The 7 Biggest Keys to Cleveland Browns' 2012 NFL Free-Agency Strategy

Barbara BrunoContributor IIMarch 9, 2012

The 7 Biggest Keys to Cleveland Browns' 2012 NFL Free-Agency Strategy

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    Do the Cleveland Browns truly have a free-agent strategy? Because hoping you can outbid Daniel Snyder doesn’t count.

    In Cleveland, fans would like to trust that the front office not only posses a strategy, but that said policy includes offense, offense and more offense.

    Let’s assume, for the purposes of this examination, that hiring Mike Holmgren in 2010 signaled a master plan to develop the Browns in the image of the Packers and Seahawks. West Coast offense, opportunistic defense, explosive special teams.

    Joshua Cribbs and Phil Dawson certainly qualify as legitimate contributors to “explosive special teams.” But Holmgren did not draft Dawson or Cribbs, so I’m not sure how much planning credit he gets there.

    At least they know a good thing when they see it, locking up Dawson with the franchise tag and supposedly being dedicated to securing a long-term deal with their leading scorer.

    Under the previous regime, Eric Mangini had already begun to put together a good defense. But Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert do get the proverbial cap feathers for drafting CB Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward, DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard.

    The current management team also wasted no time solidifying D’Qwell Jackson’s continued residence in Cleveland with a recent and intelligently-structured contract. On the whole, defensive planning has been solid.

    Offensively, not so much. When President Holmgren hired Pat Shurmur (nephew of his old buddy Fritz from Green Bay), the West Coast offense part of the Packers-cloning plan was supposedly a priority. Thus far, it’s not even coming up to the level of a Seahawks-cloning plan.

    Offensive uncertainty abounds: Colt McCoy and WR Greg Little may or may not pan out in the Dawg Pound and the team hired Brad Childress as an offensive guru—but Shurmur is still going to call the plays. Yeah, that's going to be seamless.

    Meanwhile, Peyton “Hillis” Place reached a new low this week with spy rumors. The CIA? Say that out loud without laughing; I dare ya!

    One wrench in the free agency-planning works would be Heckert’s recent heart surgery. But he’s working. The man even worked the combine on TV and via Skype. No wonder he had heart surgery at 44.

    Much as postulating what owners, executives and general managers are going to do to “fix” their football teams is a dangerous sport, fraught with the many perils of embarrassment, I do think that we can safely assume the Cleveland Browns are indeed looking for offense—lots of offense.

    This brings us back to outbidding Daniel Snyder for the potential services of Heisman winner and NFL Combine sensation Robert Griffin III.

    But of course, it isn’t that simple. The biggest keys to this offseason puzzle are the unknowns and “things beyond our control.”

Peyton Manning, the St. Louis Rams and the No. 2 Overall Draft Pick

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    1) Peyton Manning is a free man. Don’t you bet that’s how it feels after all of this?  Or maybe it's more like being shoved off a cliff.

    But a deal with another team will not instantly materialize (YouTube video of deep balls or not). Until Manning lands, free agency may be log jammed across the league. He's sent out word that he'd like to decide within a week. That would certainly grease the wheels of offseason dealing.

    And he's not coming to Cleveland. Tom Heckert made that pretty clear Thursday. As if any of us truly believed that Manning would come to a frozen division featuring the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers defenses. Come on.

    The only thing that really matters right now in the Rust Belt is whether Manning’s availability will take Washington and the other suitors away from that second overall draft pick.

    Mostly beside the point, but very cool: 

    Manning has the fourth-most wins (141) of any quarterback since 1950, is third in league history in passing yards (54,828) and fourth in passing touchdowns (399). The only non-active quarterback with a passer rating higher than Manning's 94.9 is Hall of Famer Steve Young (96.8).

    So, yeah, teams are going after No. 18. The only one that truly matters for other franchises (insert Cleveland here) who need a quarterback is the New York Jets. If they hire Manning, then Mark Sanchez may suddenly become available. Hmmmm.

