The 2012 offseason is a big one for the Cleveland Browns, whose management has a lot to prove and less and less time to prove it with each losing season.
Between making adjustments to current game plans and approaches and working with players already on the roster to improve to bringing in new talent via the draft of free agency, the Browns have a lot of decisions to make.
But before they do much of anything else, they need to figure out exactly where they stand with the current free agents they have in their stable.
Currently, the Browns have 11 unrestricted free agents (UFA), one restricted free agent (RFA) and three exclusive rights free agents (ERFA). They'll need to make decisions about each, and in the case of the UFAs, the players will have their own decisions to make about whether or not they would like to stay in Cleveland.
Following are my best estimates at the odds of each of the Browns' free agents remaining in Cleveland for the 2012 season and beyond. Be sure to share your own thoughts in the comments below on who will be sticking around and who will be hitting the bricks among this offseason's free agents.
UFA Peyton Hillis: A year ago, the decision of whether or not to re-sign RB Peyton Hillis would have been a no-brainer. Most Browns fans would have preferred to lose a limb than to lose Hillis.
But alas, the story of Hillis took a dramatically different turn during the 2011 season, resulting in loads of skepticism not only as to how much the Browns should be willing to pay Hillis, but whether they should bother re-signing him at all.
Opinions seem to be split on the matter. Some folks still think he's worth paying solid money for, while others insist he's worthless to the Browns at any cost. Given the unpredictable elements that proved Hillis' undoing in 2011, it's tough to say what the "right" answer is.
Likely, whether or not the Browns re-sign Hillis will be more about whether or not they've found another suitable replacement for him than it will be about how he performed in 2011. Obviously, that will certainly be a factor.
But the Browns are in a tight spot in terms of the number of needs they have to fill vs the means (whether in terms of money or draft picks) they have to do it, which means whether or not Hillis returns may depend largely on what other options the Browns find at running back.
As far as price goes, my guess is the market for Hillis will wind up being such that he and his agent will, in the end, be pretty willing to work with Cleveland on the cost should they decide to make him an offer.
Flight-Risk Factor: 60 percent chance of sticking around
UFA TE Alex Smith: Smith has never been a huge part of the Browns offense, nor was he ever intended to be. He was always a depth guy, a gap-filler, and he has mostly been used exactly as such.
On a team with serious injury issues at TE, it would seem short-sighted to pass on Smith considering that he'll come cheap, he already knows the system and he's decidedly less fragile than the rest of the TEs on the roster.
Smith is not and never will be anything spectacular, but he's a solid depth player at an injury-plagued position who will come relatively cheap. I expect he'll be back with the Browns without too much fuss from either side.
Flight-Risk Factor: 85 percent chance of sticking around
ERFA Jordan Norwood: Norwood doesn't really even belong on this list, as the Browns have no real reason not to re-sign him. None at all.
Norwood has some size and injury issues, certainly, but he probably has the best hands on the team and is one of its hardest workers and most stand-up guys.
Mostly, though, it comes down to price, as these things pretty much always do. And Norwood will be cheap. Dirt cheap. Especially considering he is an ERFA, which essentially means he is the Browns' player to keep unless they simply don't want him at all, which would make pretty much no sense whatsoever.
Flight-Risk Factor: 95 percent chance of sticking around
Since the Browns' hapless offensive linemen made all of our lives so difficult all season long, it seems only fair that in this particular article on this particular topic, they're actually making things easier for me.
The reason for this is that with all four offensive linemen up for free agency—Oniel Cousins, Artis Hicks, John Greco and Steve Vallos—there is pretty much no reason to even mull over the idea of keeping any of them at all. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be thrilled never to see any of these four again.
In terms of the odds they actually return, things don't look much better. It's vaguely possible (let's call it a 15-20 percent chance) that Cousins or Hicks could be brought back in a depth role, but I wouldn't count on it.
And as for Greco and Vallos...don't let the door hit you on the way out. I very much doubt anyone in the Browns organization would miss them enough to even consider re-signing either one, and if they have any sense, they would want to move on as well in the hope that a new location might signal a fresh start.
Flight-Risk Factor for Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks: 15-20 percent chance of sticking around
Flight-Risk Factor for John Greco and Steve Vallos: Put it this way...we'll all be more than happy to chip in on your bus ticket out of town.
UFA PK Phil Dawson: We all love Phil Dawson in Cleveland. Always have, always will. It's just that while we used to love him possessively as the best bad-weather kicker in the NFL and as "ours," we now love him more in the past tense. In other words, whether we've directly acknowledged it or not, we all know Dawson is as good as gone.
It would, of course, be wonderful to be wrong about this. But the Browns made their statement about Dawson's future when they chose to franchise him last year rather than giving him a long-term contract.
Sometimes, teams do that with a young player who they can't tet reach an agreement with when they have every intention of working out a deal with him the following year. But when a team does that with an older player like Dawson, it's generally an indication that that season will be his swan song.
