While the Cleveland Browns win total has not improved much, the core of the team certainly has. This next offseason, it will be time for the front office to go shopping. With an estimated $24.4 million in salary cap room, according to OverTheCap.com, the Browns look to be one of next year’s biggest movers and shakers.
The Browns are one of only six teams in the NFL who will have more than $10 million to spend this offseason. They also have the luxury of a ton of young talent that is locked up long term.
Last season, the Browns were heavily criticized for not spending more of their cash in free agency. That shouldn’t be a problem this year as the team has shown it is ready to add pieces to compete.
Not every hole can be filled with top-tier free agents because, for some positions, those options just don’t exist. The Browns could, however, find a few young emerging stars to add to their existing nucleus before the draft.
Here are the best options to fill holes on the Browns roster this offseason through free agency.
On the Browns' own roster, there are three players who need to be focused on right away. They have to decide what to do with the expiring contracts of safety T.J. Ward, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and whether or not to extend cornerback Joe Haden.
Haden should be a no-brainer. He needs a new contract, and it would be a surprise if agent Drew Rosenhaus let him report to camp next offseason without one. He is a top-five player in the NFL at his position, and guys like that don’t play out the final year on their rookie contract.
The Browns do not have to choose between Ward and Mack, but it seems somewhat unlikely that they will re-sign both. While conventional wisdom says that you build a team from the lines out, that doesn’t make Ward any less tough to replace.
If they fail to get Ward under contract, there are elite-level safeties who will be available like San Francisco’s Donte Whitner. Although he may be a hometown kid, he also told Eric Branch of SFGate.com that he definitely wants to stay with the 49ers.
The Browns will need to find a top-tier receiver to complement Josh Gordon next season. If they do not think that player exists in the draft, then Eric Decker makes a lot of sense.
He is only 26 years old and has put up monster numbers the past two seasons. In 2012, he had 85 receptions for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns. This year, he has 71 receptions for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns.
Denver will most likely not be able to re-sign Decker because he will command the contract of a No. 1 wide receiver and the team only has about $7 million left in cap space.
The Browns are in a position to hand out a contract like this because they desperately need more playmakers next to Gordon, especially if they end up starting a rookie quarterback next season.
While it will be costly to sign a high-priced second receiver like Decker, he would also serve as insurance for Gordon, who is one mistake away from a year suspension.
Golden Tate is another solid option at the wide receiver position. He is only 25 years old and may be looking for a new home now that Sidney Rice is back in the fold for the Seahawks.
Tate has steadily improved through his time in the NFL and has a career high this season of 52 receptions for 710.
He is the type of playmaker who can take pressure off of Gordon underneath. Seattle is also cash strapped as it has just $3 million in cap space this offseason.
Tate caught some flack early in the season when he criticized his suspended teammates for being “selfish” on KIRO radio in Seattle, via ESPN.com. He is becoming a leader at a very young age and would automatically make the Browns receivers better.
Jon Asamoah is one of the best young guards in the NFL, and he has helped protect Alex Smith in Kansas City all season long. Not only is he just 25 years old, but he is also a key part of the eighth-best run-blocking line in the league.
The Browns have desperately needed run-blockers for years now, and Asamoah would be an instant upgrade.
In July, Bleacher Report’s own B.J. Kissel wrote a fantastic piece on exactly why Asamoah is so good at what he does.
The Browns tried guards Shawn Lauvao, John Greco and Jason Pinkston but none have ever risen to the top as dominant starting guards. It is time the Browns go out and sign one.
If the Browns are not able to get their hands on Asamoah, then they should pursue Matt Slauson. He is a tough, gritty guard who signed a one-year deal with Chicago last offseason and will be looking for playing time and money.
He proved this year that he is ready for the full workload and helped solidify an offensive line, which was among the worst in 2012.
While the Bears rushing stats remained very good from last year to this one, their sack totals plummeted. In 2012, they were eighth worst in the NFL. This season, they are second best, having only allowed 21 sacks all season.
He is still young at 27 years old and fits the Browns mold of a hardworking player on the upswing.
If Ben Tate hits the open market, and that is a huge if, the Browns need to make a run at the 25-year-old playmaker. Despite starting just eight games over the past three years, Tate has rushed for 1,920 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tate himself admitted on Monday, via Brian Smith of The Houston Chronicle, that he does not know if he has a future with the Texans.
If the Browns can get their hands on Tate, he will be worth the hefty price tag he would pull in the open market.