Driving to Free Agency
Update: According to Matt Florjancic of ClevelandBrowns.com, the Browns have tendered WR Jordan Norwood and defensive lineman Brian Schaefering. They have also re-signed offensive lineman John Greco.
Peyton Manning—nope. Robert Griffin III—nope. Mario Williams—nope. Which of multiple team needs will Cleveland seek to address in the looming free-agency period, now that the Browns retain both their early draft picks and their remaining cap room?
Factors to consider:
1) Salary cap space;
2) Browns free agents worth keeping;
3) Available outside free agents for needed positions;
4) Players whose agents have a realistic sense of their clients’ worth;
5) Team needs “fillable” through the draft;
6) Drafting for need or value: What is your team’s philosophy?
I’m not trying to rub it in, but the Browns finished 2011 as the 30th-ranked offense. Said offense was 29th in total yards, 24th in passing yards and 28th in rushing yards.
This side of the ball averaged less than 14 points per week. There’s no sugar-coating it—that is positively dreadful.
Ah, but the defense was quite good, right? The strength of the team, right? Well, yes—when the other team passed the ball. The Browns ranked second in passing yards allowed.
Wow. That’s wonderful!
I hate to bring up painful subjects, but the Browns proved virtually incapable of stopping opposing running backs and ranked 30th in ground yards surrendered. Ouch.
So, there are plenty of team “departments” that need help. Dramatic help.
The good news is that almost any player signed or drafted can be used immediately to (hopefully) improve some aspect of the team.
The bad news is that there are a lot of team holes to fill with the $17.4 million the Browns have under the cap and the No. 4, 6, 22 and 37 picks in the draft.
Then there was GM Tom Heckert telling the press on Thursday, March 8: “We are not going to go crazy in free agency. You don’t win football games signing free agents. There is always a reason these guys are available.”
While that is certainly true, one man’s redundant slot receiver is another man’s Wes Welker.
The treasure hunt begins Tuesday at 4PM EDT.
Report: According to Evan Silva of ProFootballTalk.com, the Browns have re-signed offensive tackle Oniel Cousins, tight end Alex Smith and defensive lineman Brain Schefering. Silva reports the signings are believed to all be one-year deals.
Phil Dawson—check. D’Qwell Jackson—check.
While Dawson is probably not thrilled with being franchise-tagged two years in a row, the Browns say they are still pursuing a long-term deal. Browns fans had better hope so.
Until the offense is resurrected, No. 4 will remain the source of most offensive points. He made 24 of 29 field goals, with a long of 54 yards. Questions? I didn’t think so.
D’Qwell Jackson is not only the 2011 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, he is also the Cleveland Browns' defensive rock. Signing him well before the craziness that begins on Tuesday was not only smart, it was also a good sign that the Holmgren/Heckert regime is thinking clearly. So far at least.
The Browns’ next priority must be running back Peyton Hillis. Heckert has indicated that he’s going to let Hillis and his fourth agent in a year shop themselves around the league.
It’s a calculated risk, but Hillis’ reputation has taken such a hit in the past year, the Browns could lock up one of the NFL’s few pounders at a very reasonable price. Stay tuned.
Hillis or no Hillis—Holmgren is going to be pushing for a handful of running backs in both the lower draft rounds and rookie free agency. With such a tight grip on the purse strings, I cannot imaging owner Randy Lerner, Holmgren and Heckert going after anything but a bargain free-agent running back.
If I had a fantasy acquisition, it would be LaDainian Tomlinson. I’d pay him a couple million for his remaining third-down magic and locker room leadership. I’d also sign Chris Ogbonnaya on the cheap and at least give him a shot in training camp—especially if the team decides to back his college teammate, Colt McCoy, for another year.
I’ll let you know when Heckert calls to agree with me.
I have seen several mock drafts predicting that the best player available at pick No. 4 will be CB Morris Claibourne.
Maybe so, but if the Browns are drafting for need, they will not try so early to add depth to a secondary that is already solid.
Particularly since Heckert’s Thursday presser indicated efforts to re-sign both Dimitri Patterson and Mike Adams to play with Joe Haden. They’ll let Sheldon Brown go, so they will need another DB at some point.
