Cleveland Browns Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

Brian MurtaughAnalyst IFebruary 29, 2012

Cleveland Browns Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

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    The Cleveland Browns finished the 2011 NFL season with a 4-12 overall record and one of the most disappointing seasons from a Cleveland franchise in the last 15 years.

    Cleveland will be looking to turn the corner in 2012 and give Browns fans the winning seasons they have hoped for since the team returned in 1999.

    This free agency tracker will talk about every move the Browns make from now until the NFL draft. Each slide will be updated as new information becomes available and finalized.

    The slideshow will begin by looking at Cleveland's biggest moves so far, and analyzing the current salary cap figures.Then, we will look at the biggest holes from the Browns team in 2012 and what kinds of free agents Cleveland may be targeting to help fill them this year.

    Finally, we will look at the draft targets for the Browns and analyze which positions Cleveland should be targeting in April's 2012 NFL Draft.

Free-Agent Signings, Re-Signings and Roster Moves

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    The following are official transactions posted on the transactions page.


    March 5, 2012:

    Sporting News is reporting that Phil Dawson has received the Browns franchise tag.

    Feb. 27, 2012: The Browns have signed linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to a 5-year contract extension worth $42.5 million. Jackson will reportedly be guaranteed $19 million in bonus money and incentives.

    However, Cleveland made sure to place stipulations on the contract in case Jackson's injury concerns creep up again in the future.

    Jackson led the NFL in tackles in 2008 and was second in the NFL Comeback Player of the Year voting in 2011.

    Jan. 3, 2012: The Browns signed Dominic Alford (G), Armond Smith (RB), Jeff Wolfert (K), Owen Spencer (WR), David Sims (S), Stanley Daniels (G),Craig Robertson (LB) and Jarrod Shaw (G) to practice squad/ future NFL contracts.

    Armond Smith and Jeff Wolfert are probably the two biggest practice squad signings for the Browns at this point in their off season planning. Smith showed flashes of promise last season before he was eventually released by Cleveland to make roster room for Chris Ogbonnaya.

    Smith showed good speed for the Browns early in the preseason and managed to compile 192 yards and two touchdown scores on only 31 rushing attempts. However, Smith only saw three carries in the regular season before his official release.

    Wolfert is important for the Browns for a slightly different reason. Cleveland's current kicker, Phil Dawson, is an unrestricted free agent at this point and it is questionable whether he will return to the Browns next year.

    Wolfert could be an attempt at a replacement for Dawson, or just an insurance policy if the team fails to add a kicker this summer.

Salary Cap Status

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    The NFL salary cap in 2011 was rounded off at a little over $120 million for each football franchise. The cap is expected to rise in 2012, and could go as high as $125 million based on some projected rates and NFL experts.

    For sake of argument in this slide, we will set the cap at the halfway mark of those figures ($122.5 million).

    If that figure is close to the cap in 2012, the Cleveland Browns have estimated $15-20 million in free cap space after the large signing of D'Qwell Jackson on Feb. 27. Here are some of the other key contracts on the Browns roster:

    Best Team Contract: Joe Thomas has the biggest and best contract on the Cleveland Browns roster. Thomas is expected to make $10.5 million in 2012-2013 (according to these salary figures) and is currently signed through the 2018 season.

    Even though that is a large portion of the Browns' 2012 salary, Thomas is clearly the most talented player on Cleveland's roster and has been a consistent Pro Bowl selection since he was drafted in 2007.

    Worst Team Contract: Seneca Wallace likely has the worst contract on the Browns roster. Wallace was re-signed by the Browns before the 2011 season on a deal that would keep him under contract for three years and pay him $3 million for each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

    That may be a tough figure for Cleveland to pay, especially if they draft or sign a new quarterback this season.

    Biggest Contract Questions: The contract and health of Eric Steinbach has to be a big concern for the Browns front office as they move forward. Steinbach was placed on IR during training camp in 2011 after he injured his back during the first week of practices.

    Cleveland still owes Steinbach $6 million for this upcoming season and is scheduled to pay him $6.25 million for 2013-2014. The Browns struggled at the guard position in his absence and eventually signed John Greco to replace Steinbach later in training camp.

    The contract status' of Peyton Hillis is also going to be major contributing factor to how Cleveland approaches their cap negotiations this season. Hillis is expected to pursue a deal that will keep him under contract for 3-5 years and pay him $5 million-$10 million per season.

