Olivier Vernon could be exactly what the Chiefs d-line needs in 2021.
Before the 2020 season began, the Cleveland Browns had a problem with Olivier Vernon. He was too expensive. While the team needed a pass rusher to keep defenses honest against Myles Garrett on the other side, Vernon’s looming financial hit for the season was going to be over $15 million. It was simply too much given other concerns on the Browns roster.
Instead of casting him aside, however, Vernon’s reps found a middle ground with the Browns’ front office. They restructured his contract in order to make him a free agent in 2021 in exchange for providing some cap relief for Cleveland. Vernon received $11 million instead along with performance incentives that could earn an additional $2 million.
Just like that, Vernon found himself in a contract year.
To quote the great Terez Paylor (now with Yahoo! Sports), the contract year is unbeaten. Vernon is the latest example after turning in a strong year for the Browns, one in which he played like a motivated player trying to turn back the clock and show future suitors that there’s more left in the tank.
In 2020, Vernon played in 14 games, making 13 starts, which in itself are the highest totals since 2016. He had 36 total tackles on the season, including 12 for a loss (the most since 2016), to go with 9 sacks (the second-highest total of his career and the most since 2013), 3 passes deflected, 16 QB hits, 1 forced fumble and 1 safety. Vernon was even playing more than ever in 2020 with 75 percent of Cleveland’s defensive snaps.
Then came the ruptured Achilles tendon. Just like that, in Week 17 at the conclusion of another season, Vernon’s ability to show what he could do in the postseason was to a tragic injury. Instead of being rewarded, he was entering recovery. Instead of standing on his production, he was back to answering questions. For months, he’d put together a body of work that should have earned him millions. Now that game film is secondary to medical inquiries that will chart his progress over the next several months.
Of course, if Vernon is not ready in rehab, then none of this matters one bit. However, if Vernon finds himself medically cleared come next season, this sort of dilemma might provide an intriguing opening for the Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, it’s a partnership that might benefit both sides, a veteran player in the twilight of his career and a team who could use some motivated muscle at defensive end.
The Spags Connection
First, let’s look at the connective tissue here that links the player and team: defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spags was in the same position with the New York Giants back when Vernon first signed a five-year, $85 million deal in free agency, which is what made him so expensive in the first place. The results were excellent as Spags coached the league’s second-ranked defense with Vernon as the team’s leading pass rusher.
Spags and Vernon would stay together for two seasons in New York, as Spags would even go on to become interim coach in ’17. Given that experience, Vernon would be a well-known import for the Chiefs, a veteran who would need very little runway to step right in and perform the tasks required of him in Spags’ defense. He’s worked well before as a strong, intelligent pass rusher with length who knows how to get after the passer.
The Financial Hit
One week ago, Vernon was likely going to be too expensive for the Chiefs this coming offseason. After all, Vernon was still showing plenty of juice and even if his contracts are now of the one-year variety, he was still going to earn several million. Pass rushers are going to get theirs, even if they have to wait longer than you might expect (e.g. Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen).
These days, the Chiefs should be right in the thick of things. An aging pass rusher coming off of a serious injury isn’t going to earn much of anything in the spring or even summer. In fact, any team interested in Vernon is likely going to wait until training camp in order to get a closer look at his medicals and understand his timeline. The Chiefs are no stranger to late preseason additions and that likely works in the Chiefs’ favor to have the dust settle a bit and let teams spend their precious cash early in free agency.
The Positional Need
This year, the Chiefs had an impressive cast at defensive end of veterans and rookies alike. The team has been able to withstand numerous injuries, from Alex Okafor missing games over a couple stretches to the loss of Taco Charlton for the year, and they still enjoy decent depth on the other side.
Moving forward, however, the Chiefs are going to need to import someone to make sure they have solid veteran competition and depth heading into ’21. Frank Clark is a given as one cornerstone piece. Michael Danna is back as a solid rookie performer, and Tim Ward just showed on Sunday that he could be a much bigger factor next season. But beyond that, the cupboards are bare and that’s not good, as Okafor, Charlton, and Tanoh Kpassagnon are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.
The Chiefs can move forward with Clark, Danna, Ward, and Demone Harris into training camp, but given the level of experience, the team is likely to bring on at least two more players, including a veteran among so much developmental talent. A fairly early draft choice also makes sense here. Either way, Vernon fits the script positionally for ’21.
The Championship Factor
For Vernon, this could be the angle he couldn’t find anywhere else. If the Chiefs were to extend an offer that doesn’t insult him (more on that in a second), Vernon could really be a vital addition for this Chiefs team. In return, Vernon could find himself joining the likes of Terrell Suggs, Le’Veon Bell, and other veterans who have found that climbing aboard the Chiefs roster, even for a shorter stint, is rewarding in ways that only a few teams can claim.
The Chiefs are going to be Super Bowl favorites in 2021 no matter what happens this offseason. The presence of Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the historic pieces on offense are enough to ensure that. Vernon could also be a part of a special defense, one that’s unfairly overshadowed but one that’s still appreciated for its impact players and overall performance.