Projecting the Cleveland Browns' Free Agent Targets
Another offseason is upon us and yet another rebuilding cycle is in the works for the hapless Browns.
It seems like just two years ago (oh wait, it was) that we were introduced to Pat Shurmur and his staff of qualified West Coast Offense gurus. They were the group that was going to finally turn things around, building a winner on the shores of Lake Erie.
The names have changed, but the script remains the same.
This year’s Browns look different, though. Don’t they? As hard as it is to stay optimistic, this group is popping with budding young talent that is waiting to break out.
Adding a couple of key pieces through free agency doesn’t seem like such an outlandish notion this offseason. Young guns have already been drafted, and the Browns have just an approximate amount of $74,411,914 on the books as of now (h/t Sportrac).
The NFL boosted its cap to $123 million for the 2013 season, giving the Browns an approximate $48.6 million of wiggle room.
Now, Cleveland doesn’t have to go out and throw a bunch of money around to get to the eventual salary cap floor. That figure is tied to four seasons, so they could still, theoretically, not end up doing much.
However, with the way things are looking with the team’s new management, they are more than likely to do some digging in order to land a couple key pieces during free agency.
There are some talented players at positions of need who are testing the waters. We’ll take a look at some of the best fits for the Browns and who they will likely target after March 12.
Jared Cook, TE
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Benjamin Watson is a free agent, meaning the Cleveland Browns will have to do something during the offseason at the position.
That’s where the poorly utilized Jared Cook comes into play.
Cook spent four seasons with the Tennessee Titans but never really developed into an every-down player at the tight end position. Cleveland already has an athletic-type tight end in Jordan Cameron, but he was drafted as a mid-round project by the old regime and has had trouble staying on the field.
Michael Lombardi, the team’s new general manager, could easily make a move in the opposite direction by bringing in Cook to enhance his roster.
Tennessee decided not to ink Cook with the franchise tag, which would have paid him $5.96 million in 2013 to stay with the team. Cleveland should jump at the chance to sign the tight end if that’s all it would take, or less, to bring him to town.
Adding someone with Cook’s speed and athleticism at the tight end position is likely a must for Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner’s offense. Chudzinski had Kellen Winslow Jr. in Cleveland and Greg Olsen in Carolina, while Turner had Antonio Gates in San Diego.
Chris Houston, CB
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In 2012, receivers caught 53 of the 94 passes that were thrown in his direction, but they only accumulated 11.9 yards per reception in the process (h/t Pro Football Focus).
Houston isn’t a game-changer at his position, but he’s solid enough to lock down opposing receivers while Joe Haden battles against teams’ No. 1 receivers.
He will likely command a well-sized payday thanks to his consistent and solid play, but he’s not going to cost too much that the Browns shouldn’t at least inquire about him.
Sheldon Brown, who was up and down during his time in Cleveland, is set to hit free agency. That makes finding a solid replacement a key offseason priority for the team.
Cliff Avril, DE/OLB
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One thing the Cleveland Browns are going to need are outside linebackers who can play in the 3-4 defense. Cliff Avril, who played in that scheme in college, is the top available free agent who could fill that need for the team.
Avril played defense end in Detroit’s 4-3 since 2008, but was an outside linebacker for the Purdue Boilermakers before that.
Rushing the passer has always kind of been his thing, too. While he has struggled in run stopping, he has amassed 29 sacks and forced nine fumbles over the past three seasons.
Cleveland is reportedly interested in Avril, too, and for good reason (h/t The Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot). Cabot’s report pointed out that Joe Cullen, the Browns’ new defensive line coach, played a part in drafting and grooming Avril in Detroit and could have an influence over the pass rusher when signing time comes.
Picking up Avril as he enters the prime of his career would be a wise decision for the Browns, allowing them to use the No. 6 overall selection as trade bait or in another area of need. Pass-rushers aren’t an exact science, but they would know what they are getting if they went with Avril instead of opting to draft someone in April.
Mike Wallace, WR
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The Cleveland Browns could pull off a coup this offseason by signing receiver Mike Wallace away from divisional rival Pittsburgh. Wallace is seeking big money, but Cleveland is in position to spend some big dollars in order to turn the tide of its struggling franchise.
Team CEO Joe Banner isn’t showing his cards, yet, but continues to stress that the Browns are in a good position cap-wise and could be big players (via The Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot):
The fact we have cap room and other teams don't I think will help us in the marketplace. I view this as a good year to be in the free-agent market and to be able to get fair market value. You never know, but I would expect us to be participants in free agency.
Wallace, who has blazing speed that can take the top off of a defense, is exactly the type of player that would help Norv Turner implement his vertical passing game in Cleveland. Strong-armed sophomore QB Brandon Weeden might look different with targets like Wallace, Josh Gordon and Greg Little keeping defenses honest next season.
With over $45 million in cap space to toy with, Wallace doesn’t seem as much of a stretch as he might be for other teams. As Banner said, Cleveland has the means to pull off some very fair and beneficial signings this offseason.
Paul Kruger, OLB
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Even if the Cleveland Browns ink Cliff Avril to a contract this offseason they might still pursue pass rusher Paul Kruger. Like Avril, the team is interested in obtaining the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker as it transitions to the 3-4 defense in 2013 (h/t The Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot).
Kruger brings a fast and powerful pass rush that the team just doesn’t have currently in its linebacker group. He is a vastly experienced 27-year-old who played opposite of Terrell Suggs and next to Ray Lewis, making him an invaluable locker room and huddle presence for the defense.
Still, the price to obtain Kruger is going to be mighty high. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora set the hypothetical bar pretty high (via Twitter):
I didn't believe this couple of weeks ago, but do now: LB/DE Paul Kruger looks like he's going to blow past $9m per, could get over $10m per— Jason Cole (@JasonColeYahoo) March 2, 2013
The big concern with Kruger is that his production spiked in 2012 after Suggs returned to the lineup. He recorded just 1.5 sacks while his fellow pass-rusher was sidelined, meaning he may be somewhat dependent on a dominant rusher opposite of him in order to perform at a high level.
If he is the star pass-rusher in Cleveland, will he be a dominant force to be reckoned with or another free-agent bust who cashed in on his recent success?
While the Browns are reportedly interested, they should stick to Avril, current players on their roster and the draft while trying to find pieces for their new scheme.