Last Year's Major Holes

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    Realistically, the Browns have room for improvement at every position for the 2012 NFL season. However, there are a few spots where Cleveland really struggled and will eventually have to improve in order to be relevant next year. Here are the biggest positions that Cleveland needs help with for 2012.

    Wide Receiver: Mohammed Massaquoi, Carlton Mitchell and Jordan Norwood have two major things in common; They can't play receiver in the NFL, and they are all on the Browns depth chart. Cleveland must find a wideout to help Greg Little and Josh Cribbs next season and finally give the Browns the downfield receiving threat that they have lacked since 2007.

    Offensive Line: The Browns offensive line got off on a bad foot when Eric Steinbach injured his back the first week of training camp and had to be placed on injured reserve. Cleveland struggled to replace Steinbach and also had trouble filling the right tackle position as a result of poor play by Tony Pashos.

    Running Back: Peyton Hillis may have been the biggest bust in the entire NFL in 2011 and Cleveland is paying the price for his lack of production. The Browns are in a tough spot with Hillis' contract negotiations and really have nobody to replace him if he should leave in free agency.

    Other positions likely to be improved: Right Defensive End, Outside Linebacker, Safety, Tight End, Quarterback

The Browns' 2012 Free Agents

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    Cleveland already has many holes to fill on both sides of the ball and their potential free-agent list is among the longest in the NFL.

    The following is the list of current Browns free agents:

    Mike Adams (FS) Unrestricted

    Oniel Cousins (T) Unrestricted

    **Phil Dawson (K) Unrestricted

    March 5, 2012: Sporting News is reporting that Phil Dawson has received the Browns franchise tag.

    John Greco (G) Unrestricted

    Artis Hicks (G) Unrestricted

    **Peyton Hillis (RB) Unrestricted

    Brad Maynard (P) Unrestricted

    Dimitri Patterson (CB) Unrestricted

    Alex Smith (TE) Unrestricted

    Steve Vallos (C) Unrestricted

    **Current most-likely options for franchise tag consideration.

    Restricted free agents may be offered a one-year tender which would result in Cleveland adding draft picks upon those players signing with a new team.

    According to the new rules based in the collective bargaining agreement, a tender of approximately $2.6 million equates first-round compensation and $1.84 million is due for a second-round tender.

    The lowest tender, approximately $1.26 million, is equal to the same draft selection that the original player was drafted in.  

    Example: That means if Cleveland placed the lowest tender on Colt McCoy, the team who signed McCoy would owe the Browns a third-round pick.

    The following players are listed as restricted free agents:

    Marcus Benard (DE) Restricted

    Titus Brown (MLB) Restricted

Determining Contract Value and Worth for Every Browns Free Agent

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    The current free agents from the Browns roster vary in talent levels and NFL experience. Some of the biggest names like Peyton Hillis and Phil Dawson will likely be signed somewhere before the spring months come to a close while others, may never get another opportunity on a NFL team.

    Here are some estimated values that each player may be looking to receive on the free-agent market in 2012.


    Peyton Hillis (RB) 3 Years, $10 Million

    Hillis was the victim of some heated contract negotiations in 2011 and ultimately severed ties with the Browns organization because of what he was looking for in a new deal.

    Hillis' production took a severe decline in the midst of the contract drama and has probably hurt his value on the free agent market. The Browns have reportedly offered Hillis a new deal around $10 million for three years, but have yet to have real negotiations with Hillis since November.


    Phil Dawson (K) 3 Years, $6 Million

    It is slightly surprising that Phil Dawson has been a no-name throughout many of the contract negotiations that the Browns have been involved in during these past few weeks. Dawson currently is the longest-tenured Browns player and has been the most productive player in Cleveland since 1999.

    Dawson could still be a sleeper for the Browns to sign before the deadline the first week in March, but could also be used as Cleveland's franchise tag if they shy away from Peyton Hillis.

    UPDATE: On March 2 the Browns placed the franchise tag on Dawson and will pay him roughly $3.3 million for the 2012 season. This is the second year in a row that Dawson has received the tag.


    Mike Adams (FS) 2 Years, $7 Million

    Mike Adams was a contributing factor on the Browns last season, but split playing time with Usama Young at the safety position. Experts believe Adams' days with the Browns have come to an end, but Cleveland still plans to offer Adams a contract before free agency begins.


