Browns must replace at least five starters on defense in 2023

Oct 23, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  Jadeveon Clowney enjoys one of his two sacks of the 2022 season, nailing LJ8.
Oct 23, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Jadeveon Clowney enjoys one of his two sacks of the 2022 season, nailing LJ8. / Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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The Browns are losing several players on defense who will have to be replaced on way or another.

The Cleveland Browns underwhelmed opponents with their defense last season, and they're losing at least five starters to free agency. Though these players didn't exactly set the league on fire, the Browns don't have replacements ready, meaning the front office needs to get to work. This needs to be done without a first-round pick and without a huge bankroll of salary cap space this offseason. This offseason may really be off!

This list doesn't count John Johnson, at least not at the moment. The Browns would probably like to do something about Johnson, who has a one year deal with a total cap hit of $22 million left on the deal, though it is spread over 2023 and 2024 because of the league's bonus money rules. Still, they may well wind up trading him for very little or releasing him in order to recover part of that monstrous due bill, and if so, that would make six starters who need to be replaced.

Working the problem backward, the only players they really like are Myles Garrett, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and cornerbacks Martin Emerson, and Greg Newsome, They are stuck with Denzel "Riverboat" Ward, who received one of the largest contracts for a cornerback in NFL history, only to develop a habit of gambling on interceptions rather than actually covering his man last season. That makes six starters counting Johnson, or only five if you believe he will be gone by the time the 53-player roster is assembled. According to the rulebook, there appears to be no alternative to sending out 11 players on the field come September, so they will need to identify five new starters at least.

With that in mind, let's start the discussion with former first-overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

Sep 11, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90)
Sep 11, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

5. Jadeveon Clowney started but didn't finish.

Jadeveon Clowney was one of the most famous players on the defensive unit, having been a former first overall pick in Houston, and making three consecutive Pro Bowls in 2016-2018. However, that was a long time ago.

Age and injuries are catching up with him, and last season was a particularly down year for him, with only two sacks and four quarterback hits. It was very disappointing, considering that Myles Garrett was routinely occupying two defenders on virtually every play. Then he finished off the season by expressing jealous comments about Garrett and the coaching staff, basically blaming them for his poor performance, and he was given the last game off by coach Kevin Stefanski.

That was frustration talking. Three Pro Bowls are nice, but Clowney has never really achieved his potential, due to a series of injuries. Back in 2014, he had a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, and there were complications that required microfracture surgery. He may never have reached 100 percent after that. Thus, he has accumulated quite a bit of mileage on his body, and in addition, he will reach the magical 30-year milestone this year.

Last season he was part of a poor defensive line. We have to ask ourselves how any defensive line with Myles Garrett on it could have performed so poorly, with no other lineman producing more than 3.0 sacks. After years of complaining about being double teamed in Houston, Clowney finally got his wish in Cleveland--zero double teams. In fact, opposing offenses were comfortable blocking him with a tight end or halfback at times, as Myles Garrett was the guy receiving the double teams on almost all plays.

If he is done in Cleveland, he will cost the Browns $6.4 million dollars in cap charges which become due upon termination of his deal. This is due to the bonus rules which allowed them to spread Clowney's bonus money over five seasons even though he signed only a one-year deal last year. It was considered "cap-friendly" because they were only charged $3.5 million last season.

Well, now the rest of the money comes due unless the two sides agree on an extension. That seems so unlikely based on his low level of play last season and his acrimonious exit, but it's Cleveland sports and anything can happen. If there is a way to avoid paying the full $6.4 million dollars by extending his contract, Andrew Berry might just go for it.

But can Clowney still play? The eyeball test says he might still be effective if he is limited to about 40 percent of the team's snaps to reduce the wear and tear on his body. The more he's used, the less effective he is. Still, in the unlikely event that Clowney comes back, it would be a cap-driven move, rather than an ingenious personnel decision, and at this stage of his career, he will no longer be a starter.

In fact, he probably wasn't starting caliber last season and might have done more damage with fewer snaps. The whammy with the hammy of Chase Winovich didn't help the Browns or it might have worked out better last season for the entire defensive line. However, Winovich is also an Unconditional Free Agent (UFA) this season. So they had better come up with a new starting defensive end one way or the other.