With all of the uncertainty on the offensive line, you would think that Cleveland would retain blocking TE Alex Smith. But there is a chance that the starting TE(s) for the Browns may not currently be on the roster.
With nothing approaching decent pass protection, Colt McCoy made extensive use of his TEs in 2011. Cleveland could really use a Rob Gronkowski. But then, so could 30 other teams.
Punter Brad Maynard should stay a Brown. He was cut twice in 2011 and might not be appreciated elsewhere. With a fledgling offense, a punter who can land 32 of 81 punts inside the 20-yard line should be kept.
3/14: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting the Browns have released OT Eric Steinbach.
Linebacker Titus Brown hasn’t done enough to warrant a new contract. On the other hand, he’s probably not expensive if you want to keep depth. It will depend upon how the offense shapes up.
Eric Steinbach is a very large and expensive (over $6 million) problem. His health is as questionable as Peyton Manning’s, so Steinbach may be out unless the Browns are sure of his back. Or the uncertainty may well lead to a new contract that will free up more cap room.
He was probably trying to avoid it, but undergoing an operation this late makes him vulnerable to being hit up for a restructured contract or a bus ticket. I’m speaking metaphorically of course. He’d have to pay his own way out of Ohio.
John Greco, Steve Vallos, Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins are all backup offensive linemen. They are also all free agents. (Who structures deals so that four O-linemen hit free agency at the same time?)
If Pashos and Steinbach were healthy, I’d say that all four of the above reserve linemen would be history. Given the injuries, the Browns will probably keep two of them and shop for offensive linemen in the draft.
Top rookie lineman, Matt Kalil may well be gone at No. 2 to the Rams, but Jonathan Martin, Mike Adams (that could get confusing) or Riley Reiff will still be around if the Browns want to spend their first pick helping to insure the health of whoever plays under center.
O-line augmentation is a necessity no matter who takes snaps under center in 2012.
After saying “no thanks” to Manning (assuming he even called, which is doubtful) and Robert Griffin III, the Browns are left with four somewhat viable quarterback options:
The choice with the most marquee value is former Green Bay backup Matt Flynn. I don’t want to jinx a guy when he’s just about ready to get his big shot, but he really is this year’s Kevin Kolb (who might be joining the free-agent ranks himself in a day or two). He’s the flavor of the month in backup QBs with impressive relief appearances.
Flynn could be looking for a deal similar to Kolb’s: four or five years at over $10 million per year plus a bonus or large chunk of guaranteed cash. That is a lot of money for someone who looked great—in one start, one long relief appearance and some garbage time.
Um, Aaron, thanks—but that’s not exactly helping.
Manning’s availability is squashing Flynn’s options. Kind of like being Homecoming Queen when Miss Universe comes to town.
He might not even end up as the consolation prize. It’s one thing to go out on a limb with a four-time MVP. It is quite another to risk ending up with a Matt Cassel clone at over $10 million per year.
No one in the NFL world can imagine a team signing Flynn while Manning is still “at liberty.” But it would be a bold move if Holmgren and Heckert suddenly snatch the former Packer off the market, since they’ve already said that they weren’t interested in Manning.
We know that Miami is one of Manning’s most ardent suitors, but I simply cannot see Peyton Manning signing up to play New England, New York and Buffalo twice a year (three such games being in the cold).
And that means that there would be at least one other possible landing spot for Flynn—that means leverage for his agent.
And that means that Cleveland may have to outbid Miami for Flynn’s services. And that doesn’t seem to be a probability.
Still the man?
Quarterback Plan B must be giving Colt McCoy somebody who can play professional football to whom he can throw passes. Of course, preventing the right side of the offensive line from collapsing would be helpful.
When last I checked, there were 56 WRs and 34 TEs currently seeking new contracts.
What is not clear is whether or not the Browns will go after a Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace or Brandon Lloyd. Not bloody likely, with the previous free-agent track record in Cleveland.
Brandon Lloyd’s shameless sycophancy to Brady and the Pats have many speculating that he’ll land in New England. Hey, you cannot really blame him.
