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Breaking Down the Cleveland Browns' 2013 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?

Andy McNamaraCorrespondent IIJanuary 14, 2013

Breaking Down the Cleveland Browns' 2013 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?

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    As head coach Rob Chudzinski settles into his new role, let us break down the Cleveland Browns' 2013 salary cap situation.

    Where is the money best spent?

    Good news for fans is that the team is top three in salary cap room with an estimated $48.9 million available

    This article will outline positions where attacking free agency makes the most sense, as well as the players who could provide an upgrade. 

Current Player Contract Extensions

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    Before getting carried away with throwing around $48.9 million, let's remember that 18 players on the Browns roster are up for contract extensions.

    Who will fit into new head coach Rob Chudzinski's vertical downfield offense and the yet to be determined defensive scheme?

    Below are the free agents that would eat up the most salary cap space if retained. All contract figures come via Sportrac.com

     

    Phil Dawson - K (one year/$3.81 million) 

    The man, the myth, the foot.

    Why Phil Dawson is not wrapped up in a multi-term deal is beyond puzzling.

    Having his best statistical season, Dawson made 93.5 percent of attempted field goals and booted seven from a distance of 50 yards or longer.

    Since 1999, the 37-year-old has been the only consistent point producer on the team. Mr. Automatic.

    If Dawson wants to return, then spend the money and allow him to retire a Brown.

     

    Josh Cribbs - KR/WR (three years/$15.49 million)

    Cribbs was given a raise following a phenomenal 2009 season that saw him become the most feared return man in the game. Four total special teams touchdowns will do that. 

    However, since then his production decreased dramatically on special teams and he hasn't taken a kick back for a score since that magical year.

    Injuries and fumble trouble are also becoming more frequent.

    Yes, Cribbs remains an excellent defender on that coverage unit and can still make an impact in the Wildcat formation on offense.

    No. 16 is a versatile threat when used sparingly as a receiver and out of the backfield as well.

    The former Kent State QB is known to openly complain about wanting more playing time and got into trouble for posting controversial Twitter comments following the loss to Denver.

    This incoming coaching staff need to decide if at 29 he can contribute to its style of offense.

    If Cribbs takes a realistic pay cut, then there is a good chance he can stay on board.

     

    Benjamin Watson - TE (Contract: three years/$12 million)

    Staying healthy, averaging over 10 yards per catch and not dropping the ball, all point to bringing Watson back for 2013 as a smart use of cap space.

    Plus, the 32-year-old demonstrated chemistry with both starting quarterbacks over the past two seasons. Colt McCoy (2011) and Brandon Weeden (2012) each found the tight end on a regular basis.

    At 6'3" and 255 pounds, he provides stability to a young and unproven TE group.

    Offering an extension buys the Browns some time to see what they actually have in prospects Jordan Cameron and Brad Smelley. 

     

    Sheldon Brown - CB (three years/$15.25 million)

    Keeping Brown around would be conditional on his moving to the free safety position. A return to outside corner would not be a good use of funds.

    This would allow his vast experience to be utilized and eliminate the mismatches that occur on the perimeter.

    At 33, the inability to keep pace with the league’s fast and physical receivers is a problem that cannot be overlooked.

    The cerebral 11-year veteran did, however, put together his best statistical season in Cleveland for both tackles (52) and interceptions (3)

    Brown is also a role model for this young defensive backfield and continues to break down plays with the best of them.

Offensive Guard

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    Depth is a serious concern on Cleveland's offensive line and was exposed with the loss of Jason Pinkston for half the season due to blood clots in his lungs.

    Left guard is vulnerable, although John Greco did an admirable job in relief. Jarrod Shaw is still a work in progress and may be fine to keep around for insurance.

    Shawn Lauvao has been inconsistent at RG and seems better suited as a backup.

    An OG needs to be added in both the draft and through free agency.

    Enter Buffalo Bills FA Andy Levitre.

    The 26-year-old told the Associated Press on December 27 that contract talks had not started between him and the Bills.

    He also mentioned, ''I don't know if (I'm) going to be here. I don't know if it's going to be somewhere else."

    This is great news for the Browns who could use Levitre's reliability (64 straight starts) to help solidify the O-line.

    The Oregon State alum is versatile too, having spent time at tackle and center during his stint in upstate New York.

    Already well known as a strong pass-protector, the 305-pounder successfully executes in-line run blocking. Something running back Trent Richardson would surely love to hear.

    Levitre deserves a raise from the now expired four-year/$3.56 million deal. The Browns need to pursue him hard and lock No. 67 down for the foreseeable future.

    With Levitre and a well-placed draft pick at guard, this team will possess the best offensive line in the division.

Fullback

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    Letting Lawrence Vickers go at the end of the 2010 campaign turned out to be a massive error.

    Vickers was a nasty, physical, lane-clearing beast who was replaced by Owen Marecic.

    Not only did the switch fail, Marecic was replaced by tight end Alex Smith partway through this past season.

    Judging by his performance, it would be a surprise if the second-year player was even on a NFL roster in 2013.

    Fullbacks typically aren't expensive, but it is an area that the Browns must throw some cash at.

    Minnesota's Jerome Felton is an unrestricted free agent that would keep with the youth movement as he is only 26.

    Felton blocked for Adrian Petersen all 16 games, and that turned out pretty well.

