The Cleveland Browns are currently searching for a new head coach and general manager, and the fate of the rest of the coaching staff has yet to be determined. That means anything can happen with the roster, especially where the Browns' soon-to-be free agents are concerned.
Presently, 18 current Browns are set to be unrestricted or restricted free agents. Let's take a look at those who are most crucial to the team and determine the likelihood that they'll stick around in 2013.
There are few kickers who have been more reliable over the years than Dawson.
Browns kicker Phil Dawson is the team's second-leading all-time scorer with 1,271 points, behind Lou Groza, who had 1,608 yards (he too was a kicker). He's been with the team since they returned to the NFL in 1999 and was finally selected to his first Pro Bowl this year.
In years of instability, Dawson has been the one mainstay, but that doesn't mean the Browns will choose to retain him in 2013, or that he'll want to even continue playing.
Dawson has received the team's franchise tag the last two seasons running, with ownership and the coaching staff unwilling to sign him to a lucrative long-term deal worthy of his accomplishments. With Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner now running the team, they may be willing to give Dawson an offer, but it's more likely that Dawson's time in Cleveland—and in the NFL—is over after the Pro Bowl.
Josh Cribbs' fate hinges on the new coaching staff.
No less beloved than Phil Dawson—and no more likely to stay—is kick returner and sometimes-wide-receiver Josh Cribbs, who is also a free agent. Cribbs has three career punt returns for a touchdown, eight kick returns for a touchdown as well as two rushing and seven receiving scores to his name and a total of 1,740 all-purpose yards in 2012, but it appears likely that his time in Cleveland is soon to be over.
Cribbs has been phased out of the receiving game over the last two seasons, though his best return days aren't necessarily behind him. However, he is frustrated by how many rebuilds the Browns have undergone during his time with the team, and it would take Haslam, Banner and the new coaching staff to feel some degree of loyalty to him to offer Cribbs a new deal or even the franchise tag.
Sheldon Brown had an excellent 2012 and deserves to stay in Cleveland.
Not much was expected out of 10-year veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown, whose 2012 season was his third in Cleveland. However, he ended his season as the 22nd-ranked corner in the league according to Pro Football Focus. In his 903 snaps—the most of any Browns corner—he allowed just 57.8 of the 90 passes thrown his way to be completed and gave up just four touchdowns, giving opposing quarterbacks an 81.5 rating when targeting his direction. He allowed four touchdowns, had three interceptions and successfully defended 10 passes.
With Dimitri Patterson released, Brown has established himself as the best starting option alongside Joe Haden. He's less of a liability than the still-rough Buster Skrine and also provides much-needed veteran leadership in an otherwise extremely young locker room. At 33 years old, Brown is still playing his position at a high level and deserves to be retained by the Browns for at least two more years.
If the Browns stick with a 4-3 defense, Maiava must stay.
Another Browns pending free-agent defender, Kaluka Maiava, has also made a strong case in 2012 for a new contract. According to Pro Football Focus, he's the NFL's seventh-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, with 35 tackles, three sacks, a quarterback hit and three hurries. He's also allowed only 65 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed, with opposing quarterbacks having a 72.5 rating in his direction.
Maiava split time on the field with James-Michael Johnson, Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort depending on the situation, playing weak-side backer in Weeks 1 through 9 and strong-side backer in Weeks 11 onward. He was named starter in all but three games and played in all 16, with 498 total snaps on the year—304 against the run, 166 in coverage and 28 as a pass-rusher.
Though the possibility exists that the Browns switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, putting Maiava's future in Cleveland in question, if that doesn't happen, he must be retained. He's experienced, and whether the Browns choose to involve their younger linebackers more next year or keep Maiava at starter (even after Chris Gocong's likely return from his Achilles' tendon tear), he's clearly of high value to the Browns.
Juqua Parker done? Not quite.
When the Browns picked up former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker, he was considered a pass rush specialist at best and a depth addition at the very worst. In fact, when the team signed him to his one-year deal, at age 34, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk declared Parker's career nearly over, citing his 2011 performance that included just 1.5 sacks in 12 games and no starts.
Though Parker did not start for the Browns in 2012, his presence was certainly felt, primarily in the pass rush. Parker split time at right end with fellow free-agent addition Frostee Rucker, picking up six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 30 hurries.
With the Browns lacking youth at defensive end, they'll likely pick one up in the draft. Depending on where they take him, however, they might need both Parker and Rucker to remain on the roster to provide both depth and leadership. Parker has found a second life in Cleveland and could continue to make an impact for another season or two.