    2) How badly do the Rams want a completed deal for the second pick before the official start of the free-agency frenzy? St. Louis probably wants to sell to the highest bidder, cash the metaphorical check and move on with fine-tuning their enhanced draft board. The longer they wait, the more the QB-shopping waters get muddied by Manning, Matt Flynn, possibly Sanchez or Kolb (if Manning goes to Arizona), etc.

    3) How strongly has Matt Flynn convinced teams that he can be “The Man?” Personally, I think he’s a winner, but I’m not sure that I would pay the money he’s going to demand as a veteran, which will be in the neighborhood of $10 million per year—certainly be more than the cost of a second overall pick.

    By contrast, based on Von Miller’s deal from 2011, the No. 2 price tag is going to be in the low 20s. Plus, of course, whatever tariffs the Rams charge.

    4) Would the Washington Redskins really try to land Manning before making a final offer for that No. 2 pick? Much as I think Manning to D.C. is a recipe for disaster, I would not put it past them. This team has gone blindly after the big fish before. And they don’t get any bigger than Peyton.

    With all of this uncertainty, what conversations are going on in the Cleveland war room?

Cleveland Browns: Is Playing 'Chicken' with the Washington Redskins a Good Idea?

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    Stltoday.com has summed things up thusly: 

    The Redskins front office, with the sixth draft spot, seems willing to swap picks with the Rams and throw in next year’s first-round pick.

    Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer added that the ‘Skins were also willing to give up two other early-ish rounders next year. But they are balking at throwing in their 2012 second-round selection.

    Mike Holmgren and his guys are also willing to exchange places in the draft’s first round. But they have thus far not been leaning towards throwing in the 22nd pick.

    These two positions are very similar and it’s going to come down to which team will give up that second pick. Or which team comes up with another combination of picks that pleases Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead.

    Or whether Manning makes the unlikely decision to decamp for the nation's capitol.

    There are a couple of precedents here.

    1) Eli Manning to New York Giants. The G-Men and Chargers exchanged Manning for Philip Rivers. But they threw in a third-round pick in 2004, plus a first-rounder and a fifth-rounder in the 2005 draft. Wow. Good thing Manning turned out to be the real deal, huh?

    I’m not sure that anyone would part with that much for RGIII—dazzling as he was at the combine.

    2) Michael Vick and LaDainian Tomlinson. Way back at the turn of the century, Atlanta really wanted Mike Vick. Athletically, Vick and Griffin are similar, but I don’t want to slander Griffin by taking the comparison any further.

    San Diego gave up Vick and walked away with a completely unknown QB and RB Tim Dwight. Plus a second-round pick in 2002. That pick ended up being LaDainian Tomlinson.

    And Vick ended up being...Vick. Lest we forget, this is the risk the Browns run if they pull the trigger on dealing for a rookie signal caller.

    3) St. Louis is apparently delusional and waiting for a second-coming of the Herschel Walker trade that built the 90s Dallas dynasty. If that’s what Rams GM Les Snead is thinking, someone had better slap him because it is never going to happen again.

    The Rams will probably just wait to see if one of the teams bows out and then deal for as many lower-round picks as they can muster. St. Louis has so many missing pieces that the more second- and third-round selections they can stockpile the better.

    Holmgren and Co. have, I’m sure, set their highest offer. I don’t think they will go as far as that additional first-round pick because...

Robert Griffin III: How Badly Does Mike Holmgren Want Him?

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    During the combine, Steve Mariucci did a white-board interview with Robert Griffin III for the NFL Network.

    They joked that Griffin might end up in the West Coast offense. Based on this showing, Mr. Griffin has no problems in the “catching on” department.

    But Holmgren can be extremely stubborn about his offenses and his quarterbacks. After McCoy’s struggles in 2011, Holmgren might very well want to get really hands-on here with his West Coast offense building.