And Dawson, of course, is likely loath to be interested in dealing with the Browns after that. Who would blame him? We'd all love to have Dawson back from an emotional, sentimental standpoint. He was, prior to free agency, the longest-tenured player on the roster with the Browns.
But it doesn't seem as though either side is all that interested in dealing, and as much as we hate to say this about Dawson, he is, like almost all kickers, expendable.
The bottom line? I wish Dawson all the best and will always root for him to do well, but I very much doubt that he'll ever put on a Browns uniform again.
Flight-Risk Factor: 25 percent chance of re-signing
UFA P Brad Maynard: I have no major objections to Brad Maynard; I just also have no sense of attachment to him at all.
As something like the fifth choice at punter for the Browns this past season after a succession of punters went down in an auspicious heap, Maynard essentially did fine. He wasn't terrible, and he wasn't good. He was acceptable, which worked out about as well as things tagged acceptable usually do.
The Browns could choose to re-sign Maynard, and it probably wouldn't so any harm; he won't be expensive, and he isn't awful. But because punters are cheap and plentiful, why not take a look at what else is out there and try to upgrade to someone who might be slightly better or at least slightly younger?
Flight-Risk Factor: 30 percent chance of re-signing
UFA LB D'Qwell Jackson: As has been discussed in the Bleacher Report Browns community over and over, keeping Jackson in orange and brown is a no-brainer. The Browns need him as a player, as a leader and as a teammate. I wouldn't go so far as to say you can't put a price on his value, but I would say that whatever the price is, the Browns should be paying it.
And it seems that's exactly what they intend to do one way or the other. It has been reported that if they cannot come to an agreement with Jackson, the Browns will place their franchise tag on him. Personally i would prefer they work out a long-term deal, but this is, of course, better than nothing.
Unlike the case with Dawson, Jackson is younger and has more time and potential to contribute something uniquely valuable to the team, increasing the chances that the he and the Browns will still work hard to come to some sort of long-term agreement even after the franchise tag has been applied.
Flight-Risk Factor: 95 percent chance of sticking around.
RFA DE Marcus Benard: After the motorcycle mishap that cost him the bulk of his 2011 season, no one would consider keeping DE Marcus Benard around for his good decision-making skills. However, that doesn't mean he has nothing else to offer.
Partly due to now-obvious character concerns and partly due to the fact that we simply don't know if he'll be the same player after the accident, Benard's value isn't what it once was. There are those who would even argue that he was overrated and ill-suited to the 4-3 anyway.
Still, as an RFA and considering that his market value took a drastic hit when he Kellen Winslow, Jr.'ed his motorcycle, Benard could be a nice cheap depth option for the Browns. The risk and the cost would be low, but the payoff could potentially be solid. And if it isn't, the Browns wouldn't be out much.
Flight-Risk Factor: 70 percent chance of sticking around
ERFA LB Titus Brown: If it weren't for the seemingly endless string of injuries, Titus Brown would probably make an excellent second string LB for the Browns. And depending on what the other options at the position turn out to be, he still might, injuries and all.
But realistically, Brown, despite having solid talent and potential, is simply too injury-prone to keep on the roster. He'll be cheap, certainly, but if he can't stay healthy, then he costs the Browns more than money; he costs them a roster spot. Keeping him around isn't the worst idea in the world, but it's also far from the best.
Flight-Risk Factor: 50 percent chance of sticking around
ERFA DT Brian Schaefering: Little-seen in 2011 and often underwhelming when he was, DT Brian Schaefering disappointed in a season which many thought could be a potential breakout year for him.
While it has now become apparent that there will be no "breakout year" in the sense of the term that often foreshadows future NFL stardom, Schaefering is still young and has enough upside that he may have some very solid value for the Browns. He'll be inexpensive and he has a high upside, so I can't see any reason for the Browns not to re-sign him, especially as an ERFA.
Flight-Risk Factor: 85 percent chance of sticking around
UFA FS Mike Adams: I like Mike Adams more than most Browns fans seem to, but it remains a bit of a mystery how exactly the team feels about him. To date, we haven't seen much indication from the Browns as to their plans for Adams. For his part, Adams hasn't said much as far as his thoughts on the matter either.
The lack of discussion on the matter would seem to indicate a prevalence of apathy on the matter from one or both sides, indicating that a deal seems unlikely, but it is still early. Adams may want to test the market, and there is a good chance the Browns will let him, though that doesn't mean both sides wouldn't be willing to deal later on if Adams doesn't find a home elsewhere.
Flight-Risk Factor: 50 percent chance of sticking around
UFA CB Dmitri Patterson: From where I'm sitting, the Browns would be nuts to let Patterson go. He's cheap, he's relatively young and he did a heckuva job for them last season after coming out of nowhere and costing the team practically nothing.
The bottom line is that even if they were to give Patterson a raise, he'll still be reasonably priced. And unlike some of the demands the Browns' free agent players are likely to lay on the table, Patterson will likely be worth the asking price. At the end of the day, if the Browns know what's good for them; they'll bring Patterson back without much question or haggling.
Flight-Risk Factor: 80 percent chance of sticking around