The Cleveland Browns have had an extremely active off-season that has included multiple high-profile additions, but one new player has gone under the radar. New defensive end Olivier Vernon is poised to make a major impact for Cleveland‘s rebuilt defense and provides a great Robin to Myles Garrett‘s Batman.
Garrett has been everything the Browns hoped he would be since they selected him first overall in 2017. Last season, he finished with 13.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 29 quarterback hits. He was tied for fifth in the league in quarterback hits and sixth in sacks. He did this despite drawing essentially all of the offensive line’s attention. Garrett was schemed around and away from, and still managed to impact the game in a huge way.
Garrett’s running mate, Emmanuel Ogbah, had a promising rookie season in 2016 when he put up 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits. But he failed to improve during his next two seasons, finishing with three sacks and eight quarterback hits in 2018. Ogbah was a solid run defender, but he offered very little against the pass, and that just wasn’t good enough for a starter. Ogbah was traded to Kansas City, because after the Vernon trade, he was relegated to a backup role, and Cleveland had a better and more versatile option in Genard Avery, as well as 2018 third-round pick Chad Thomas.
Sacks are obviously ideal, but the better way to measure how good a pass-rusher is is to use quarterback hits and pressures. If a defender is consistently in the backfield and disrupting the play but not quite getting the sack, he shouldn’t be punished for that.
Film Room: Analyzing What Olivier Vernon Can Bring to the Cleveland Browns
This is where Vernon’s value will be seen. His sack numbers are fine; he had 22 in 39 games for the New York Giants. But since he began starting in 2013, Vernon has 121 quarterback hits, good for 10th most in the NFL. And he did this while missing a total of 11 games during that span. According to Pro Football Focus, he has 192 pressures over the last three seasons, including 46 in 2018. Ogbah had 31 while playing across from Garrett, on 82 more snaps. And 15 of those 31 came on plays where he wasn’t even blocked or was simply cleaning up the play made by another rusher.
The Browns defense as a unit ranked 22nd in the NFL in sacks last season, and that number should be much improved in 2019. But again, we need to look beyond just the sack numbers. If Garrett, Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Larry Ogunjobi can live in the backfield and consistently create pressure, the secondary’s job will become much easier. The difference a half-second can make on a passing play is astronomical. It’s the difference between Tyreek Hill getting behind the safety for a 75-yard touchdown, or Patrick Mahomes having to throw the ball away because he’s about to get hit by Vernon.
Vernon may not have the basic stats of an elite player, but he is one. He generates pressure with the best in the league and is also a great run defender. He should have one of the best seasons of his career in 2019 if he can stay healthy, as teams won’t have the luxury of double-teaming him anymore. He will also be able to rush against both right and left tackles, depending on the defensive alignment.
Because of his 6’2″, 262 pound frame, Vernon has the anchor to play good run defense and possesses good bend around the edge. He may not make the Pro Bowl, but the difference between Ogbah and him will be night and day.
On this play, Vernon easily powers through the tight end and then pushes Jason Peters back five yards to create the loss. This is a great example of Vernon’s impact. He wasn’t the one who was credited with the stop, but he made this play happen.
Here, Vernon doesn’t get the sack. But he collapses the pocket, hits the quarterback, and forces the incompletion.
On this snap, Vernon displays great hand usage to bat away the arms of Nate Solder and accelerates around the edge for the sack.
Here, Vernon completely embarrasses All-Pro Tyron Smith, arguably the best left tackle in the league. A stutter-step and a swim puts Smith on the ground and gives Vernon an easy path to Romo.
Vernon will also be back to playing in a true 4-3 defense. New York ran a 3-4, which played Vernon as an outside linebacker instead of a defensive end. He has the ability to drop into coverage every now and then, but he is a pass-rusher first and foremost. He won’t be in coverage very often in Cleveland.
Vernon isn’t getting the attention that he deserves as a major upgrade on the Browns defense. He and Garrett form one of the best defensive end duos in the NFL and will be a major reason why Cleveland’s defense performs much better than it did in 2018.