Cleveland Browns: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
According to OvertheCap.com, the Cleveland Browns have the third-most cap space to spend this offseason. They also have just six unrestricted free agents, which means they have a lot of ammunition when the free agents hit the market.
Having a lot of cap space does not always mean that the team will spend a lot of money. Teams must find the right balance between the value of a player and the value of the contract they will need to offer. Just because someone is available does not mean you need to offer them the farm. Too many teams hand out bad contracts in the offseason and end up strapped for cash a year or two down the road.
Browns CEO Joe Banner is heralded as a salary-cap wizard. We will see just how good he is this offseason with so much space.
While the Browns certainly have holes to fill, the bigger issue on the roster is depth. The front line of talent is mostly in place; the backups are weak links. Roster depth is the difference between being a good team and a Super Bowl contender.
Let’s go through each position on the roster and see how it looks as we get ready for NFL free agency to start on March 13.
The Browns currently have three quarterbacks on the roster. Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer all have one year left on their contracts.
The Browns will likely not be venturing out into the free-agent waters at quarterback. The most probable scenario is that they draft one in the first round.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, it could be as high as the first overall pick because the Browns are willing to trade up for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Even if they do not draft a quarterback in the first round, the Browns would probably not sign anyone else but rather stick with Campbell and Hoyer as their options next season. Weeden will be the odd man out.
This where the Browns will be most dangerous in free agency. They currently have just three backs who will return next season and made any sort of impact in 2013.
Dion Lewis, who was injured during the preseason and lost for the year, will most likely be back. The coaches and front office loved his speed and burst. Edwin Baker, who made quite a splash during the final month of the season, will also likely get a shot at making the roster.
While Chris Ogbonnaya will probably be in camp because he makes so little money, he also made very little impact. He may find himself on the outside looking in. This would be especially true if the Browns make a splash in free agency.
Sources have told Ian Rapoport of NFL.com that the Browns will be in heavy pursuit of former Texans running back Ben Tate. If the Browns want him, they will have to pay. At just 25 years old, some are estimating he could pull $20 million in guaranteed money from this contract.
Also on the market is 28-year-old Maurice Jones-Drew. Once one of the top three backs in the NFL, his production has declined heavily the past two seasons; he's rushed for just 1,217 yards combined.
Besides Pro Bowler Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin, who was injured for most of last season, expect the Browns' receiving corps to experience a complete makeover.
With Davone Bess getting arrested and allegedly posting pictures of marijuana on his Instagram account every other day, it is hard to imagine him returning to the Browns. It does not seem like Greg Little, who has been a huge disappointment and was benched late in the season after dropping a touchdown pass, will be back either.
So the Browns will be on the prowl to bring in some pass-catching talent in free agency.
Eric Decker of the Broncos is one option, but he will probably demand a huge contract. He has put up big numbers the last two seasons, catching 172 balls for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Browns will have to decide if he is that good or if his numbers are inflated because of his quarterback Peyton Manning.
Also on the market will be New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks. He is a proven commodity in the NFL, averaging 924 yards per season in his five years in the league. He is also young at age 26. Unfortunately, his touchdowns have decreased each of the last three seasons and he failed to catch any in 2013.
There are also off-the-field issues with Nicks. The latest was a report from Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News which said Nicks was fined several times during the 2013 season for being late and missing treatments.
Maybe the Browns will see him as a guy needing a change of scenery, or maybe they will see a malcontent who would be cancerous in the locker room.
The Browns will enter the 2014 season with one of the best young tight ends in the NFL, Jordan Cameron, under contract and making just $764,000. They have a solid backup in Gary Barnidge and an interesting weapon in MarQueis Gray.
For Barnidge and Gray, their futures with the Browns may be decided by who is hired as head coach. Barnidge was former head coach Rob Chudzinski’s guy, and Gray was a weapon former offensive coordinator Norv Turner loved.
If the Browns look to add a tight end in free agency, it will be because they plan on parting ways with Barnidge or Gray or maybe even both. This would lead to a lower-tier singing.
