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The Complete Guide to Cleveland Browns Free Agency

Andy McNamaraCorrespondent IIOctober 20, 2016

The Complete Guide to Cleveland Browns Free Agency

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    As March 12 rapidly approaches, the Cleveland Browns front office continues to grind out important details.

    • How much of the salary cap should be used?
    • What expiring contracts need to be renewed?
    • What free agents should the team aggressively go after?
    • What are the overall positional team needs?

    All of these issues will be tackled in this complete team guide to free agency.

Salary Cap

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    The master contract negotiator CEO, Joe Banner, will be controlling the purse strings on all things salary cap. Right-hand man Michael Lombardi is a key component of the free agency talent assessment and helps decide what players are worth taking a run at.

    Cleveland is in a phenomenal place when it comes to cap space. The Browns now have the most room in the NFL at an estimated $48.9 million after Cincinnati put a franchise tag on Michael Johnson.

    Look for this club to double dip on positional needs in free agency and the draft to add depth in a variety of areas.

    Will the new regime make a splash by signing a couple of big names, or is selecting more under-the-radar role players the way to go?

     

    2013 Salary Cap Number: $74,411,914

Unrestricted Free Agents

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    There are a total of 13 unrestricted free agents and a real possibility exists that none of them will be re-signed.

    New management more often than not means fresh faces on the field, as different schemes are implemented on both sides of the ball.

    Below is a complete list of the Browns' UFAs and what their likely fate will be.

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    Josh Cribbs (KR/WR) - The most beloved player since the 1999 expansion, Josh Cribbs' days as a Brown are numbered and he knows it.

    The versatile playmaker told Cleveland's 92.3 The Fan that he is willing to give a hometown discount to stay with the only team he has ever known. Doesn't sound like someone confident that a new deal can be hammered out.

    Injuries and fumbles increased in 2012 and although the kick/punt return yards numbers were strong, Cribbs simply is not explosive enough anymore.

    Can he be used in other aspects of the offense? Yes. Will he? At 30, there are younger options available, and the club is going to let him test the market. 

     

    Sheldon Brown (CB) - There has been no talk publicly of moving Brown over to free safety, and his diminishing speed means the days of playing outside cornerback are over.

    CEO Joe Banner got rid of him once when the pair were in Philadelphia. It will be deja vu for No. 24.

     

    Benjamin Watson (TE) - It would make life a whole lot easier on the new coaching staff if Watson came back as tight end.

    He was a reliable target for Brandon Weeden and stayed healthy the entire season. Keeping the veteran would buy time for Jordan Cameron and a 2013 draft pick to develop gradually.

    Ultimately, Watson is going to be allowed to walk away in favor of the club testing the open TE market.

     

    Phil Dawson (K) - Coming off of a Pro Bowl season, if Dawson wants to come back to kick in Cleveland, then Joe Banner needs to figure out a way to get a deal done. The question is whether "Phil the Foot" is interested in returning.

     

    Scott Fujita (LB) - Will most likely retire because of neck/shoulder injuries.

     

    Reggie Hodges (P) - Never recovered from that season-ending Achilles injury in 2011. Time to go in a new direction.

     

    Brandon Jackson (RB) - Barely played, let him walk.

     

    Josh Johnson (QB) - Does he even count?

     

    Kaluka Maiava (LB) - Keep. Maiava stepped up when injuries hit the linebacker corps in 2012. He's undersized, but is a gamer and can still be an asset.

     

    Mohamed Massaquoi (WR) - The potential never developed because of various ailments. Browns don't renew him and instead go in a different veteran receiver direction.

     

    Juqua Parker (DE) - Will suffer the same fate as Frostee Rucker. If Cleveland remained a 4-3 defense, then re-signing would have made sense.

     

    Alex Smith (TE) - He won't be an immediate re-sign, however, Smith's blocking abilities may prove vital depending on what free agent tight end the team acquires.

     

    Raymond "Bubba" Ventrone (S) - A lifer special-teams player and 30 years old add up to giving his spot to an incoming draft pick.

Restricted Free Agents

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    Seven restricted free agents wrap up the Browns' roster house keeping. Younger is always better, which means some of these athletes could stick around.

