There's a lot to cheer for if you're the Cleveland Browns, considering the victory in Week 17 over the Pittsburgh Steelers stamped a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Unfortunately, the NFL giveth and the NFL taketh away, and the price paid for admission is the loss of defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Pro Bowl pass rusher suffered a ruptured Achilles in the regular season finale that will require surgery to repair, the team announced on Monday, officially ending one of Vernon's best years as a pro.
This also deals a huge blow to the Browns defense as they ready to face the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card -- this time with Pittsburgh playing all of its healthy starters, including Ben Roethlisberger.
Vernon racked up nine sacks in 2020, the most since he posted a career-best 11.5 sacks for the Miami Dolphins in 2013, and a mark bested in Cleveland this season by no one outside of Myles Garrett (12). There's a 4.5-sack difference between Vernon and third-place Sheldon Richardson, and a 5.5-sack difference between him and Adrian Clayborn, glaring evidence at what the Browns will be missing as they try to mount their first playoff run since making it to the AFC Conference Championship following the 1989 regular season. Richardson, Clayborn and others will be forced to step up, and in a major way, to match serve with Garrett in the comparable fashion in which Vernon did.
As for Vernon's future with the Browns, it's a discussion that was set to happen this offseason that now has an unexpected and worrisome complication. The 30-year-old entered the 2020 season on the final year of his contract, and is set to hit unrestricted free agency this March. He's been available for 24 games in his two seasons with the Browns and started in 23 of them, delivering 12.5 sacks, three pass break ups and 62 combined tackles. Vernon regained his prime form in a big way this season, but he'll also be on the wrong side of 30 next season and coming off of a devastating injury.
Time will tell how this impacts his negotiations with the Browns or any other NFL suitor.
For Cleveland, the immediate task at hand is to focus on figuring out how to replace Vernon's production for this coming weekend, when they'll face the Steelers for the third time and with a potential run to the Super Bowl on the line.