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How trading for Olivier Vernon can help give the Browns one of the NFL’s top defenses

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The Browns now have Myles Garrett and Vernon to rush the passer. Yes, please.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Browns have a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield, they can be a bit more aggressive with their roster-building efforts. They took their first big swing of the offseason by trading offensive guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants for defensive end Olivier Vernon.

Even before adding Vernon, the Browns had a solid defense last season. They finished 15th in opposing yards per play and sixth in opposing adjusted net yards per pass attempt. One crucial area where they struggled last season was sacking the quarterback. Cleveland finished 28th in sack percentage with just 5.6 percent of their opposing dropbacks ending in a sack.

With Vernon, they now have a veteran defensive end to play with Myles Garrett, the first overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft and one of the league’s budding stars.

What does adding Vernon do for the Browns’ defense?

The Browns already had Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah. By trading for Vernon they’ve solidified their defensive end position with a solid trio of edge defenders.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Vernon ranked 28th in pressure percentage (11.8 percent) among all pass rushers with at least 200 pass rush reps last season. That number is actually higher than Garrett’s, who ranked 53rd with a pressure percentage of roughly 10 percent.

Even though Vernon is a guy who gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback, he hasn’t really been able to turn that into sack production. The only time Vernon has reached double-digit sacks in his career was in 2013 when he had 11.5 sacks as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Still, Vernon is a savvy defensive end who can affect the passing game without actually bringing down the quarterback. This is a great example from the Giants’ game against the San Francisco 49ers last year. Vernon (#54) shuffles down the line of scrimmage before quickly realizing it’s a play-action pass — his pursuit toward the quarterback forced an errant throw that ended up incomplete.

According to Pro Football Focus, Vernon ranked 14th in overall grade among all edge defenders and finished as their seventh-highest graded pass rusher for the season. Vernon isn’t an overwhelming athlete like Khalil Mack or Von Miller, but he has a repertoire of pass rush moves that help him get to the quarterback. Watch him bull rush Trent Williams into Alex Smith’s lap before hitting Smith as he lets go of the ball.

Vernon can counter off of his bull rush too. Watch him start off with the bull rush and then turn it into an inside rip move once he gets the left tackle on his heels.

Now the Browns have a technically sound, efficient pass rusher to play with Garrett as they wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Garrett had 13.5 sacks in his second season and is capable of doing absolutely insane things on the football field. Last season Garrett sacked Cam Newton using the body of the Panthers left tackle and forced a fumble while doing so.

The Browns look to be in good shape on the defensive line and the NFL Draft hasn’t even happened yet — our latest mock draft had them taking defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with the 17th pick.

Whether they use their first-rounder on another defensive player or not, their current group of Garrett, Vernon, Ogbah, Larry Ogunjobi, and Genard Avery will be able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback.

Cleveland is building a complete defense

Now that they’ve ensured that their pass rush will be strong next season, the Browns’ defense should be even better in 2019, provided everybody can stay healthy. That pass rush will only make life easier on Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Jabrill Peppers.

Cleveland also has a pretty strong duo at inside linebacker. Joe Schobert made the Pro Bowl in 2017 while Christian Kirksey has been a solid linebacker for the Browns over the last few years, despite a 2018 season cut short due to injury.

With the Vernon trade, Cleveland only has a few pressing needs on defense now: another high-level cornerback to play along with Ward and T.J. Carrie, and a defensive tackle to play inside with Ogunjobi. If they’re able to hit on either of these needs in free agency or the draft, the Browns should have one of the best units not just in the AFC, but in the entire NFL next season.