New Browns GM Ray Farmer
There are five ideal free agents that the Cleveland Browns absolutely must target.
Before the draft in May, newly appointed general manager Ray Farmer will be tested on what players he can attract out on the open market.
Say what you want about the old Joe Banner/Michael Lombardi regime, but it did put the franchise in excellent shape when it comes to salary-cap space.
The Browns are estimated to have the third-most cap room in the NFL at roughly $45.5 million.
This should give Cleveland ample room to re-sign its own stars in Alex Mack and T.J. Ward, as well as go after a variety of available athletes.
The following slides are not a list of simply the most talented stars from around the league looking for a new contract. This grouping will explore players that can fill key roles as starters or add to positional depth.
Expiring Contract: 1 year/$960,000
Why would a 33-year-old journeyman quarterback be an ideal pickup for the Cleveland Browns?
Rex Grossman's main value comes in his familiarity with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system.
A former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, Grossman can come in to help get Brian Hoyer and whatever rookie QB is selected in the draft up to speed with the offense.
Signing him and releasing current backup Jason Campbell would also be a cost savings for Cleveland. Campbell is set to earn a base salary of $3 million in 2014, while Grossman can surely be had for under $1 million.
In a perfect world, No. 8 never sees live action and is able to focus solely on being a mentor. It wouldn't be the sexiest signing, but it is one that makes a lot of sense for the Browns.
Expiring Contract: 4 years/$3.55 million
Since Kyle Shanahan is the Browns' new offensive coordinator, the team must now look for linemen to complement his zone-blocking scheme.
Kansas City's Jon Asamoah looks to be the best free-agent option to fit that style.
Not only is he young at 25 years old, but Asamoah has the footwork and overall athleticism to thrive under Shanahan's system.
The former third-round pick is nimble and fast for a man that stands 6'4" and weighs in at 304 pounds.
This right guard had a rough 2013. He suffered a calf injury and then could not regain his starting job from a surging Geoff Schwartz (brother of Browns right tackle Mitchell). A fresh start is needed and Cleveland's offensive line woes would make him a good fit.
Asamoah is a workhorse, having logged over 1,000 NFL snaps in his four-year NFL career. That durability, reliability and his general effectiveness would definitely be an upgrade over last season's starter at right guard, Shawn Lauvao.
Expiring Contract: 4 years/$3.35 million
Donald Butler has exceeded all expectations since coming into the San Diego Chargers organization as a third-round pick in 2010.
Now a defensive captain, this inside linebacker is a staple on a rising Chargers franchise. Even after missing four games this season due to a nagging groin injury, Butler still finished second in team tackles (84).
He came on strong late in 2013 and elevated his performance further during the playoffs. At only 25, the 6'1", 242-pound California native would match up perfectly next to Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson.
Butler is a buzzsaw who can stop the run and, most importantly for the Browns, be a force in pass coverage. Last year, the former Washington Huskies senior tallied five defended passes, four stuffs, recovered a fumble and recorded half a sack.
GM Ray Farmer needs to combine Butler's youth, speed and ability to play all three downs with Jackson's leadership. Doing so would go a long way toward solving Cleveland's struggles with defending over the middle.
Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com reported on Monday that No. 56 and San Diego are currently in the process of arranging preliminary contract extension talks. If Butler does make it to free agency on March 11, the Browns better pounce on him quickly.
Expiring Contract: 1 year/$765,000
Davone Bess was supposed to be Cleveland's long-term solution at slot receiver. Lack of production coupled with bizarre off-the-field issues—including a Jan. 17 arrest—means that the Browns need to go hunting on the open market once again.
Out of Kent State, Julian Edelman would fill this role perfectly.
Taken 232nd overall in the 2009 draft by New England, Edelman put together his most effective campaign in 2013. That's in large part due to the fact that he dressed in all 16 games for the first time in his career.
Six touchdowns, 1,056 receiving yards and 54 first-down conversions are all reasons why GM Ray Farmer should make a serious pitch to secure the 27-year-old wideout.
The Browns ranked 24th in third-down conversions this past year (35 percent efficiency) and much of that ineffectiveness was caused by not having a reliable set of hands in the slot. Edelman solves this problem.
Even with a pay raise from last season's $765,000, No. 11 would be a bargain over the much more expensive, bloated contract of Bess.
An added bonus is that Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer knows him from his days with the Patriots and there may be a nice comfort level between the two.
Expiring Contract: 1 year/$2.02 million
Sam Shields is coming off of his best season and, at 26, is still improving. He is a difference-making, lockdown cornerback that can solidify Cleveland's secondary.
The Browns desperately need a true outside stud to line up opposite Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden. Buster Skrine filled in admirably this past year, but ultimately is a much better fit as a nickel or dime back.
This 5'11" undrafted free agent contributed 61 combined tackles, defended 17 passes and had four interceptions for the Green Bay Packers through 14 games in 2013.
Shields bet on himself when accepting a one-year deal rather than a longer extension last offseason. That gamble is surely going to result in a big payday somewhere in the NFL, so why not Cleveland and its ample salary-cap room?
ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky reported on Monday that the Packers and Shields' agent are currently negotiating and expected to meet in Indianapolis this week at the scouting combine. Franchise-tagging the young veteran is a possibility, but it would be a costly choice at roughly $11 million.
Adding a proven commodity like No. 37 would also allow the Browns to focus on other needs in the upcoming draft and select a possible hidden gem at the position in later rounds.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist.
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81