    Dimitri Patterson (CB) 1 Year, $1 Million

    Patterson had a strong season for the Browns in 2011 and filled the void that Eric Wright left behind on the Browns depth chart. Cleveland still needs depth at the corner position in 2012 and could benefit from keeping Patterson in a system that produced the second-best pass defense in the NFL last season.


    Marcus Benard (DE) 3 Years, $5 Million

    Marcus Benard is an interesting free agent for the Browns organization because he previously had success on Cleveland's roster before a down season in 2011. Cleveland has already gone on the record and stated that Benard will likely leave the Browns this Spring in search for a better deal.


    Alex Smith (TE) 2 Years, $1.75 Million: Alex Smith has the potential to be a contributing tight end in the NFL, but has never flourished behind Ben Watson in Cleveland. Smith played tight end, wide receiver, and even some full back with the Browns and still never found a spot where he could consistently contribute.

    However, despite his lack of production, tight end is still a weak position for many NFL teams and it would be likely that Smith could find a deal somewhere in the league this year.

    The remaining players on Cleveland's free agency list would likely be looking for contracts close to the $500,000-$700,000 range for the 2012 season:

    Titus Brown (MLB), Oniel Cousins (T), John Greco (G), Artis Hicks (G), Brad Maynard (P), and Steve Vallos (C).

Predicting Who Will the Browns Actually Re-Sign?

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    Peyton Hillis and Phil Dawson are currently the two players on the Browns roster with the most likely chance of being franchise tagged in the next two weeks. Just for the sake of argument, we are going to place the franchise tag on Phil Dawson for this next slide.


    Phil Dawson, Franchise Tag, 1 Year $3.5 million (estimated)

    The Browns have gone this route before when they placed the franchise tag on Phil Dawson in 2011.

    Cleveland currently does not have enough cap space to spend the type of money on Peyton Hillis, and Dawson has become one of the most famous Cleveland Browns players in history.

    This works out great for both sides because Dawson fills a big hole for the Browns and gets to stay with the team he has played for since 1999.

    March 5, 2012: Sporting News is reporting that Phil Dawson has received the Browns franchise tag.


    John Greco, 1 year, $750,000

    Greco filled in well for the Browns last season and provided depth on an offensive line that used every player available to them in order to make ends meet.

    Greco is familiar with Pat Shurmur because of the time they spent together in St. Louis and he has the endorsement of the coaching staff due to his leadership ability.


    Other long-shot possibilities:

    Peyton Hillis, 3 Year, $10 Million wants a big contract but the Browns may simply not have the cap room to warrant such a big deal for an unproven talent. As of now, it does not seem likely that Cleveland will re-sign Hillis, but all of that could change before he becomes an official free agent.

    Mike Adams, 2 Years, $7 Million: Mike Adams would be the other name that Cleveland could be interested in bringing back, but Usama Young is doing a fine job playing the free safety position and is already under contract.

    Adams may be too pricey for the Browns at this point and many expect Adams to be interested in reuniting with Rob Ryan in Dallas.

    Who will walk:

    It is reasonable to believe that the other free agents on the Browns roster could be available to sign with other teams once the deadline hits. The Browns have made a trend of cleaning house after dismal seasons, and fans expect this year to be more of the same. 

Available Cap Room After Those Players Re-Sign

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    If we use the same figures that were projected earlier in the slideshow the Browns, will have roughly $15-20 million to spend on re-signing players over the course of the next few weeks.

    After the projected deals with Phil Dawson and John Greco, Cleveland would be in the ballpark of $14-17 million entering the free agency period and the NFL Draft.

    March 5, 2012: Sporting News is reporting that Phil Dawson has received the Browns franchise tag.

    It is worthy to note that the Browns would not be able to sign enough players during free agency and sign their draft picks with only the estimated cap room. Also, the cap could be lower if they would sign a player like Hillis or Adams.

    The Browns will likely have to cut ties with some of their higher-played bench players in order to make ends meet. Players that are ranked lower on the depth charts will likely be cut as Cleveland signs new contracts moving forward.

    Seneca Wallace, Mohamed Massaquoi and Carlton Mitchell could be three players the Browns could consider cutting in order to make cap room, depending on who they acquire before training camp begins.

Biggest Needs After Re-Signings

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    Wide Receiver: Re-signing their free agents will not help the Browns get better at the wide receiver position. Cleveland will need to look outside of the franchise in order to improve and is reportedly considering multiple targets in free agency.

