For those NFL teams who are playoff bound, the important part of the 2011 football season is just getting started.
For those who failed to qualify for postseason play, like the Browns, the season is already over. Some would argue it's been over for months now.
But disappointed as we are in Cleveland that the Browns have missed the playoffs yet again, it's time to do what we do best: move on and vow to get 'em next year.
One advantage (albeit a very tiny one) of being eliminated from postseason play? While other teams are frantically preparing for their next matchup, teams like the Browns can maintain a more singular focus on what their game plan is for the offseason.
Obviously, that extra head start on such preparations isn't worth the price. We'd all gladly trade the jump start on offseason activities such as determining which free agents we would like to sign for a chance to play even one playoff game.
But that was not to be for the Browns this year, so we have no choice but to look on the bright side and take advantage of the opportunity to take the extra time to plan a strategy for free agency (or at least complain about missing the playoffs and grudgingly get moving on preparing for next year).
The free agent pool is still a little bit fuzzy at this point—franchise tags have not yet been handed out, and any impact draft positioning will have on the market will not be fully established until after postseason play ends—but for the Browns, we can already begin to determine which position groups they need to focus on in free agency, and perhaps make a few suggestions as to who they might try to pursue.
First, I have to qualify the potential search for a quarterback in free agency by the Browns by saying that it is probably unnecessary.
I'm not someone who is willing to throw in the towel on Colt McCoy yet, nor do I think it makes sense to sell the farm, so to speak, to bring in another quarterback.
The Browns also have greater needs at other positions and as we've discussed many times, very few quarterbacks, including those with higher talent ceilings than McCoy, would have performed well with the supporting cast the Browns put around their QB this season.
However, if an outstanding opportunity were to land in the Browns' lap, I'm not sure they could pass it up.
No, I'm not saying they should go out and trade up to get Andrew Luck. I'm not even sure I like the idea of taking Robert Griffin III if he's available with the fourth pick.
However, if, say, Matt Flynn were to become available on the free agent market, I think the Browns might want to consider throwing some money his way.
The going theory at the moment is that Green Bay will franchise Flynn (a move we've seen NFL teams make with their backup quarterbacks a few times in the recent past) and then try to trade him.
Obviously, that would make him that much more difficult to acquire, but it might still be worth it, depending what Green Bay wanted in exchange, and depending on what the Browns really think about McCoy's future as a starter, which they are unwilling to disclose at this point.
The running back position group had to be mentioned here because the Browns have needs there, but unless they decide to re-sign Peyton Hillis, it seems fairly unlikely that they will spend much if anything on the free agent market on a running back.
The matter of re-signing Hillis does warrant some comment, though. Whether the Browns choose to make him an offer or simply let him walk will depend solely on the amount of money he wants and whether it is reasonable given his 2011 performance and injury issues.
It will not depend on whether the Browns feel wounded or betrayed by what happened with Hillis off the the field this season, or if they think he was faking an injury, or if he's Madden Cursed. This is a business, and Hillis is a commodity. Either he's worth the asking price or he isn't. End of story.
For my part, I'm guessing Hillis will get an offer from the Browns. Whether it will be the highest one that lands on his table is questionable at best. And while I do think the Browns will make a reasonable offer to keep him, I don't see them getting into a bidding war over him with another suitor.
Beyond Hillis, it's unlikely the Browns will be looking running back in free agency, at least in terms of pricey, big-name types. More likely, they'll stick with what they have and look for a back in the draft, amongst UDFAs, or in the bargain-basement free agent bin toward the end of the offseason.
One thing we can say with absolute certainty heading into this offseason: if the Cleveland fan base had its way, the first item on the Browns' offseason shopping list would be a marquee wide receiver.
While I have to disagree with the group in terms of just how much money the Browns should be spending on the position in free agency, as no matter your needs, it's never a good idea to put all your free agent money in one basket (er, player), the Browns have to pursue help at the position through free agency rather than through the draft alone.
What the Browns have on their roster at the position is not going to cut it. They also can't fill out the position group solely through the draft and expect to have a dependable receiving corps.
I'm all for drafting another receiver and I approve of the Browns eschewing bringing in a pricey free agent WR before the 2011 season because it didn't make sense for the time line, it is an absolute must-do before the 2012 season begins.
There aren't any true perfect fits on the free agent market currently, but there are some decent options. Reggie Wayne's name comes up a lot, especially because his age and the down year he had indicate he might come cheap compared to what he could bring to the table, but I don't see him leaving the Colts if Peyton Manning stays, and he's not really the right type of receiver for the Browns system as it currently stands.