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    Stanley Daniels (G) - Let him walk.

     

    Austin English (DT) - Sign to a one-year deal and bring to camp to see how he looks in Ray Horton's new defensive scheme.

     

    Emmanuel Stephens (DE) - Same as above.

     

    Jordan Norwood (WR) - He's shown bursts of brilliance, but also that he is fragile. Norwood's speed could make him an asset for the downfield vertical attack. Keep him around on a short-term contract.

     

    Chris Ogbonnaya (RB) - He is a versatile third-string back who has proven ability in blocking the blitz and catching out of the backfield. A hidden gem who should return.

     

    Eddie Williams (RB/FB) - Never played a down this season. Unless the personnel department saw something that wowed them on practice tape, let him go.

     

    Christian Yount (LS) - We all remember what happened to the last long snapper. The fact that Yount's name wasn't mentioned much in 2012 is a good thing. At 24, he is definitely worth re-signing.

Franchise Tag

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    No mystery here, CEO Joe Banner said in plain English at the scouting combine that no player would receive the franchise tag in 2013. Read the full interview transcript here.

    Legendary kicker Phil Dawson had been a tag recipient the past two seasons. However, because being franchised for a third straight year automatically brings on the designated quarterback amount, this is not an option.

    The front office doesn't feel that any possible departing personnel is worth locking down using that contract strategy. The new coaching staff will look to bring in their own talent via free agency and the draft.

Team Needs

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    A team that goes 5-11 has plenty of needs, and the Browns are no different.

     

    Pass Rush

    Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base means that an emphasis is put at linebacker.

    Cleveland possesses plenty of players at the position, but bringing on preferably two pass rushers is a definite priority.

    Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said in his introductory press conference that he wants "big men that can run and little men that can hit". That desired attacking "D" starts at outside linebacker.

    Finding a large inside LB to ensure that D'Qwell Jackson doesn't get swallowed up by offensive linemen also must be looked at.

     

    Cornerback

    Sheldon Brown's speed has faded and Buster Skrine is simply too small to handle shut-down cornerback duties opposite Joe Haden.

    It is a deep free-agent CB class, and the Browns better get out the checkbook to ink a quality starter that can battle with today's larger receivers. 

     

    Tight End

    Head coach Rob Chudzinski is a former college tight end and always puts an emphasis on the position in his offenses.

    If Benjamin Watson walks away, then the Browns desperately require a top-tier free agent TE as well as a draft pick to groom.

    Jordan Cameron shows a good upside, but he is by no means ready to handle the bulk of the workload. 

     

    Fullback

    Fullback? What's a fullback? That has been the question around Cleveland since Lawrence Vickers departed following the 2010 campaign in favor of Owen Marecic.

    A complete flop, Marecic was replaced midseason by tight end Alex Smith, who worked hard to be a band aid solution.

    Minnesota's Jerome Felton cleared paths for superstar Adrian Peterson and is really the only upper-tier FB available in free agency. Drafting a Tommy Bohanon out of Wake Forest may be the best way to go.

     

    Guard

    This club is dangerously thin at offensive guard. Jason Pinkston's return from blood clots in his lung is unknown and Shawn Lauvao looked over his head as a starter on multiple occasions.

    John Greco stepped up his play; however, a free agent OG that can pull, clear running lanes and protect the quarterback is high on the offense's to-do list.

    Couple a free agent with a mid- to late-round draft pick, and Cleveland's O-Line could very well become the best in the AFC North.

Free Agent Signing: Quentin Groves (OLB)

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    Not the sexiest name on the market, but could be a sleeper signing.

    Quentin Groves enjoyed his best campaign under Ray Horton in Arizona last season, and a reunion in Northeast Ohio would make perfect sense.

    At 28, the former Jacksonville second-round pick provides a steady pass-rush option if the bidding war for Baltimore's Paul Kruger gets out of hand.

    Four sacks, one forced fumble and 46 total tackles in 2012 won't blow anyone away. However, if the Browns intend to draft an OLB quarterback attacker with their sixth overall draft selection, then maybe you don't need a high-profile signing.

    A rotation of Jabaal Sheard, Groves, Chris Gocong (if healthy) and a draft choice would keep the linebacker group fresh and not overexpose any one player.