    Don’t forget the Green Bay connection with that system when it comes to Matt Flynn, although my instincts tell me that Flynn will land in Miami with his former offensive coordinator.

    That is, if the Dolphins can't convince Peyton Manning to play half his games in the tropics, half his games in the frozen northeast and two of his games against Tom Brady.

    But Pat Shurmur’s mentor, Andy Reid, has been reasonably successful in revamping his entire offense to fit Michael Vick. You know these three are talking.

    Don’t you think that if Holmgren, Randy Lerner and Shurmur were truly sold on the charismatic future rookie, they wouldn’t be huddling behind closed doors—they’d be on the phone.

    Of course, it could all be a bluff. I wouldn’t be completely shocked if Holmgren and Heckert go after Flynn and use the draft picks that they saved on wide receivers and a defensive end.

    It would require more contract restructuring and cutting a bunch of the Browns’ own free agents. But it is a completely legitimate option if Cleveland decides that RGIII isn’t going to be the franchise guy that so many of us are just positive he will be.

D’Qwell Jackson: Dollars, Sense and Defense

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    According to Mike Florio (profootballtalk.com), Cleveland had a rather paltry $8.98 million to spend under the cap as of Feb. 12.

    They have re-signed Comeback Player of the Year, D’Qwell Jackson, for five years and $42.5 million, which helped, among other moves, to ease things up to the $20 million range in cap space. Holmgren said of the 28-year-old:

    "The component every successful team needs is leadership from players that the younger players look up too. By having D'Qwell sign, we have one of the pieces of that puzzle in place.”

    Then they used the franchise tag on PK Phil Dawson ($3.8 million-ish). I guess they are expecting to need a lot of field goals—again. 

    Cleveland could use a pass-rushing DE. If Randy Lerner suddenly comes up with enough money to sign Mario Williams, we need to call the IRS.

    Cliff Avril is not leaving Detroit and Jeremy Mincey, while possibly under-valued by his new offensively leaning head coach, will not be under-valued on the market after his impressive 2011.

    Andre Carter is a stud if he can stay healthy, while Matt Roth and Anthony Spencer don’t really fit.

    John Abraham? I don’t think Arthur Blank is going to part ways with his defensive pillar—unless he decides to pull a Jim Irsay. Stranger things have happened.

    2012 is a good year for defensive linemen and, heaven knows, Jabaal Sheard was a pot of gold at the (defensive) end of the rainbow. Are you feeling that lucky again?

    So, the team has anchored both the defense and Special Teams before free agency even begins. Good for them.

    Back to that whole “we need offense” thing…

Peyton—No, the Other One

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    Peyton Hillis is either extremely unlucky—or he’s one of those guys who carries around a black cloud of negativity. Or he’s severely lacking in political awareness or self-preservation skills. Or he’s a jerk. I just can’t tell.

    Everyone in Cleveland thought the Browns had the steal of the century when Hillis rushed for a gazillion yards in 2010. ("Gazillion" is a 21st century technical football term, by the way.)

    And then came 2011. In one year Hillis was injured, either refused to play or couldn’t play (we’ll never know), came back, was benched, came back, entered the offseason with no one sure whether or not he wanted to be a Brown or whether the Browns wanted him—and now he’s going to join the CIA!

    Of course he’s not going to join the CIA. Who believes this nonsense?

    Hillis thinks that someone is deliberately trying to hurt his image. Um, dude, it wasn’t in that great a shape before the spy thing. Perhaps one of the three agents he fired this year? I’m just guessing, of course.

    The power rusher is on record as saying that he would like to return to the team.

    “I've always loved this city, and I still do love it, and I still want to play for the Cleveland Browns."

    Reading his entire interview with Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer, Hillis sounds more mature and credible than he has in a year.

    But the damage is probably done when it comes to a paycheck. The running back is even using the “hometown discount” line.  

