The trade for Pro Bowl pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, agreed upon Friday night, is all about the money.
The Browns believe their investment will pay huge dividends.
The Browns get Smith and sixth- and seventh-round draft picks in 2025. The Vikings receive fifth-round picks in 2024 and 2025.
Browns agree to trade for pass rusher Za’Darius Smith
Late-round picks are handy to have to execute just such a trade, but the Browns moving down a total of three rounds in the next two drafts barely registers.
The Vikings made the deal because they needed to create salary cap space and weren’t willing to pay Smith the $12.5 million he was due this season. The Browns made the deal because they weren’t afraid to spend much of their limited remaining cap space on a proven player at a premium position that felt a man short.
Whether they’ll admit it or not — and they won’t — the Browns are in full-blown win-now mode. Acquiring Smith was the latest move in which general manager Andrew Berry has given up valuable draft picks and/or ownership’s millions for a player with the promise of being a difference-maker.
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The blockbuster trade for Deshaun Watson last year was on its own level. But the trades for receivers Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore and the free agent signings of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and safety Juan Thornhill fit the category.
Cooper was stolen last offseason because the Cowboys weren’t willing to pay him $20 million a season. The Browns had a gaping hole at No. 1 receiver, sent a fifth-round pick to Dallas and the Haslams wrote a big check.
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Cooper caught 78 passes for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns and quickly established himself as a team leader with a strong work ethic. If Smith has a similar impact this season, the Browns will be delighted — and may even be playing in the postseason.
Smith, who turns 31 in September, is a one-year rental. He’ll make $11.75 million — the Vikings are paying a portion — and then become a free agent.
The Browns will have several difficult salary cap decisions to make next offseason. Worrying about them can wait.
The focus for the next eight months is contending in a division and conference loaded with talent and superstar quarterbacks. Yes, Watson needs to rise to their level for the Browns to have the best — any? — chance of overtaking the Bengals, Ravens, Bills and Chiefs. But the Browns’ hopes reach beyond quarterback.
Coach Kevin Stefanski upgraded his staff with the additions of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone. Berry then spent the offseason fortifying the rest of the roster.
Moore was the signature move on offense. Berry exploited the frayed relationship between the receiver and the Jets and got him for the small price of moving down 32 spots in the draft. Moore’s expected to assume a large role in the passing game, adding a speed element missing a year ago.
Berry’s heavy lifting was done on the defense. Hiring Schwartz wasn’t enough. Neither was having All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett.
Schwartz needed more pieces to make his system work. Garrett needed help on the edge.
At end, he signed Okoronkwo and drafted Isaiah McGuire in the fourth round. When that wasn’t enough, he made the deal for Smith. They should more than make up for the departure of Jadeveon Clowney, who had only two sacks in 2022 and was an even bigger disappointment in the locker room.
Garrett should no longer feel like he must carry the entire pass rush on his broad shoulders. He might even be able to rest a bit more and not see as many double and triple teams.
Schwartz builds his defense around an attacking front four. He likes to throw fresh bodies at the offense, so quality depth is required. Berry obliged at end and at tackle, where he signed Tomlinson to a four-year, $57 million deal, drafted Siaki Ika in the third round and added veterans Maurice Hurst II and Trysten Hill.
Schwartz also got safety help with Thornhill and Rodney McLeod. Fans have every reason to believe the defense can make a sizable jump from a year ago and support Watson and the diverse offense.
Smith must meet expectations. He made his third Pro Bowl last season, when he had 10 sacks for the Vikings. Not counting the 2021 season, in which he played only one game due to a bulging disk in his back, he’s had at least 8.5 sacks in four straight seasons.
Of course, there are reasons the Vikings were willing to let him go rather than clearing salary cap space. Smith is over 30, has a back injury on his resume and was limited to a half-sack over his final eight games last year, when he was bothered by a bruised knee.
The trade was worth the risk. After all, it’s only low draft picks and the Haslams’ money.
Berry and Stefanski have a lot more to lose if the Browns can’t keep up in the AFC arms race and miss the playoffs for the third straight year.