    Running back: If the Browns lose Peyton Hillis, the running back position may quickly become the most important need in the free agency/draft period. Hillis was a major source of production for the Browns in 2010 and the offense struggled without his presence in 2011.

    Defensive End: The right side of the defensive line could use some improvement from the 2011 campaign. Although it was not necessarily a weakness, Jayme Mitchell failed to make an immediate impact at the right end position and was rotated out for much of the year.

    Cleveland feels that they have a solid core with Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard on the defensive line. They may just need one more piece in order to get the puzzle correct.

    Outside Linebacker: Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong have been better than advertised for the Browns over the last two seasons, but age is quickly becoming a factor for both players moving forward. Cleveland needs to build depth in their linebacker corps before the defense begins to deteriorate.

    Cornerback: Dimitri Patterson will be a question mark for the Browns during free agency and it is uncertain whether he will be resigned. The Browns have established a very good pass defense with Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, but they need those extra depth talents in order to be considered elite.

    Quarterback: Some people believe Colt McCoy is still the answer at quarterback for the Browns while others think that Robert Griffin III or Matt Flynn will be in an orange helmet next season. Whatever the case, the quarterback position has not produced for the Browns since Derek Anderson in 2007 and Cleveland is struggling in the win column because of it.

Potential Free Agents the Browns Could Target

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    The Browns have made it very clear that they intend to build through the NFL draft rather than spend big money on free agents. Although, Cleveland will likely dabble in the free-agent market to fill some key positions. Here are some of the more interesting names the Browns could show interest in:


    Matt Flynn, QB

    Flynn likely heads the list of free agents that Cleveland may be interested in at this point in the free agency process. The Browns have not been shy about their pursuit of another quarterback and Flynn seems like he may come at a better price than trading away draft picks for another quarterback.

    But, the Browns should be skeptical of a quarterback like Flynn based on the talent level he was surrounded with in Green Bay and his familiarity with the system.


    Mario Manningham, WR

    The Browns have needed new wide receivers for the last three seasons and the Super Bowl champion, Mario Manningham, could be exactly what Cleveland needs out of a No. 1 receiver. Manningham has grown into a complete receiver with the New York Giants and could finally be ready to stop into the spotlight for another NFL franchise.

    Greg Little would likely become the No. 2 receiving option behind Manningham while Josh Cribbs would slide into the third position on the depth chart.


    Michael Bush, RB

    Bush could be a little bit of a long shot for the Browns, but Cleveland will desperately need to fill a void at running back if Peyton Hillis decides to head to greener pastures.

    Bush is a similar runner to Hillis and could be a good replacement if Cleveland wants another downhill runner to anchor their offense.

    Other Possible Free Agent Targets: Visanthe Shiancoe (TE), Donovan McNabb (QB)

Projected Contract Values for Browns Free-Agent Targets

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    Matt Flynn: 4 Years, $50 Million

    Flynn will likely carry the biggest free agent contract out of all the players the Browns may target this season. Flynn is the 2012 version of Kevin Kolb as far as contract status is concerned, and will expect to receiver a bigger contract than the Arizona Cardinals gave Kolb.

    Kolb received a deal with nearly $60 million for five years with the Cardinals in 2011. The Miami Dolphins are currently the biggest link to Flynn, but Cleveland is expected to make a big play at some point in free agency.


    Mario Manningham: 5 years, $30 million

    Mario Manningham had a breakout season in 2011 and will likely get all of the cash he possibly can out of his free agent deal this Spring. Cleveland desperately needs a top-tier wideout and are reportedly looking for a veteran presence that can make plays.

    Manningham fits the bill for Cleveland at this point in the free-agent process and could be a good combination with Greg Little, Mohammed Massaqoui and Josh Cribbs.


    Michael Bush: Four years, $20 million

    Michael Bush will be expected to carry the load as a starting running back in 2012 and Cleveland may need a top rusher if Peyton Hillis heads to greener pastures.

    Bush has a similar running style as Hillis and could be a fit replacement for a team that has a good core of change-of-pace backs already in place.

    Bush, along with Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty, could become a productive force to help out the Browns lackluster offense.

    Visanthe Shiancoe: 1 Year, $2 million

    Shiancoe had a down season in 2011 and will likely become a free agent with Kyle Rudolph taking the tight end position in Minnesota.

    Shiancoe has connections to Brad Childress and could become a good red-zone option for Cleveland due to the uncertain health of Benjamin Watson.

    The Browns could also be looking to add a tight end if they lose Alex Smith to free agency.  