    At least earning only $700,000 this past season makes him easier on the pocketbook than Kruger.

     

    Expired Contract: One year, $700,000

Free Agent Signing: Louis Vasquez (OG)

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    Now it is offensive coordinator Norv Turner's turn to pull some past personnel from his old team.

    Vasquez is an anchor at 6'5", 335 pounds that can pull and smother defenders to give the quarterback more time.

    The 25-year-old can struggle at times with quickness and footwork, but he has a strong motor for a big man.

    Adding the Texas native instantly upgrades the offensive guard spot and delivers much-needed depth at the position.

     

    Expired Contract: Four years, $2.55 million

Free Agent Signing: Keenan Lewis (CB)

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    Keenan Lewis was the unsung hero of Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense in 2012 and teams in need of a shut-down cornerback are taking notice.

    Entering his fifth year as a pro, interceptions is not the 6'0" CB's game. Breaking up passes is, with 23 to be exact last season. Combining that with 71 total tackles makes him the most efficient option available at the position.

    The Steelers would love to keep this 26-year-old rising star in town, but tight salary-cap restrictions may not allow it.

    If Lewis hits the open market then the Browns need to push hard for him. He possesses the speed, size and ball awareness to perfectly complement fellow outside corner Joe Haden.

Free Agent Signing: Ted Ginn Jr. (WR/KR)

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    Head coach Rob Chudzinski commented at the NFL Scouting Combine, "I want guys that want to be Cleveland Browns and want to be in Cleveland and want to be a part of something special in Cleveland.”

    Who better to fill the veteran wide-receiver hole than former Ohio State Buckeye and Cleveland-born Ted Ginn Jr. of the 49ers?

    Turning 28 next month, he can split kick/punt returns with Travis Benjamin and be a third or fourth WR option. Similar to the probably departing Josh Cribbs, Ginn felt he was not being used effectively on offense in San Francisco.

    If he can be assured of more playing time, then this has the makings of an excellent match.

    The 5'11", 180-pound return specialist owns good hands and adequate route running. Ginn averaged just over 42 receptions during his three seasons in Miami prior to joining the 49ers, where he was relegated primarily to special teams.

    Despite feeling underutilized, he literally ran with the opportunity and has six career kicks/punts taken back for touchdowns.

     

    Expired Contract: One year, $1.375 million

Free Agent Signing: Brandon Myers (TE)

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    Jared Cook may be the highest profile and arguably the most talented tight end available in free agency. However, are his salary demands and seemingly growing ego worth it?

    Not to a Browns team that wants more of a hard-working grinder than a prima donna. That's why Oakland's Brandon Myers fits the bill.

    The four-year veteran had a breakout campaign in 2012, where he posted career highs in receptions (79), yards (806) and touchdowns (4).

    Earning $587,750 last season means that he is obviously in line for a substantial pay raise...but you can bet it won't be anywhere near the price tag for Cook.

    This Iowa native has the youth that Cleveland strives for at 27 and creates space for himself over the middle, even if he is a tad undersized for the position at 6'3".

    Signing Myers, further developing Jordan Cameron and drafting an additional TE should help to stabilize the passing game.

     

    Expired Contract: Four years, $1.841 million

Free Agent Signing: Matt Moore (QB)

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    Miami's Matt Moore is the best option to create competition for incumbent starter Brandon Weeden out of an underwhelming quarterback free agency group.

    Turning 29 in August, he started 13 games for the Dolphins back in 2011 and tossed 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions. The Oregon State alum also brings the desired big arm that is essential in the Rob Chudzinski/Norv Turner vertical downfield offense.

    His completion percentage stood at a respectable 60.5 and he averaged over seven yards per reception two seasons ago. Both stats are higher than what Weeden produced.

    In the end, Miami still felt that they needed to upgrade at quarterback and drafted Ryan Tannehill last offseason. The rookie beat out Moore, which suggests that No. 8 is going to be looking for a third new home in seven years.

    Cleveland should be an appealing destination for the 6'3" quarterback because he can battle for the top job and learn from play-calling guru Norv Turner.

     

    Expired Contract: Two years, $5 million

     

    Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81

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