While other teams are still sweating it out and trying to stay alive in the postseason, teams like the Browns begin preparing for next season.
It seems early to be thinking about the 2012 draft and this offseason's crop of free agents, but the Browns certainly have plenty of work to do if they want to improve upon their dismal 2011 season next year. No time like the present to get the ball rolling.
We've talked early draft predictions and about free agents from outside the organization who the Browns should consider pursuing when the market opens up. One topic of discussion still left on the table: What about the Browns' own players eligible for free agency? Who should stay and who should go?
While some of this will of course be dictated by contract expectations we've yet to be informed of and some of it may be dictated by who the Browns get in the draft or from the external free-agent pool, we can already begin to get an idea of who should stay and who should go.
Currently, the Browns have 11 unrestricted free agents (UFA), one restricted free agent (RFA) and three exclusive rights free agents (ERFA) about whom they will need to make a decision. Following are my thoughts on who should stay and who should go.
UFA RB Peyton Hillis: Hillis, everyone's favorite tabloid fodder, is perhaps the most talked about free agent on the Browns roster, though based on 2011 performance, he shouldn't be.
Regardless, even if you're upset with Hillis for sitting out with strep throat or underperforming or getting married during the season or getting himself Madden Cursed or whatever it is that everyone is mad at him for this week, you still have to consider whether he could continue to be of help to the offensively-challenged Browns going forward.
The answer to that, in my opinion, is "yes", though the asking price on Hillis may well be too high for the Browns to be willing to commit to him again after the inconsistency he's shown of late. I expect they'll make him an offer, but it won't likely be the best one on the table.
In the end, how aggressively the Browns are willing to pursue Hillis may depend on who else is available at RB in free agency and whether they decide to pursue Trent Richardson in the draft. Unfortunately for Hillis fans though, this one is likely a no-go. I still have some fondness for Hillis, but unless he comes much cheaper than indicated thus far, it's probably best to let him walk.
UFA TE Alex Smith: Other than one infamous failed red-zone play that exposed Pat Shurmur's questionable play-calling skills, Smith was largely a non-factor in the Cleveland offense this season. He finished 2011 with 131 yards on 14 receptions and one touchdown.
While his stats underwhelm, the Browns do have some injury concerns at TE, and Smith will likely come cheap. He'll never be a standout at his position, but he can block relatively well and provides the Browns some insurance against injuries to Ben Watson and Evan Moore. As long as the price is right, there's no harm in hanging onto Smith.
ERFA WR Jordan Norwood: I'm always pulling for my fellow Penn State alum Norwood, who is a hard worker, a respectable athlete and an outstanding human being. Unfortunately, the one thing that remains debatable about Norwood is whether he's of much use on a football field.
Norwood has a solid skill set at WR, and unlike many of the Browns at this position, he can actually catch. The problem is that Norwood seems to just be too slight to hold down the position without getting killed. He's too small to break tackles and too likely to get hurt to be a regular at WR in the NFL.
The Browns should absolutely hang onto Norwood for now—he's young, he has talent and, hopefully, he can put on some weight to help him play his position more effectively—but sooner or later if he can't bulk up a little more, there won't be room to keep him on the roster.
The Browns have four offensive linemen eligible for free agency in 2012: Oniel Cousins, Artis Hicks, John Greco and Steve Vallos.
I know what you're thinking: The Browns have four whole offensive linemen?
All kidding aside though, the Browns have four UFAs on the O-line, and none of them seem worthy of keeping around.
Rather than break each of these players down individually, it's not too tough to look at them as a group because they can all be tabbed with one collective decision. This is the first and last time you'll see me do this on a slide like this, but here's my two cents' worth: dump them all.
Of all the guys in the mix for the Browns offensive line, none of the four UFAs listed here are really worth hanging onto. You can make an argument for keeping Hicks or Cousins around as backups to help the Browns with their depth issues at the position, but that's about it.
If better options don't present themselves, I'm fine with either of those guys staying on in a backup role, but I never want to see either one of them start again.
UFA K Phil Dawson: Last year when Dawson was a free agent, the team chose to place their franchise tag on him. That was the right move at the time. This year, the situation warrants a closer examination and the final decision on Dawson is less obvious.
We all love Dawson. He's the longest tenured Brown on the current team, he was our team MVP for several years running, he's the guy who was the subject of all of us bleating over and over "he's the only person on the team who can score any points!".
