Despite a bevy of injuries in 2020, the Kansas City Chiefs defensive end group has proved its versatility and depth throughout the regular season, getting some positive contributions from young guns like Michael Danna and Tim Ward alongside Pro Bowler Frank Clark.
In looking ahead to the offseason, three of Kansas City’s contributors at the position — Alex Okafor, Taco Charlton and Tanoh Kpassagnon — the first two of which saw their contract years shortened due to injury, are currently slated to hit the free agent market. Left thin on pass rush power and the salary cap space needed to acquire it, the defending Super Bowl champions may need to get creative with their options.
According to Arrowhead Addict, one such candidate might come in the form of free-agent-to-be Olivier Vernon of the Cleveland Browns.
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Olivier Vernon Recovering From Major Achilles Injury
A former third-round pick of his hometown Miami Dolphins in 2012, Vernon is now in his second season with the resurgent, playoff-bound Browns. Unfortunately, his 2020 campaign, which saw him rack up the second-most sacks (9.0) of his nine-year career, came to a disappointing end late in the fourth quarter of Week 17 when he ruptured his Achilles.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, an injury of that significance typically requires up to eight or more months of rehab, potentially putting him on track to retake the field next fall, pending his progress.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 4, 2021
Vernon’s Dominant Second Half
Vernon agreed to a renegotiated one-year, $11 million “prove it” deal this past offseason after being dealt to Cleveland via the New York Giants as a part of the blockbuster Odell Beckham Jr. trade in March 2019. In a contract year, the 30-year-old provided the Browns a viable No. 2 pass-rushing option opposite former No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, playing at least 79% of the team’s defensive snaps in 13-of-14 games.
Though one caveat was that the majority of Vernon’s on-paper production came after the NFL’s November 3 trade deadline and after the Browns made it known he was on the trade block following just 11 combined tackles and no sacks through his first five contests. However, Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods did acknowledge in late October that Vernon had been “struggling physically just coming back initially from the [groin] injury” suffered in Week 5.
However, the former Miami Hurricane went on to post 20 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, two pass deflections, one forced fumble, a safety and 7.0 of his 9.0 sacks in Cleveland’s final seven games.
Following the devastating injury, Pete Smith of Sports Illustrated’s Browns Digest called Vernon “as good as any player on this team down the stretch,” also noting that he had been “open in terms of helping players improve, including rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills.”
Now a long road to recovery could stand in the way of Vernon’s big anticipated payday in 2021, especially if he is unavailable for much of training camp and the early portion of next regular season.
Steve Spagnuolo Has History With Vernon
While the cards would still need to fall into place in the months to come, this type of scenario leaves an opening for a team like Kansas City, which offers championship potential like most others can’t for at least the next half-decade with GM Brett Veach, head coach Andy Reid and superstar QB Patrick Mahomes all locked into new long-term contracts in 2020.
Another factor working in the Chiefs favor is a convenient connection between Vernon and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who coached the Pro Bowler for two seasons (2016-17) during his stint with the Giants. Arrowhead Addict’s Matt Connor elaborated on the idea further:
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.
While Spagnuolo is currently among a handful of Chiefs coaches drawing at least some interest for a potential head coaching job elsewhere, the 61-year-old would appear as the least likely candidate to receive an offer given the league’s tendency to favor younger, offensive-minded assistants in recent hiring cycles.
Spagnuolo and staff are also no strangers to defensive end reclamation projects (see: Clark, Okafor and Charlton) — whether traded for, signed at the open of free agency or later into the offseason, a much more likely scenario for Vernon this summer.
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Chris Licata is an NFL contributor covering the Kansas City Chiefs from enemy territory in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @Chris__Licata or join the Heavy on Chiefs Facebook community for the latest out of Chiefs Kingdom!