Browns Warned Not to Let $12 Million Defender Depart in Free Agency

The Cleveland Browns are bound to shuffle the roster to some degree this offseason, but there’s one free agent whose loss would impact the team greater than the rest.

Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus proclaimed defensive end Za’Darius Smith the player the Browns simply “can’t afford to lose” once free agency officially hits on March 13.

“Cleveland traded for the veteran defensive lineman before the 2023 campaign, and while his sack production dipped from past seasons, Smith’s pass-rush acumen is still very apparent. He can win lined up all across the formation,” Spielberger wrote on Thursday, January 25. “Smith’s 90.1 pass-rush grade over the past two seasons ranks seventh among edge defenders, and his 16.6% pressure rate ranks ninth.”

Za’Darius Smith’s Presence Helps Browns Star Myles Garrett Reach Maximum Potential

Smith was a solid complement to Myles Garrett, lining up opposite the 2023 NFL Defensive Player of the Year on the front of the league’s top-rated defense.

Spielberger’s analysis of Smith’s importance is based on advanced analytics and not traditional counting statistics, which helps measure a player’s value between the lines — both literally and figuratively. That said, Smith wasn’t without impact via the most traditional measurements either.

The three-time Pro Bowler finished the season with 20 QB hits, 8 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, per Pro Football Reference. He also added 3 pass breakups and a forced fumble across 16 games played/started.

Opposing offensive lines had to account for Smith in a similar fashion to Garrett, which helped the league’s top defender by drawing attention to the other side of the defensive front and limiting double-teams to at least some degree. Losing Smith potentially means more focus from offensive coordinators on taking Garrett out of the game in 2024.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who the Browns also added last offseason, is the most likely replacement for Smith in the lineup should Smith leave and should the Browns decide not to pursue another starting-level edge defender in free agency.

Okoronkwo was solid in his first season with Cleveland, putting up 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 14 appearances. However, his career production and prowess don’t stack up to Smith’s. As such, moving Okoronkwo out of the rotation and into a starting job would represent a step back for the Browns’ defense, albeit a minor one.

Za’Darius Smith May Not Be Worth Asking Price to Browns in 2024, Beyond

First is the defensive end’s age. Smith will turn 32 years old just as the 2024 campaign begins and will be entering his 10th NFL season. That issue segues into the next, which is that Smith is likely to seek a multiyear contract that could be more expensive than Cleveland can afford.

Smith restructured his contract in 2023 after the Minnesota Vikings honored his trade request and sent him to Cleveland. The Browns paid the defensive end just shy of $12 million to play for them last season.

The defensive end most recently signed a three-year, $42 million deal with Minnesota in March 2022. Two seasons have passed since then, but Smith played solidly and largely healthily for Cleveland in 2023 and earned Pro Bowl honors following his sole campaign with the Vikings.

How much Smith is going to want, and over how many years, remains uncertain. Though one known in the equation is that the Browns are $20.5 million in the red with regards to their 2024 salary cap as of Thursday.

Smith’s age makes committing to him long-term a risk, and Cleveland must be exceedingly careful in how, and on whom, it spends its money as QB Deshaun Watson is set to carry a $64 million cap hit into each of the next three seasons.

Gideon Canice

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