Most of the best of the rest in terms of WRs on the open market will likely be franchised or convinced to re-sign with their current teams, and those who aren't don't seem likely fits for Cleveland.
I love the idea of bringing in the Giants' Mario Manningham, though I expect they would be loath to let him go. I don't see the Browns pursuing a problem player (especially if he's expensive) like Vincent Jackson either, so that leaves mostly low-risk, high-reward guys.
Keep an eye on Mike Sims-Walker and Harry Douglas, as well as some of the other lesser names on the market at the position for the time being.
If there's any position group where the Browns need serious help, it's the offensive line. Luckily, they should get Eric Steinbach back next season, which will certainly help, but that still leaves them with serious issues at right tackle, right guard and in terms of depth.
The RT position obviously has to be blown up and repopulated, as no one on the current roster has proven to be truly viable as a starter, or perhaps even as a backup.
The RG position has a bit more hope because its occupants, though also struggling, are younger, but they are still likely only backups at best in the larger sense.
That means the Browns need help at both RG and RT this offseason. Depending on what the Browns do with their first round picks, one of those spots could potentially be filled through the draft. Which one and whether the Browns can pick up an NFL-ready starter that way remains to be seen.
As far as free agents go, the market for offensive linemen is decent but not great. At the top of my list is New Orleans' OG Carl Nicks.
Last year during the offseason, I suggested the Browns pursue Nicks, but he unfortunately chose to re-sign with the Saints. It's unlikely we see that again this year, though, unless Nicks offers the team a big hometown discount.
That means if the Browns are willing to spend on the offensive line, they could snag Nicks and make a huge dent in their pass protection problems.
At OT, keep an eye on Buffalo's Demetrius Bell and maybe Baltimore's Mark LeVoir. The options aren't as good at tackle this year as they are at guard, so this may be the spot where the Browns should consider spending an early draft pick.
Let's start with the obvious: the Browns need to re-sign D'Qwell Jackson. It isn't even worth discussing. Just get it done.
Scott Fujita's injury excepted, the Browns linebacking corps finished the 2011 season far better than most of us expected.
Jackson had a career year, Kaluka Maiava really stepped up when the team needed him to, and Chris Gocong proved why he was worth the contract extension the Browns gave him earlier in the season.
Still, the idea of a truly scary pass rusher in the Browns LB corps remains a very tempting thought.
The Browns obviously have fewer needs on defense than on offense, and many of their defensive needs are more about depth than replacing starters, but at the right price or with the right level of talent, I might consider making an exception to this at LB.
There are a lot of folks clamoring for a free agent DE to be brought in this offseason, but I see that more as a depth issue. I'll agree that Jayme Mitchell isn't really a starter, but I would still rather find a way to work around that (or address it through the draft) and spend the money on a quarterback-killer LB if the opportunity presents itself.
Tops on the list at LB might be Stephen Tulloch, though he seems unlikely to leave Detroit given the success their defense has had this year. I would look at Mario Williams as well, though the season-ending injury is definitely cause for concern. He would have to come at a hefty discount to be worth taking a chance on.
If the Browns do look at DEs, Robert Mathis would obviously be near the top of the market, but he'll want a long-term deal, and I'm not sure the Browns need the help at DE badly enough to throw the kind of money Mathis will want at the position.
Also on the radar: Cliff Avril and maybe Shaun Ellis, depending on price.
As was the case with the defensive line, I'm hesitant to suggest the Browns spend much on the secondary in free agency since it is far from their greatest area of need and has more depth issues than problems with starters.
Obviously, Sheldon Brown needs to be replaced at CB, but that problem might be solved internally depending on how players like Buster Skrine and James Dockery play out. It's also possible the Browns might draft a starter, or at least someone who might share the job.
If the Browns do pursue a cornerback in free agency (which is highly unlikely), it will be a lesser-name player, not a top-tier free agent.
At safety, the team's needs may be slightly greater, but that depends on a) whether T.J. Ward can get it together and bounce back next season (I suspect he can), and b) if the Browns choose to re-sign Mike Adams and keep Usama Young around.
Personally, I don't think spending on a big-name safety is a wise use of funds for the Browns. First, Ward will be fine. Second, while I would be content never to see Usama Young again, I'm very much in favor of the Browns bringing back Mike Adams.
I'm not certain he's the answer as a long-term starter, but I liked what I saw from him at the end of 2011, and I think he deserves another shot to win the job.
I'm also keeping an eye on Eric Hagg, a rookie in 2011, who I think has far better upside than most people have realized yet. He could be the guy who wins the job out of camp next season.