    Donovan McNabb: 1 Year, $6 Million: Donovan McNabb did not have a good showing with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, but is still looking to resurrect his career in 2012.

    McNabb has familiarity with the type of offense Pat Shumur and Childress like to run and could be a decent mentor for Colt McCoy if Cleveland fails to get another quarterback.  

Cleveland Browns Draft Strategy, Positions of Need

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    The Browns have reportedly been targeting five major prospects moving into the 2012 NFL Draft.

    Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Morris Claiborne, Justin Blackmon and Ryan Tannehill have all been considered first-round possibilities for the Browns and many were interviewed by Cleveland over the course of their NFL Scouting Combine weekend.

    The good thing about those targets is that each player represents a position of need for Cleveland moving forward. The Browns will likely address all of these positions during various rounds and are doing a good job of not showing their hand too early in the scouting process.

    Many experts also think that Cleveland will be more offensive-minded in this draft because of their lack of firepower on offense last season.

    The biggest question surrounding the Browns franchise is whether the team will trade with the St.Louis Rams in order to draft Griffin.

    St. Louis is reportedly seeking three first-round picks for the second overall selection. Cleveland has two first-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft and is one of only a few teams that could actually make a push for Griffin and not put the franchise in great jeopardy.

    The Washington Redskins are considered to be the favorites to land Griffin at this point in the process because Cleveland has not shown a great interest in trading up to this point.

    However, NFL experts believe the Browns are interested in Griffin and want to test the free agent quarterback market before they get involved in trade negotiations.

Names to Keep an Eye on During the 2012 NFL Draft

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    Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

    RGIII is one of the biggest names in the entire draft class and has quarterback-hungry teams practically foaming at the mouth. Griffin has one of the fastest 40-yard dash times out of any quarterback in history, the intelligence to learn any offensive system, and the athletic ability to be successful in the NFL.

    The only problem is that he will likely come at a large price. The Browns will likely have to trade up if they want Griffin and trade away their two first-round draft picks they acquired last April.

    That is a tough price to pay for a team that is rebuilding, and for a position that is not really the biggest hole on the offense.


    Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama

    The rumors of Trent Richardson to the Browns cooled down after Richardson did not run at the combine due to a minor surgical procedure on his knee.

    However, the Browns look like they will need to address the running back position at some point this Spring and Richardson is clearly the most dynamic rusher in the entire draft.

    Cleveland would be in prime position to draft Richardson if they remained at the number four spot and would also have another selection to improve the offense at 22.

    Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor

    The Browns need a wide receiver in order to compete in the AFC North next season and they do not seem to be in the hunt for Justin Blackmon at this point in the draft.

    Wright is considered option 1A for many teams behind Blackmon and has been the prized possession for teams that need a game breaker at wideout.

    The ideal situation for the Browns would be to draft Griffin and Wright together. However, that does not really seem feasible given their draft position and trade options.


    Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M

    If the Browns do not select Robert Griffin in the first round then it is expected that they will target a quarterback sometime in the second day. Tannehill could be the perfect project quarterback for Cleveland, but he has struggled with interceptions throughout his career.

    Tannehill would likely sit the bench behind Colt McCoy in his first season but could make an impact during his second year in a quarterback-friendly system.


    Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

    Some NFL analysts are now saying that Dre Kirkpatrick could fall out of the first round based on his performance at the NFL combine.

    Cleveland would likely enjoy the addition of Kirkpatrick to their secondary as they look to sustain a very prolific pass defense.

    Cleveland needs to add depth in order to replace Sheldon Brown after he retires and give some help to Joe Haden.

    Kirkpatrick was the most feared player in Alabama's secondary for the last two seasons and would bring a new level of talent to an already-strong corner unit.


    Bobby Massie, OT, Ole Miss

    The Browns have questions to be answered at right tackle, right guard and left guard heading into the NFL draft. Massie has the skill to play multiple positions on the offensive line and should be around in the third or fourth round.

    Cleveland has been plugging in multiple players along the O-line for the last two years, and some consistency would be a huge upgrade in 2012.  

    Any Defensive End

    Cleveland needs to fix the revolving door at defensive end next season and will look at multiple targets to fill the position.

    As mentioned in an earlier slide, the Browns feel like they have solid starters in Rubin, Taylor and Sheard.

    The right end position needs to be a pure pass rusher that can help the Browns use their linebackers in a more aggressive fashion.