Who are the top defensive free agents the Cleveland Browns should target?

With the Browns changing things up on defense, they need to invest in the unit to ensure it isn’t a liability next season.
defense browns free agency
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – NOVEMBER 20: Indianapolis Colts Defensive End Yannick Ngakoue (91) reacts after tackling Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) during the NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts on November 20, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While the NFL Playoffs are rolling along strong (the Super Wild Card Finale had 30.6 million viewers alone), the Cleveland Browns are stuck sitting at home watching from their couches. If you’re a Browns fan or somehow only remotely interested in them, you’ll know that this Cleveland squad was too talented to miss the playoffs this season. Sure, a lot of that can be attributed to not being complete on the offensive side of the ball. But, more than anything, the majority of the blame fell on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Joe Woods and the schemes he cooked up for the Browns on defense.

Soon after the season ended Woods was out and former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was tapped as his successor. Schwartz comes to Cleveland after spending the last two seasons as a senior defensive assistant with the Titans. He has previously been a defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles and managed to build top 10 defensive groups with each of those teams during his tenure with each respective organization.

Considering the Browns were slightly below average defensively, Schwartz has a solid foundation to build Cleveland’s defense based on his preference. Schwartz uses an aggressive four-man front in the style of longtime Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson. His defenses rely heavily on generating pressure with just the front four. His defensive units perennially ranked near the top in sacks and at or near the bottom in blitz percentage.

Schwartz also highlights the strengths of his defensive stars and in this instance with the Browns, that means Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Again, Cleveland has talent all over their roster, especially on defense. But, in order to make the Schwartz hiring the perfect one (it should be), the Browns need to focus on a few key pieces in free agency over the coming months in order to surround the existing talent and help everyone succeed on defense. Today, Right Down Euclid will be breaking down the top names to watch for Cleveland on defense.

Daron Payne – Defensive Tackle, Washington Commanders

Mind you, the Browns trying to acquire Daron Payne could be one of the tougher moves Cleveland could try to pull off this off-season. A former first-round pick from Alabama in 2018, Payne has spent the past five seasons with the Washington Commanders. In that time, he’s proven to be one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. Not only can he shut the run down, but he’s also capable of getting after the quarterback. This season alone Payne has had a career-high 6.5 sacks and was key to guiding Washington to having one of the top defensive units in the NFL last season.

With that said, Payne won’t come cheap for the Browns either considering how productive he’s been up to this point. Cleveland would have to free up a lot of space by cutting some of their more expensive and unproductive players (Joe Haeg, Jakeem Grant, John Johnson III) in order to make space to sign Payne. But, if the Browns are serious and supporting both Garrett and Schwartz next season, Payne might have to be the guy they try and go all-in for.

Lining Payne up inside next to Garrett would cause absolute havoc for opposing offensive lines. It would make it difficult to double-team either player knowing whoever isn’t double-teamed will have a much easier path to the quarterback, which fits what Schwartz likes to do up front perfectly. Payne had a monster 2022 totaling 49 pressures (PFF) with 11.5 sacks and five pass breakups from his defensive tackle spot. Pairing him next to another game-wrecker seems like a no-brainer at this point for Cleveland. The issue is, will the Commanders even let Payne test the waters of free agency?

Yannick Ngakoue – Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts

There’s a very real chance that the Browns are either priced out by the Commanders for Payne or want to commit their money elsewhere in free agency. If that’s the case, a sneakier option that could come at a lower price compared to Payne is Indianapolis Colts defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

The 27-year-old Ngakoue is coming off 9.5 sacks with the Colts this past season and has been super productive in the NFL with 65 sacks in his last seven seasons. He also would be able to serve as a bridge between providing immediate pressure next to Garrett now all while allowing Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas, who are waiting in the wings, to properly develop.

Ngakoue missed the end of last season’s campaign with a throat injury but should be good to go for the 2023 campaign. If the Browns are able to land him, it would give them a high-quality option alongside Garrett and would fit what Schwartz is scheming up on defense perfectly. The Browns once seriously considered trading for Ngakoue while he was still with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the journeyman defensive end had a mutual desire to be there. Now, perhaps Cleveland can add to their defense and let the Ngakoue story come full circle.

defense jessie bates cleveland browns
CINCINNATI, OH – DECEMBER 11: Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III (30) runs onto the field before the game against the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals on December 11, 2022, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jessie Bates – Safety, Cincinnati Bengals

If Cleveland wants to go big-name hunting, especially if they cut John Johnson III, then maybe they should take a gander at divisional rival Jessie Bates. A second-round draft pick out of Wake Forest in 2018, Bates was a day-one starter in Cincinnati and has missed only two games throughout his five-year career. Bates, who turns 26 in February, was an All-Pro in 2020 and has had a strong year playing under the franchise tag. Across 16 regular season games, Bates also recorded 71 tackles, eight passes defended and four interceptions.

Considering how well he’s played this year, the Bengals may not be able to retain Bates with mammoth contracts soon coming for Joe Burrow and Jamar Chase. Cincinnati seems to be aware that Bates could no longer be with the team as well considering that they drafted Daxton Hill, his replacement, last year. So, now more than ever could be the chance for the Browns to swoop in and make a splashier signing in Bates.

If they were able to land Bates, Cleveland would get a ballhawk and leader in the secondary. Not only that but, Bates is also superb in run support as well, which is something the Browns need in the worst way. Sure, if Cleveland was to pair him with Grant Delpit, there would be concerns about getting beaten deep by burners like Burrow and Chase. But, with how Schwartz can scheme things up, Delpit and Bates could be a lethal duo in every phase on defense.

Poona Ford – Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Sure, Poona Ford isn’t a household name to many but, he could be one in Cleveland soon enough. A versatile interior defender, Ford has put together three strong consecutive seasons, averaging 42.6 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6.7 tackles for loss and 12.0 quarterback pressures in that stretch. It’s also worth noting that as an interior lineman last season, Ford created 22 pressures, 14 hurries and came up with 15 stops, to go along with his 3.0 sacks as well.

Pairing that with Myles Garrett and how Schwartz likes to operate on defense should be an ideal combination for all parties involved. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll admitted that Seattle didn’t use Ford properly last season and that might hint at him being an improper fit with how the Blue Wave wants to operate going forward. He’s one of the more underrated defensive linemen in this upcoming free agency class. Ford could be someone worth monitoring as a starter or just as high-quality depth to pair next to Garrett.

Other names worth watching: Domantee Kazee (S, Pittsburgh Steelers), DeMarcus Walker (DE, Tennessee Titans), Dalvin Tomlinson (DT, Minnesota Vikings), Justin Ellis (NT, New York Giants)

Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at evan@downeuclid.com. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.

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