You can tell that Jackson is popular because he has, in the past week, been linked to the Vikings, Redskins and other teams looking for an offensive miracle. The Browns were not among those mentioned.
Either Pierre Garcon or Reggie Wayne will end up with Manning. It would be no surprise for Holmgren to make a run at the remaining free agent of the two.
I have suspicions that Marques Colston and Robert Meachem will be less productive without Drew Brees on the other end of their passes.
Another handful of the decent WRs (Eddie Royal, etc.) will almost certainly be retained by their current teams at a discount, due to the glut of free agent WRs on the market.
Someone is going to pay Mario Manningham a boatload of money. He may or may not be worth it, but Colt McCoy would be more than happy to take him out for a test drive.
And that leaves Laurent Robinson. It seems as though an awful lot of Browns fans are lusting (I presume in their hearts only) after the Dallas WR.
I hate to rain on Cleveland’s already soggy football parade, but I do not see Jerry Jones parting with this talented weapon on a team where one of his starting receivers puts the “loose” in “loose cannon.” Would you give up steady Robinson and count solely on Dez Bryant? Me neither.
I would not consider anyone else on the WR free-agent list to be worth a long-term deal. I would be surprised if Holmgren and Heckert do either.
The Browns will pay attention to which free-agent WRs might fall through the cracks, but it won’t be part of their front-line strategy. At least one of those first four picks will be spent trying to catch a future wideout star.
If the Browns are going to keep McCoy, this team also has to do something to upgrade the O-line.
I admit it. I am a bigot. Unless I’m looking for a veteran center to teach a young QB, I’m not going to sign an old O-lineman. Please don’t sue me for ageism; there’s just too much wear and tear in those positions.
I might sign a couple if I think they are a better backup option than what I have. Oh, that’s right, Cleveland already has four backup linemen who are free agents.
They won’t pick up more than one free agent and they will need to draft at least three in April and hope that one of them can play both RG and RT.
I take back all of the foregoing if the O-lineman the Browns want to sign is Carl Nicks. In yet another recent example of questionable leadership, the Saints' management team that knew about Bountygate and has not signed Drew Brees and should never have let Nicks’ contract go to free agency.
If you think Brees is angry about the contract, wait until he hits the field without Nicks in front of him.
Is old a state of mind?
This could also be part of quarterback plan B, if Holmgren is willing to cut ties with his BFF Seneca Wallace—who has a very pricey contract going. I’d give the chances of that as “not gonna happen.”
It’s doubtful that either rookie prospect is ready to start on day one, but they provide competition for McCoy.
However, I don’t see the Browns trying to get Tannehill or Weeden to sign as a third-string clipboard man. But then, I didn’t think Ryan Mallett would be third string, so anything is possible. Of course, that was the Patriots. I’m just saying.
If Weeden were 22, he’d be a real contender to become a NFL quarterback. At 28, he’s probably being considered as a career backup. His other problem is that he is too highly ranked to be a backup. Talk about a catch-22.
Heckert clearly views Tannehill as an excellent developmental prospect, stating:
I think he's untapped. He's a guy fairly new to the position, was playing wide receiver. He's a big kid, strong arm, he's another guy that looks like a quarterback. I think he's got a lot of upside to him. I really do.
Ironically, if Seneca Wallace suddenly either retires (he’s 32) or takes a drastic pay cut, it could signal the impending arrival of Matt Flynn as the starter with McCoy at backup, or it could mean that Colt gets the start for now, with one of these rookies behind him.
However, the above scenario is unlikely since Wallace says he wants to compete for the starting job. It’s unfortunate. He is so much like Kordell Stewart. So much talent in so many areas, but not quite a starting quarterback. He would have been better off pursuing the Brad Smith “Swiss army knife” role.
Put these QB plans together and it looks like Colt McCoy has decent odds on getting another run as a starter. I think he deserves it. But let’s try not to get him killed, okay?