This season, little of that changed. But should we really be paying upward of three million dollars a year to an aging kicker who, while reliable and chock full of sentimental value, is ultimately most likely replaceable? Is it—gasp—time to go in a different direction?
The answer: probably not. Dawson is old and pricey, but he's also reliable and durable. He's probably got one more year in him without much fear of injury or waning accuracy.
The Browns probably shouldn't be spending so much on a kicker when they have so many other problems, but Dawson has one huge thing going for him: he's an outstanding bad weather kicker, and we have some exceptionally bad weather in Cleveland.
Overpriced? Definitely. Keep him anyway? You bet.
UFA P Brad Maynard: After the revolving door at punter finally stopped spinning during the 2011 preseason, the guy who was left standing and hung onto the job was another aging fellow: Brad Maynard.
I suppose the ultimate answer to whether or not the Browns should keep Maynard falls somewhere between "who cares" and "oh, why not". For my part, if I were the Browns, I'd explore my options before recommitting.
Maynard is old. While decent, he's not spectacular and while not terribly expensive, he's not cheap. There are worse options out there, but there are also better ones. The Browns should take a look at what's available before re-signing Maynard.
UFA LB D'Qwell Jackson: I've said it before and I'll say it again—this is not even worth discussing. Just sign him.
The Browns need to pay Jackson what he asks and be done with it. They cannot afford to lose him. They know it, he knows it, everybody knows it. Jackson was the defensive MVP for the team this year, and is the emotional leader of the defensive squad as well.
He also returned stronger than ever from injury against all odds amid criticisms that he wasn't even an viable NFL backup. This is an easy one. Just get the contract done. Now.
RFA DE Marcus Benard: Many of us were very interested in what Benard could potentially do for the 2011 Browns leading into this past season, after he showed flashes of great potential in 2010. But alas, Benard underwhelmed and then irresponsibly crashed his motorcycle in an incident from which police said he emerged from as "lucky to be alive".
Benard is a restricted free agent, so the Browns have more wiggle room on how they choose to proceed with him than they would with many of their other free agents. That means this will come down to whether or not they think he has much of a future and whether or not his bad judgment this season was just that or indicative of a greater character issue.
For my part, I'm tempted to say that we don't need another Kellen Winslow Jr. and advise the Browns to let him walk, but because of his RFA status, it might actually be smarter to keep him around for one more season to see if he has anything to offer.
ERFA LB Titus Brown: I wanted to like Titus Brown. He certainly has solid talent and potential. But unfortunately, he can't seem to stay healthy.
The one thing he has going for him is that he's still relatively young, so perhaps there are things he can change to improve his durability. The bottom line though, is that he hasn't done the Browns much good so far, and if he can't stay on the field, he never will.
With Brown being an ERFA, the Browns don't have much to lose by hanging onto him, but if he can't stay healthy through 2012, it will be time to cut bait.
ERFA DT Brian Schaefering: Schaefering showed some good potential at times in 2010 but like Benard, underwhelmed in his limited appearances in 2012.
Still, Schaefering is young and still inexperienced, and I like his upside, at least for a backup. He'll be inexpensive and the Browns could use the depth on the defensive line, so I see little reason not to allow Schaefering to stay.
UFA FS Mike Adams: I know most folks don't feel the same way, but I still rather like Mike Adams at free safety for the Browns.
Was the starting role too much for him? Perhaps. But could he still be of use to the team as a backup or in a depth/insurance role? Absolutely.
Personally, I'm also not totally willing to give up on Adams playing a bigger part either, though I certainly understand the trepidation. Still, Adams looked significantly better toward the end of the year, creating a situation that echoes the spot the Browns were in with FS Abe Elam after the end last season.
Elam left the Browns, likely of his own accord to continue working with Rob Ryan in Dallas. Hopefully, the Browns and Adams will both decide it's best if he sticks around for at least a bit longer.
UFA CB Dimitri Patterson: Definitely a keeper. Patterson came seemingly out of nowhere at the start of this season and wound up being a significant contributor to the Browns secondary.
Patterson is not without flaws, but he did an excellent job stepping up and taking on a bigger role than expected this season, and I expect he'll ultimately wind up being a good value for the price if the Browns are willing to recommit to him for another, say, two years.