5 Big Splashes the Cleveland Browns Can Realistically Make in Free Agency

Will Burge@WillBurgeContributor IJanuary 30, 2014

5 Big Splashes the Cleveland Browns Can Realistically Make in Free Agency

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Now that the Cleveland Browns have a head coach and most of their staff, they can enter free agency with somewhat of a direction. A coach’s systems often dictate what type of players the team will pursue.

    New head coach Mike Pettine told Ohio.com during his introductory press conference that he will decide what systems will be ran only after they complete an evaluation of the roster:

    I’m not one to speak on what we’ll be running because, again, that’s going to be based on an evaluation of the roster. I’ve always been of the mindset that you never fit your players to your system; you fit your system to your players.

    When the coaches finish their evaluation periods, the front office will start debating who is worth the money and who is not. Teams can build depth and even add impact players through free agency, but they can also crush their salary-cap flexibility.

    That is the tight rope that the Browns must walk this offseason.

    As dangerous as it may be, they need to pony up the cash to make some key signings. Even though they have 10 draft picks, they need veteran leadership and guys who can be productive right away.

    Here are six realistic splashes the Browns can make in free agency when it kicks off on March 11.

Donald Butler (Inside Linebacker)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said to the U-T San Diego (h/t ProFootballTalk.com) that linebacker Donald Butler and the Chargers are going to work toward a contract extension. Despite that claim, nothing has been completed and Butler will be a popular man if he hits the open market.

    The Browns are in desperate need of an impact inside linebacker. Butler not only provides that but he also brings an element of leadership, which is rare in 25-year-old NFL players.

    At the beginning of the 2013 season, Butler told Kevin Chan of RantSports.com that he was ready to take the reins in the locker room.

    “I think it’s my time to be that vocal leader. That’s what I’m going to do.”

    Not only did Butler become a vocal leader, but he was a menace on the field as well. He logged 84 tackles and an interception. He has posted at least 79 tackles and an interception in each of his three seasons in the NFL.

    While those numbers are similar to Craig Robertson’s (85 tackles and one interception), they do not reflect his ability to cover running backs and tight ends. This is where the Browns were hurt most last season.

    Russell S. Baxter from Bleacher Report estimated that Butler would command about five years, $36 million in free agency. That is a small price to pay for a cornerstone inside linebacker.

Jon Asamoah (Guard)

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Guard Jon Asamoah from the Kansas City Chiefs is considered one of the best young linemen in the NFL. While many still think that he will end up re-signing with the Chiefs, that has not happened yet.

    According to OverTheCap.com, only five teams have less cap room to work with than the Chiefs. Another issue working against them is the fact that all offensive linemen are lumped together when it comes to the franchise tag. If they opt to franchise him, then they would have to pay over $11 million next season.

    That is a full $6 million more than the highest-paid guard in the NFL, Carl Nicks of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    If Asamoah hits the open market, the Browns should be waiting with barrels full of cash. The 25-year-old guard is considered one of the best at his position already.

    Other than battling a calf injury last season, he has been very healthy in his four-year career. He is an absolute bully while run blocking, and that is something the Browns desperately need.

    He was a key component to the Chiefs having the 10th-best rushing offense in the NFL and averaging 128.5 yards per game.

    The Browns will probably have to dish out around $2 million per year for Asamoah, but if they can get their hands on him, it is worth every penny.

Jairus Byrd (Safety)

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    If the Buffalo Bills fail to reach a long-term deal with their star safety Jairus Byrd, then they face a difficult decision. They can either place the franchise tag on him again, which would cost them well over $8 million and risk him sitting out camp like last year, or let him test the free-agent waters.

    It seems highly unlikely that they would risk another season of Byrd under the franchise tag because of how poorly it worked last year. He sat out until the final day of training camp before accepting his contract. He then missed the first five games of the year due to injury.

    Whether the Browns decide to franchise T.J. Ward or not, Byrd could be a target of theirs when free agency begins.

    He and Ward would be one of the best safety duos in the NFL. If Ward leaves, then they would have another star safety stepping right into the fold.

    There are also the ties to new Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was the former defensive coordinator in Buffalo. He knows exactly how impactful Byrd can be on a football field.

    Russell S. Baxter estimated that Byrd would command around five years, $34 million.

Hakeem Nicks (Wide Receiver)

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    It was just a few short seasons ago that 26-year-old Hakeem Nicks was considered one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Since then, he has caught just three touchdowns in his last 30 games and been plagued by injuries.

    Jordan Raanan of NJ.com reported that general managers and personnel men around the league are split on what exactly was wrong with Nick. Some thought he was injured or “dogging” it, and others think he was a victim of an inept offense.

    Either way, Nicks enters free agency looking for a payday without catching a touchdown pass in 2013.

    The Browns desperately need a threat opposite All-Pro Josh Gordon to make defenses honest and not roll to his side of the field. Nicks could be that guy.

    Despite a “down” 2013, Nicks still had 896 yards receiving and accounted for 25 percent of the New York Giants total passing offense. Throughout his five-year career he has averaged 924 receiving yards and five touchdowns per season.

    Nicks is the epitome of someone needing a change of scenery. Things went sour fast in New York, and now Nicks needs to play somewhere he can be a complementary receiver. That was when he was at his best.

    Nicks’ best seasons were playing next to Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz.

    Russell S. Baxter estimates that Nicks will command five years, $33 million in free agency next season. That’s nothing if the Browns can get 924 yards and five touchdowns worth of production from him.

Ben Tate (Running Back)

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    I know Browns fans are getting sick of reading about the connections between their team and running back Ben Tate this offseason, but they are undeniable.

    NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Browns had interest in both former Texans running back Ben Tate and their former head coach Gary Kubiak. There was interest in reuniting them as back and offensive coordinator in Cleveland.

    The Kubiak rumors have since cooled, but the Tate one has withstood the test of time. As far back as September of last year Adam Schefter from ESPN reported that Tate was someone the Browns “covet.”

    In just nine starts in three years with the Texans, Tate rushed for 1,992 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, on just 181 carries, Tate rushed for 771 yards and four touchdowns.

    If he had carried the ball 300 times, he would have rushed for 1,290 yards. That would be the second-most carries and third-most yards in the league.

    Tate will command major money in free agency. It could reach the heights of Marshawn Lynch’s four-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2012.

    If the Browns want to secure a 25-year-old franchise running back, then they will have to dole out the big cash to make it happen.