General manager John Dorsey didn’t wait for the draft to address the team’s biggest deficiency.
Athletic and talented free agent defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson agreed to a three-year contract early Tuesday to join the Browns, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram.
The deal can’t be signed until the league year starts Wednesday at 4 p.m., and ESPN reported it’s worth $39 million, including $21.5 million guaranteed.
Richardson was the first free agent move by the Browns after a slow start Monday, but he’s the second major piece added as Dorsey is determined to transform the front seven of the defense. He agreed to a trade for Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon on Friday, sending right guard Kevin Zeitler to New York in a move expected to be announced Wednesday.
Richardson, 28, has played for three teams in the last three years and has a history of off-the-field issues but is effective rushing the passer and stopping the run on the interior.
He’s started 87 of 89 games with 23.5 sacks, 49 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. Last year in Minnesota, playing on a one-year prove-it deal worth $8 million, he started all 16 games and had 4.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and 48 tackles.
Browns Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio faced the Jets in 2015 and Richardson made a lasting impression.
“I just remember watching the tape and I’m like, ‘If I don’t bring my A-game, this guy’s going to mess some things up,’” Bitonio said Tuesday during an event for Special Olympics and Play 60 at Browns headquarters. “He’s athletic. He’s strong. He has some quick-twitch moves that are really hard to come by when you’re a D-tackle.
“So I think he’s one of the premier guys at the position, and it’ll be fun to get to know him.”
Richardson (6-foot-3, 295 pounds) was the No. 13 pick of the Jets in 2013 and named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He made the Pro Bowl the following season after a career-high eight sacks.
Richardson was suspended for four games in 2015 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and for one game in 2016 for violating the personal conduct policy following an arrest after leading police on a high-speed chase. He also feuded with receiver Brandon Marshall, a teammate.
He spent four seasons in New York before being traded to the Seahawks right before the 2017 season for receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick.
The Browns ranked 28th against the run in 2018 (135.2) and tied for 22nd in sacks (37), but the revamped starting line appears to be loaded with playmakers — Myles Garrett and Vernon at end and Larry Ogunjobi and Richardson at tackle. Genard Avery, Emmanuel Ogbah, Chad Thomas, Chris Smith, Trevon Coley and Carl Davis provide depth.
“It’s going to be cool to see him and O.V. come in here and really bolster our defensive line,” Bitonio said of Richardson and Vernon.
The addition of Richardson may have contributed to the trade later Tuesday for Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
By removing the pressing need at defensive tackle, Dorsey could afford to part with the No. 17 pick in the draft and pass on some elite prospects. The tackle class is deep, so Dorsey can wait until the second or third round before adding a rookie behind Richardson and Ogunjobi.
Next on the agenda in fixing the front seven is adding a linebacker. The Browns cut Jamie Collins last week and have an opening for a starter on the strong side.
It won’t be filled by C.J. Mosley, who’s leaving the Ravens after five years and four Pro Bowls. The Browns were reportedly in the mix for Mosley, but he agreed to a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Jets with $51 million guaranteed, NFL Network reported Tuesday morning.
Anthony Barr is expected to re-sign with the Vikings after backing out of an agreement with the Jets, and Jordan Hicks is headed from Philadelphia to Arizona, removing two other options for the Browns at linebacker.
Tight end is also a position of need.