Setting Odds for Browns Signing Their Top 5 Free-Agent Targets
Teams don’t construct championship rosters by building through free agency, but it never hurts to add a couple of affordable and proven pieces to the fold.
Ask the Seattle Seahawks how important free agency is after adding defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to cheap one-year deals last spring.
Sometimes, teams are a player or two away from greatness.
No one is saying the 2014 Cleveland Browns are ready to make that leap, especially with new coaches and potentially a rookie quarterback behind center.
However, the Browns do have youth and talent in their corner. Cleveland was the NFL’s second-youngest team at the start of the 2013 NFL season and almost surely will be younger by opening day next year after letting Willis McGahee as well as other veterans like Jason Campbell and Shawn Lauvao walk.
Despite being so young, there are certainly some bright spots on the lower end of the age spectrum.
Six players, all under the age of 30 and three under 25, were sent to Hawaii to represent the Browns at this past season's Pro Bowl, with Joe Thomas being the lone oldie of the bunch at 29 years old.
It hasn’t happened yet, but the Browns could be in position to make a Kansas City-like leap after offseason coaching and quarterback changes. In order to make it happen, they have to keep their in-house talent and pick up a couple of key players in the process.
Here are the odds of them reeling in their likely top targets, both on the open market and in their own locker room.
Ben Tate, RB
There isn’t a player more seemingly destined for Cleveland than free-agent running back Ben Tate.
The connection sprung up almost immediately after the Browns shipped Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first-round pick. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported he heard buzz back in September 2013 that the Browns would “aggressively pursue” Tate in free agency this spring.
Tate is under the impression Houston is going to let him walk, likely because it's unwilling to ration the cash for both starter Arian Foster and its standout backup rusher:
Carry on for the rest of my career thanks Htown for all the support but odds are I won't be back— Ben Tate (@BenTateRB) December 30, 2013
Plus, there’s that whole Michael-Lombardi-gushing-over-Tate thing after the 2010 draft.
“Ben Tate is the right back for the Texans’ system. He has an ability to hit the hole with a burst and is a one-cut runner,” he wrote for the National Football Post. “In their offense, he might be rookie of the year.”
It’s hard to see why the Browns wouldn’t be interested, especially after hiring “Running Back Whisperer” Kyle Shanahan—who runs the system Lombardi was describing—to redesign their offense.
The younger Shanahan has maximized output at the position, helping transform late-round gems Arian Foster and Alfred Morris into household names in his zone-blocking scheme.
With 10 draft picks, though, Cleveland may pass on the opportunity to land Tate unless the price is right. Chances are still good he ends up in brown and orange, but it isn’t a done deal by any stretch.
Arthur Moats, ILB
This one is easy. The Cleveland Browns need help at inside linebacker and the two guys responsible for running the defense next season—new head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil—have the inside track on free-agent linebacker Arthur Moats.
O'Neil was Moats' positional coach in Buffalo last season.
It’s no secret that coaches tend to poach "their guys" away from their former teams, especially veteran free agents who are familiar with their system.
Moats, although having four years of experience in the NFL, only played 301 defensive snaps last season while standout rookie Kiko Alonso commanded a large portion of the playing time.
Despite only playing a limited number of snaps, the potential bargain acquisition graded out positively and 12th overall for inside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) positional ranking system.
Like Quentin Groves last year, Moats could bring excellent under-the-radar depth and potentially upgrade the starting unit if needed.
Eric Decker, WR
How much of Eric Decker’s breakout over the past two seasons is because of Decker and not Peyton Manning? That’s the question teams must weigh while deciding whether or not to surrender big bucks for the free-agent receiver this offseason.
Decker’s production doubled from 2011 to 2013 after Manning took over quarterback duties in 2012.
It’s hard to take everything he’s done away from him, though, because he did make the plays and proved a competent NFL player. However, the inflated stats may be a little misleading on what a team like the Cleveland Browns would be getting if they signed him.
Because of that, they’ll have to overpay if they want him.
The better route for Cleveland looks like the NFL draft. NFLDraftScout.com has fourth-round-or-better grades for 22 wide receivers, giving the Browns plenty of flexibility with their seven selections throughout those first four rounds.
It wouldn’t be insane to think signing Decker could happen, though. Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron could provide similar support in drawing defenders that Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas afforded him in Denver.
Moreover, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would probably like to have another proven and sure-handed pass-catcher on the roster.
The Browns can afford him too, with CBSSports.com indicating that they have approximately $46 million in cap space available.
CEO Joe Banner isn’t a guy that typically overspends in free agency. The Browns would have to make Decker a deal that’s team-friendly, which might not be enough to lure him away from playing another season with a contender.
T.J. Ward, S
If your franchise has a young and Pro Bowl-caliber safety already on its roster, it’s probably best to pay him. That’s what you initially think when you look at Cleveland Browns defensive back T.J. Ward, who will become an unrestricted a free agent in March.
And you’re not wrong for thinking it. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) notes that Ward was a top-three safety in the NFL last season and the top defensive back in rush defense.
When trying to improve a team after a string of four- and five-win seasons, you don’t subtract its best players just as they are peaking. That’s where Ward is at right now, as he has improved steadily each year.
However, Browns CEO Joe Banner is known for being a shrewd businessman and might see things a little differently. He could forgo ponying up the cash for Ward now by slapping the franchise tag on him. ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi said he's getting the impression the team is heading in that direction.
Another solid season of production and injury-free football, and Ward will likely have proven himself to Banner and the new management team.
Franchise tag or large contract, it seems like a sure bet that Ward will be back again next season for the Browns.
Alex Mack, C
Alex Mack has been a model of consistency for the Cleveland Browns since coming into the league in 2009. Unfortunately for him, his efforts have not helped the team win more than five games in a season.
Now the Browns are in danger of losing their Pro Bowl center, which would create another roster hole needing to be filled this offseason.
While Mack will likely draw a lot of interest on the open market, he has made it clear to media and teammates that he would like to stay in Cleveland.
"Being in Cleveland is nice,'' Mack told Cleveland.com (h/t Mary Kay Cabot of Northeast Ohio Media Group). "I have good friends on the team, I like the coaches, it's a nice place.”
According to Tom Reed of The Plain Dealer, fellow Pro Bowler and friend Joe Thomas thinks Mack will try to stay:
Joe Thomas said free agent Alex Mack has told him he wants to remain with #Browns.— Tom Reed (@treed1919) December 24, 2013
In that Cleveland.com article, he even said he would “absolutely” give the Browns the opportunity to match any offers he receives from other teams, so they will have a shot at keeping him.
If the offers get too high, however, will Banner really shell out more cash on the offensive line while other position groups need addressed? It doesn’t seem likely, and the franchise tag probably isn’t an option either.
The tag is based off the five highest-paid offensive linemen, not exclusively centers. Therefore, Mack would command roughly $10 million in franchise tag salary in 2014.
It doesn’t look good, but Mack’s willingness and desire to return to Cleveland could win out in the end. If not, Cleveland better have a backup plan in the draft or free agency to find a comparable replacement.