Hendrickson showed what he can do when given the opportunity. The Browns offer him just that simply by lining him up opposite Garrett.
Haason Reddick, Cardinals
NFL Nation take: “If Reddick is used properly, he can be quite effective. That wasn’t the case the first 3.75 years of his time in Arizona, but once the Cardinals started lining him up at outside linebacker and let him rush the passer like he did in college, then Reddick found a comfort level. Just look at what he did in 2020. When he started seeing more snaps after Chandler Jones’ injury in Week 5, Reddick’s production skyrocketed. He finished with 12.5 sacks, the fourth-most in the league this past season, and had five in Week 14 against the New York Giants. Reddick, the Cardinals’ 2017 first-round pick, didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up heading into the 2020 season and that motivated him, which he was able to turn into sacks when he was given an opportunity. But for Reddick, wherever he lands, it will be all about position. If he’s put in the right place -- after years of being lined up wrong -- he’ll produce. If teams continue to put him in wrong or bad situations, then he won’t. It’s pretty simple.” -- Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss
My take: The Browns could benefit from Arizona signing Watt, which has diminished any chance the Cardinals would’ve had to re-sign Reddick. As a pure pass rusher, Reddick could obviously build off the breakout season playing alongside Garrett. In addition to ranking fourth in the league in sacks, Reddick a posted a pass rush win rate of 17.1%, which ranked 21st among edge rushers in last season.