    Earning $700,000, lure him away with a long-term deal and a raise.

    Already on Cleveland's roster is Brad Smelley who was Trent Richardson's FB at Alabama.

    Widely considered to be better suited as a tight end, would it not at least be worth a look? Maybe the duo can recapture some of that Crimson Tide magic if given the opportunity.

Cornerback

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    This is Cleveland's most desperate need.

    The team lost all five games star cornerback Joe Haden missed this season and any substitution failed miserably.

    When No. 23 did play, quarterbacks avoided him and picked apart the rest of the field.

    Veteran Sheldon Brown can no longer effectively cover the outside (see slide two), which leaves a gaping hole.

    If the Browns decide in advance not to select Alabama's all-star corner, Dee Milliner, with their first-round pick, then they better get the cheque book out to lure in a big name.

    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Sam Shields and Brent Grimes are three of the hottest CB free agents that will attract plenty of attention following the Super Bowl.

    Grimes appeared in only one contest in 2012 before an Achilles injury sidelined him. He will be 30 in July and would be a high-risk, high-reward signing.

    Philadelphia's Rodgers-Cromartie (26) and Green Bay's Sam Shields (25) are each in the prime of their careers.

    Both are NFL proven and either one would be an instant upgrade for the Browns secondary.

Linebacker

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    Cleveland's only free-agent linebackers are Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava.

    Fujita is likely to retire because of chronic neck problems.

    Despite being considered undersized, Maiava posted career numbers for tackles (53) in a season where injuries forced him into the starting lineup.

    The Hawaiian has spent his entire four-year career with the Browns and provides experienced depth. Earning just under $695,000 in 2012, Maiava demonstrated his value and should be offered an extension.

    However, if the Browns want to grab the best pass-rushing LB available, then open up the wallet to Anthony Spencer.

    Since the Dallas Cowboys are moving to a 4-3 defensive scheme and Cleveland is expected to revert back to more of a 3-4 focus, Spencer could be a perfect fit.

    The Purdue alum set personal bests of 11 sacks and 95 tackles in 2012. Incredibly, he did this while missing two games.

    Spencer collected $8.856 million this season by accepting the franchise tag. Dallas will need to offer him a long-term extension or allow the 28-year-old to test the market. 

    He has been inconsistent over his career, and there is always the risk of overpaying based on one terrific campaign.

    That being said, the Browns lack quarterback-gobbling linebackers. Spencer solves that dilemma and thrives in a 3-4 setup.

Defensive End

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    Salary cap spend at DE will greatly depend on new head coach Rob Chudzinski's defensive scheme.

    According to The Plain Dealer, Chudzinski is targeting current Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano.

    The two were colleagues in San Diego on Norv Turner's staff back in 2005-06 and 2009-10.

    Pagano led the ninth-ranked defense this past season and is known for using multiple fronts.

    Juqua Parker was a pleasant addition in 2012, recording six sacks. The 12-year pro took home $3 million and proved effective on a rotational basis. It may be worth re-signing the aggressive veteran.

    Cliff Avril of the Detroit Lions and Connor Barwin from Houston are two other high-profile free-agent options.

    Each have consistency issues, and the Browns could be better off deciding to build through the draft.

Wide Receiver

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    Cleveland owns the rights to a slew of young talented receivers. Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin are three of the AFC's fastest rising stars at the position.

    The last thing this team needs is another project draft pick at WR.

    Mohamed Massaquoi's four NFL seasons makes him the grizzled veteran of that group. Injuries and inconsistent play continue to plague MoMass.

    The Charlotte, NC native is an unrestricted free agent and needs to try his luck in another city.

    However, that leaves a void to be filled for a proven wide receiver, and they don't come cheap.

    Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh), Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City) and Greg Jennings (Green Bay) are the hottest names on the market.

    Wallace and Bowe command top dollar, as both most recently settled for a single-year term with their respective clubs.

    Each are legitimate No. 1 wideouts and bring along the ego that goes with it.

    The Browns do not need that. This offense requires a reliable set of hands, a nose for first downs and a good attitude to lead by example.

    Greg Jennings matches all of the above criteria.

    Missing half the season with a groin injury left question marks in regard to whether he could return to his former dominant self.

    Scoring twice in the regular-season finale and adding another TD in the playoffs gives hope that the seven-year Packer can still be an impact player.

    At 29, he has an impressive career average of over 15 yards per catch, and there are no locker room personality issues.

    Remember how valuable Joe Jurevicius was in moving the chains on third down during 2007? 

    Jennings can be that safe-bet option for quarterback Brandon Weeden (or whoever the starter is).

    The pride of Kalamazoo, MI earned over $7 million this season. His price is expected to dip somewhat because of age and various ailments.

    Cleveland's favorable cap room allows them to ink No. 85 to a long-term agreement and is money well spent.

    Going this route lets the youthful receiving corps develop naturally and provides a leader with Super Bowl-winning experience.

Final Thoughts

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    This offseason is one of the most important for the franchise since its return in 1999.

    The new regime possesses the salary cap space to keep key players and add free agents to what was the NFL's youngest club.

    Throwing money blindly at high-profile talent is obviously never a good idea.

    The braintrust of owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, head coach Rob Chudzinski and whoever the GM/personnel hire will be have a long road ahead as the Browns get ready for another fresh start.

     

    Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81.

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