Cleveland Browns' Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions
The Cleveland Browns are gearing up for a very interesting free-agency period. This is where they find out exactly how much damage has been done to their reputation with players around the league.
Coaching changes, front office changes and player cuts all have a ripple effect when it comes to signing guys in the offseason. The trump card for a bad reputation, however, is money. And the Browns have a ton to spend.
We are now less than a week from the official league new year and players changing teams. It is an exciting time.
Let’s take an overall look at the Browns as they enter into a vital period of their rebuilding efforts.
With the final NFL cap number coming in at $133 million, we can now see exactly what teams have to spend in free agency. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com wrote Wednesday that the Browns have around $30 million in cap space to use.
That number does not reflect players who will be cut, restructured deals or contract extensions. It also does not reflect the release of wide receiver Davone Bess. According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns are off the hook for Bess’ $3.06 million salary in 2014:
The #Browns don't owe Davone Bess his $3.067 million for 2014. The previous regime put specific language in to protect the club.— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) March 5, 2014
Any way you slice it, the Browns have a ton of space to work with and could be heavy hitters in free agency. It will be interesting to see just how much money they end up spending. Teams who have an eye to the future never spend all their money because that can hurt them in coming years.
The Browns will be active in free agency but not to the level that some may anticipate. Owner Jimmy Haslam has repeatedly said that he wants to build this franchise through the draft. The Browns have 10 picks, including three in the first 35, and will likely use those to fill holes rather than spend lavishly in free agency.
I expect the Browns to get long-term deals done with center Alex Mack and cornerback Joe Haden and then use free agency to build depth on the roster. Head coach Mike Pettine told Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland that the team will spend but will spend wisely.
“You never want to be that team that kind of goes out there and is into those super big contracts day 1,” he said.
Current Free Agents
Safety T.J. Ward
Running Back Willis McGahee
Guard Shawn Lauvao
Kicker Billy Cundiff
Tackle Oniel Cousins
Obviously, the big news was the Browns placing the transition tag on center Alex Mack. It's a small risk, because they could end up paying Mack over $10 million next season, but that scenario is unlikely. The Browns don’t want to spend that much and Mack wants a long-term deal. They should agree on terms fairly easily.
Safety T.J. Ward’s agent told the Associated Press (h/t FoxNews.com) that he and his client are still negotiating with the Browns and hope to reach a long-term deal with the team. He said they have been in contact since the combine.
Of the free agents listed above, the only ones who may return are Ward and kicker Billy Cundiff. The kicker position is so fluid in the NFL that it’s a complete crapshoot if Cundiff will be back, but the Ward situation is more interesting.
Mike Pettine has made his love for soon-to-be free agent safety Jairus Byrd no secret. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com) reported a few weeks ago that the Browns' interest in Byrd is real. The Browns may make a push for Byrd early in free agency and use Ward as a backup.
If they swing and miss on both guys, however, it will tough to find an adequate replacement.
The Browns head into free agency with a ton of offensive needs. First, they need to figure out what they will do at quarterback. If they do not plan on drafting one high, then there are other ways to go. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com said the Browns could be a destination for Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
They also need to revamp an offensive line that was terrible at run-blocking and gave up the third-most sacks in the NFL last season. They will need to find a running back to run behind the line as well.
Beside Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, the Browns have very little in the pass-catching department. They will need to get two or three more receivers who can contribute.
On defense there are needs as well. They need two inside linebackers, a safety and a second cornerback. And they could use more depth in the secondary. That became an issue late last season as injuries mounted.
Besides signing a guy like Jairus Byrd, the Browns will probably use free agency as a tool to build depth. You may see a middle-tier cornerback signed to compete for the second spot and may also see something similar at the wide receiver position.
Anyone who thinks the Browns are going to make multiple big splashes will be very disappointed.
Possible Targets: Offense
Ben Tate: The 25-year-old running back has spent most of his time in Houston backing up Arian Foster. His hefty 4.7 yards-per-carry average is impressive, but his injury history is not.
Jon Asamoah: The free-agent guard split time on the line for the Kansas City Chiefs last season, but it was more about politics than skill. After being the team’s best lineman in 2012, head coach Andy Reid brought in his own guy and that forced Asamoah into a part time role. He is only 25 and is one of the better run-blocking guards in the league.
Zane Beadles: The Denver Broncos are in a money crunch and most likely will not be able to re-sign guard Zane Beadles. He is 27 years old and will not be one of the guys snatched up early in free agency. Whoever snags him is getting an above-average starter, however.
Hakeem Nicks: After failing to catch a touchdown in 2013, free-agent receiver Hakeem Nicks shouldn’t carry as hefty a price tag as some of the premier pass catchers. He is still averaging over 900 yards per season and is only 26 years old.
Now that Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi are gone, I do not see a scenario in which the Browns pursue Ben Tate. His price tag will be very heavy, and he will command a large signing bonus as well. I think the Browns will be shopping more in the middle category of free agents.
Guys like Beadles or wide receiver Golden Tate are more up the Browns' alley in 2014.
Possible Targets: Defense
Jairus Byrd: The three-time Pro Bowl safety has 22 interceptions in his career and is very stout against the run. Despite missing five games last season with injury, he still had four interceptions and a forced fumble. He also played for Mike Pettine with the Buffalo Bills last year.
Wesley Woodyard: The 27-year-old linebacker lost his starting job in Denver but not his playing time entirely. He was heralded as a great leader in the locker room and became a very good nickel cover linebacker. He is just one year removed from a season where he totaled 70 tackles and three interceptions.
Corey Graham: The Baltimore Ravens would love to keep their 28-year-old cornerback, but he looks like he is headed for free agency. As one of the better cover corners in the AFC North, it would be huge if the Browns snagged him away from the Ravens. He had four interceptions and 56 tackles last season.
Bernard Pollard: If the Browns cannot secure Byrd or Ward for their safety position, Pollard would be a potential target. He is a little long in the tooth at 29 years of age but is still very productive. He had 77 tackles and three interceptions for the Tennessee Titans last season.
I think the Browns will end up signing Jairus Byrd and he will be their crowning achievement of the offseason. Other than that, it will a lot of depth guys or veterans who can compete for starting jobs with whoever the Browns draft. Once again, I am not expecting a ton of fireworks in free agency.