Making the team
Of the 39 free-agent running backs, at least one third are probably going to retire or take a pay cut with their current franchise. The best of the remaining rushers are:
Tolbert, Bush and Green-Ellis are probably too expensive and Tampa Bay would have been declared legally insane had they let Blount go. Instead, the team tendered an offer and Blount will stay in Tampa and earn $540,000, hitting free agency next year.
The Bucs are also possibly interested in Tolbert, whose blocking and receiving abilities would complement Blount’s weaknesses in these areas.
Jacobs probably has too much mileage and definitely has too much mouth.
Redman is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on his career and contributed 7.1 yards per carry in the 2011 postseason. Of course, the team extended a tender offer last week.
That leaves Joseph Addai. Teams may be suspicious of both Addai and Green-Ellis since they played on such pass-dependent teams, but either could be a solid contributor depending upon price.
Then there is the speculation that the Browns should let Hillis walk (or run, as the case may be) and draft Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
This is doubtful, since Mr. Heckert obviously agrees with me about keeping Ogbonnaya. He’s also keeping Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson.
Cleveland’s best bet is to keep the running backs they have, squeeze the unfortunate Peyton Hillis into a reasonably low contract and draft a rusher in the lower rounds or after the draft.
Catching a contract?
3/15: Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network is reporting the Browns have signed DE Juqua Parker to a 1 year, $3 million dollar contract.
3/14: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting that the Browns have signed DE Frostee Rucker to a 5 year contract worth $20 million dollars.
I’d give that a resounding “probably.” All the talk that the Browns will draft CB Morris Claiborne makes me think that the team may well shop free agency to fill out their defense.
While the biggest need is at defensive end, it would be wise to shore up a good-but-paper-thin secondary. Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan just might be up for grabs. He’s a pain and not as good as I think he thinks he is, but he’s tough enough for the AFC North if the price is right.
If Crennel loses, this young man would be that rare thing: a free agent who has nothing wrong with him. He is available only because the team chose Dwayne Bowe for the franchise tag, not because of any failing in Carr.
Negotiate accordingly, Mr. Heckert.
As for the job opening at pass-rusher, if the Jaguars let Jeremy Mincey slip away, Cleveland must sign him. Randy Lerner, for one brief moment in his life, has to pretend that he is Daniel Snyder and write the check.
And if Holmgren and Heckert can’t land Tulloch, they should target Viking Erin Henderson. Toiling for Minnesota in his brother’s shadow, Erin has turned into a quality player and he is still young. The Vikings have indicated that they want to sign Mr. Henderson before the start of free agency. Smart move for Minnesota.
Carolina’s Dan Connor also fits into the "nothing wrong with him" category. He is only available because Jon Beason is now healthy. Somebody is going to grab a linebacking jewel here. Will it be Cleveland?
Cleveland can’t and shouldn’t pick up all of these players, but one or two would be a great investment.
As much as America wants to put the Browns down, you really can’t fault general manager Heckert and President Holmgren when it comes to the draft.
In 2011, this duo landed:
DT Phil Taylor
DE Jabaal Sheard
WR Greg Little
FB Owen Marecic
G Jason Pinkston
Colt McCoy – let’s not give up yet
T.J. Ward – if he can stay healthy
Montario Hardesty – hmmmmm, not sure
Shaun Lauvao – well, we’ll see
While not all home runs, this is a very respectable record in drafting for both value and need. There is no reason to think that this policy is going to change.
The problem with all of the above is that you can’t draft like the Pittsburgh Steelers if you aren’t the Pittsburgh Steelers. Solid talent only produces wins when it surrounds a few individuals of exceptional talent.
The Browns clearly understand this concept on defense: They signed D’Qwell Jackson.
Why can’t they get it on offense? Michael Lombardi said this week on the NFL Network’s NFL Total Access that Holmgren values his offensive system more than he values the personnel.
If that’s true, Cleveland is in for another rough year. Someone has to shine. Someone has to be a beacon. Please.
Should we point out to Tom Heckert that both the Packers and Giants had top-five franchise quarterbacks and few, if any, glaring weaknesses to start with?
Would he listen if we did? Probably not. But my phone is on.
Check out Cleveland's draft needs.
Tim Tebow takes care of business in New York.