The Cleveland Browns were spectacular during the NFL’s opening weekend, though their collective performance made one thing crystal clear — the team will rely on its defense.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson was adequate and the running game was predictably effective, though it was the pass rush — amassing 10 QB hits and two sacks against the Cincinnati Bengals — that won the day. The consistent pressure made the secondary’s job easier, a Browns’ unit that also thrived against one of the best offenses in the league.
After trading with the Minnesota Vikings for defensive end Za’Darius Smith and adding Ogbo Okoronwko in free agency, Cleveland doesn’t necessarily need to add another edge-rusher. That said, the Browns have the salary cap space to do so ($35.26 million currently) and must begin thinking about who they will pair alongside two-time All-Pro Myles Garrett long-term, as Smith’s reworked $11.7 million deal keeps him under contract through only the end of 2023.
Adding another monster off the edge now not only increases the team’s depth and ferocity along its defensive front, but it can also set up the pass rush for years to come assuming Cleveland picks the right player. According to Kristopher Knox of Bleacher Report, that player is Vikings outside linebacker Danielle Hunter.
Browns, Vikings Proven Capable of Making Blockbuster Deals
Knox on Wednesday, September 13, authored a trade proposal that would see Minnesota ship Hunter to Cleveland.
Though a specific price was not included in the pitch, it’s likely that Hunter would cost the Browns at least their 2024 second-round pick. Considering that selection is more likely to end up toward the backend of the second round than the front, a Day-3 pick would probably also need to be included as a kicker.
The Minnesota Vikings did a lot of retooling in the offseason. … With players such as Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter set to be free agents in 2024, they could continue the trend before the trade deadline if a playoff push appears unlikely.
Cousins could emerge as a trade chip if things really go poorly for Minnesota, but Hunter is a player it could consider moving now. Dealing him would save $11.5 million off the 2023 salary cap — money that the team could put toward extending star receiver Justin Jefferson.
The Browns would be a logical landing spot for Hunter, as they’ve seemingly been enamored with former Vikings over the past few months. They signed [Dalvin] Tomlinson in free agency and traded for Smith following the 2023 draft.
Danielle Hunter More Viable Long-Term Partner for Myles Garrett than Za’Darius Smith
If Cleveland decides to bring Hunter into the fold ahead of the trade deadline, the Browns’ top four edge-rushers would boast a combined 41.5 sacks from 2022. Garrett and Okoronkwo each recorded a sack in Week 1 against the Bengals, while Smith tallied four QB hits and a pass breakup.
As good as Smith was on Sunday, he doesn’t read like a long-term solution in Cleveland. The 32-year-old hits unrestricted free agency next spring and is certain to seek a multiyear deal at a high price point, which will be difficult for the Browns to pay considering Watson’s cap number is set to jump from $19 million this season to $64 million in 2024 and the two years beyond.
Cleveland’s cap situation is already going to require some fancy financial maneuvering on the part of general manager Andrew Berry, and Smith’s age makes him too great of a risk to invest in heavily for the remainder of the Browns’ Watson-led Super Bowl window.
Hunter, who negotiated a one-year raise from the Vikings to $17 million (up to $20 million with incentives) this summer, is potentially a different story. Like Smith, Hunter has earned three Pro-Bowl nods over the last five seasons and will be an unrestricted free agent in March. However, he is also more than two years’ Smith’s junior and finished last year strong, while Smith faded down the stretch.
Garrett has tallied 16 sacks in each of the past two years and profiles as a top candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2023. He turns 28 years old in December and is under contract with Cleveland through 2026.
Despite being cash-strapped heading into 2024, one of a few places the Browns are guaranteed to spend is on the pass-rush. That money probably isn’t headed Smith’s way, though Hunter is the type of player who could warrant it.