This is another spot where the Browns could and should be heavy players in free agency. Last season, their line was a major disappointment.
Objectively, they need to fix both guard spots and the right tackle position. This could be facilitated by moving right tackle Mitchell Schwartz inside to guard and fixing the other two positions.
However the Browns choose to approach the situation, it needs fixing.
There are plenty of quality options at both the guard and tackle positions. At guard, Jon Asamoah from the Kansas City Chiefs may pull the biggest payday out of anyone at his position, but the Browns should be in the bidding. This 25-year-old is one of the best in the league already.
Also available at guard is Chad Rinehart from the San Diego Chargers. He is still just 28 years old and a proven commodity at his position.
At right tackle, Breno Giacomini from the Seattle Seahawks would be an expensive but surefire fix. He was a huge part of the ninth-best run-blocking line in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Giacomini’s services won't be cheap. He was already making $3.25 million in 2013.
It is tough to imagine the Browns spending much money on the defensive line this offseason, but anything can change depending on which head coach they hire.
Even if the new coach of the Browns wants to switch back to a 4-3 defense, the Browns already have the right personnel to do so. Jabaal Sheard could move back to defensive end, and pretty much all the other linemen are still in place from Dick Jauron’s time as defensive coordinator.
The one scenario that could force them back into free agency would be if Desmond Bryant’s heart condition causes him to never play football again. This would be disastrous for his own health, but also considering they just signed him to a five-year, $34 million contract last offseason.
The Browns will probably look to beef up their pass rush again this offseason after a swing-and-miss in 2013. Quentin Groves was injured most of the season and produced very little even when he was on the field.
Sixth overall draft pick Barkevious Mingo was also a major disappointment with just five sacks. As was Paul Kruger, whom they signed to a five-year, $40 million deal. He produced just 4.5 sacks on the season.
At inside linebacker, Craig Robertson was a major disappointment and will need to be replaced. D’Qwell Jackson is getting a little long in the tooth, and the Browns are staring at a $9.2 million salary-cap hit next season if he is on the roster.
New York Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace is 33 years old but also had 10 sacks in 2013. If he is willing to sign a short-term deal, the Browns might have interest. That was what they envisioned when signing Groves last season.
The home run for the Browns at inside linebacker would be Donald Butler form the Chargers. He is just 25 years old and had one heck of a year in 2013. With 85 tackles and an interception, he is exactly what the Browns need. He also had six passes defended in 2013, which would help resolve the Browns' inability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
With All-Pro corner Joe Haden and breakout 24-year-old Buster Skrine, the Browns have a very solid start at the cornerback position. If they can add one more quality player this offseason, they could be very dangerous.
Two guys the Browns have to look at are Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis and Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner. Both are 25 years old, and both would move Skrine back to the inside where he is most effective.
Davis is a good cover corner but better against the run. He is physical at the line of scrimmage and can handle bigger second receivers. Verner is a great cover corner built more in the mold of Haden.
Signing either one of these guys would be a huge upgrade in the secondary.
The most obvious issue at this position is T.J. Ward rapidly approaching free agency. The Browns will probably hit him with the franchise tag. If they don’t, then they will have a gaping hole at strong safety.
Tashaun Gipson surprised everyone in 2013 and was one of the better free safeties in the league. His range is wide and his closing speed is more like that of a cornerback than a safety.
If the Browns fail to get Ward back for 2014, they could look at guys like Jairus Byrd from the Bills or Stevie Brown from the New York Giants.
Byrd was hit with the franchise tag, so he made a gaudy $6.9 million in 2013. He is 27 years old and played in just 11 games because of injury. It was the first time since his rookie year that he did not play all 16 games, however, so that should not scare off the Browns.
Brown is just 25 years old but coming off an ACL tear. He had 76 tackles and eight interceptions in 2012 and then was lost for the year last August. He would be a little more risky than Byrd, but he would come with a much cheaper price tag.