    I’m sure Hillis got all jazzed up after Chris Johnson’s big payday last fall. Well, Hillis’ own actions, Johnson’s poor performance and that hamstring injury have cost No. 40 millions of dollars.

    With all the leverage on their side, the Browns will probably lowball Hillis and stretch out his contract with incentives.

    Not good for HIllis’ bank account—but very good for Cleveland’s cap space.

    If he stays healthy (and quiet), the Browns may lock up one of the very few legitimate power rushers in the NFL. Score one for whoever plays under center in Cleveland next year.

Dwayne Bowe and Stevie Johnson: Where Have All the Receivers Gone?

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    Signed, sealed and delivered in KC and Buffalo, as it turns out.

    Unless Holmgren wants to bring back Braylon Edwards (yes, I’m kidding), the Browns need to bid for Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Mike Wallace (who may yet end up in Black and Gold), Mario Manningham, Pierre Garcon or Reggie Wayne.

    Making a deal with San Diego GM A.J. Smith is probably akin to visiting the third layer of hell and you know that either Garcon or Wayne is going to end up wherever No. 18 ends up. Manningham might also go there if recommended by little brother.

    If Randy Moss playing in New Orleans becomes a reality, Colston and Meachem might cancel each other out in price.

    Cowboy Laurent Robinson is technically a free agent, but I cannot image Jerry Jones letting him go.

    Cleveland’s single biggest challenge this month will be balancing draft picks, QB salary and trying to be able to bring in at least one of the above veteran receivers while preserving the chance to land a winner in April.

    Actually, they need to land about three winners. Okay, two if we consider sophomore WR Greg Little a keeper.

    Because a team that averaged 13.6 points per game in 2011 truly needs to grasp the “throw ball—catch ball” concept.

Cleveland Browns: Here and Gone

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    Cleveland’s front office must decide who among these unrestricted free agents needs to restructure or pack.

     

    It’s been nice:

    DB Sheldon Brown is $5.467 against the cap  With Dmitri Patterson playing well in 2011, I think Mr. Brown is no longer a—you know.

    Left guard Eric Steinbach, who missed all of last season and carries a hefty salary, may well have to play for a discounted contract or pack.

    Linemen Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks are on shaky ground if Cleveland needs cap room.

    I had to look John Greco up for this article. That’s not a good sign.

    Seneca Wallace or Colt McCoy? Wallace is by far the most expensive, but he is a Holmgren favorite and staple. Trading McCoy would take some doing, though. Not to mention that it's hardly fair to judge a second-year QB with no WRs, no O-line and a running game so inconsistent it was a game of musical backs.

    Scott Fujita faces possible suspension or other action for the “bounty” program so his presence on the field isn’t guaranteed. Heckert may move “linebacker” higher on his draft board. 

     

    Sticking around:

    I’d be surprised if the team parted with Brad Maynard. You need a good punter. The Giants just franchised theirs.

    I’m in the Hillis-stays-a-Brown camp. Unless he decides to go infiltrate Afghanistan.

    Mike Adams earned himself another year with the Browns unless management wants to flirt with an even thinner secondary.

    Backup center John Greco’s status probably hinges entirely on his price tag.

NFL Free Agency: It's Good to Have a Backup Plan

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    When you really look at it—the Browns do have a free-agent strategy. In fact, they probably have three free-agent strategies:

    1)      The Robert Griffin III plan: trade up, sign a veteran WR for leadership, sign rookie WRs for general “we don’t have any” reasons, draft backups at running back, lines and hope to land a good DE in the middle rounds since you need to get WRs in the higher rounds.

    2)      The Matt Flynn plan: free up as much cap space as possible, draft wide receivers high and everyone else later.

    3)      The Ryan Tannehill plan: The Texas A&M grad is bigger and probably has a stronger arm. But he’s hurt and McCoy won far more games in college. Load up on wide receivers, running backs and offensive line and hope the third QB of 2012 is a winner. But isn’t that kind of like just sticking with Colt McCoy? And isn’t that right back where we started?