5 Free Agents Who Could Be Difference-Makers for the Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns entered the free-agency period Tuesday with a number of holes on their roster. With $49 million in cap space heading into free agency, Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer was expected to be incredibly active in addressing some needs before looking to the draft to complete a formidable team.
Believe it or not, the Browns are almost there.
Despite a modest 4-12 record last season, the Browns were extremely competitive for much of the season. Poor play from the quarterback position severely hampered any chance at a respectable season, but Cleveland proved it had assembled a talented roster. Receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron enjoyed breakout seasons on the offense, while All-Pro Joe Haden and T.J. Ward were incredibly effective in a secondary that ranked No. 7 in pass defense.
The pieces are there.
On the first day of this free-agency period, the Browns made some major splashes, acquiring linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, per Adam Schefter of ESPN. Much more is on the horizon for the Browns over the next several days. How much? We will just have to wait and see.
The following is a list of free agents the Browns might acquire who could have a significant impact on the team's performance in 2014.
Plan B: Emmanuel Sanders and Vincent Rey
Cleveland desperately needs to find a wide receiver to complement the skill set of Josh Gordon. General manager Ray Farmer attempted to address that hole by signing Cincinnati Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins to a four-year offer sheet, per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com (h/t John Breech of CBS Sports). But according to Adam Schefter of ESPN (h/t Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk), the Bengals reportedly plan to match the offer to retain Hawkins.
Looking ahead, if the Browns miss on their should-be top target, Julian Edelman, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders is a worthwhile consolation prize.
Last season, Sanders set career highs with 67 receptions, 740 yards and six touchdowns. He has excellent speed and, despite his billing as a No. 2 receiver, he would excel in an offense where he could operate primarily out of the slot. In the right system, he could be incredibly productive as a check-down receiver with enough speed to make defenders miss.
Not to mention, there is always something to to be said about a team taking talent away from its own division.
While this might be a great opportunity to steal a budding talent away from a division rival, it seems unlikely the Bengals will allow the Browns to steal linebacker Vincent Rey.
Much like the Bengals reportedly plan to match the Browns’ offer sheet on Hawkins, the Bengals would likely match any offer the Browns sent Rey’s way. But perhaps it is worth a shot. The Bengals already field Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict as their two starting inside linebackers, so there is a chance they can be outbid.
Rey spent much of the season backing up Maualuga in 2013, but when Maualuga went down, the undrafted Duke product took full advantage of the opportunity. In two starts—Week 10 against the Baltimore Ravens and Week 11 against Cleveland—Rey had a combined 27 tackles, three sacks and four passes defensed.
Especially if a deal for Arthur Moats falls through, the Browns should consider turning their attention to Rey.
Perhaps more importantly than just addressing the holes in their offense, the Browns need a proven leader in the offensive huddle. They need a fiery competitor who has the ability to steady a sputtering offense and a vocal leader with a winning mindset.
Despite playing one of the least celebrated positions in the NFL, Vonta Leach has become one of the most recognizable figures for the Ravens. A three-time Pro Bowler, he's carried the ball just 35 times in 146 career games, but he's made a name for himself as an excellent blocking fullback.
For the last three seasons in Baltimore, Leach put his head down and led the way for Ray Rice as Rice morphed into one of the most efficient backs in the league. With the Browns, he would help fight off linebackers at the second level and protect the Browns running back—whoever that may be—from taking a beating (thus, keeping the running back on the field) in an extremely physical AFC North.
While Darrelle Revis is not yet a free agent, it is increasingly possible that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will waive the cornerback before the 4 p.m. deadline Wednesday, per Adam Scheftre of ESPN. While several teams have expressed interest in acquiring the services of the shaman of Revis Island, the Browns might just be the most intriguing marriage for the 28-year-old cornerback.
Gone are the days of Revis as a one-man show-stopper at the cornerback position. He is efficient, sure, but a knee injury in 2012 has lingered and hampered his ability to be the same shutdown corner he was with the New York Jets in 2011.
He is, however, still among the top cover corners in the game and would provide an immediate shot in the arm to any defense in the league.
Bringing in Revis could instantaneously give the Browns a top-five secondary and would allow Buster Skrine to slide back over to his more natural nickel corner position. All-Pro Joe Haden would benefit profusely from a dominant counterpart, as the move would allow the Browns to improve upon their No. 7-rated pass defense last season.
Revis played under Browns head coach Mike Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil with the Jets, and besides adding an incredible talent at the No. 2 corner position, Cleveland would be acquiring a veteran defender who would help the new coaching staff deploy a new defensive scheme. According to Terry Pluto of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Pettine and Revis seem to have developed a mutual respect. Most importantly, Revis is an excellent leader on and off the field, and he understands Pettine’s defensive philosophy.
His arrival at Lake Erie, combined with the presence of Haden and the newly signed Donte Whitner, would provide the Browns with all the makings of the stout defense Pettine surely covets.
According to Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network, the Browns are “getting close” to an agreement that would bring linebacker Arthur Moats to Cleveland.
The 25-year-old Moats was sixth-round pick for the Buffalo Bills in 2010 and has spent the majority of his career as a part-time starter at both inside and outside linebacker. He is linked to the Browns mainly because of his connection to coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.
If the Browns can get him at the right price, Moats would provide another player resource as Cleveland familiarizes itself with Pettine’s new system.
The Browns are in desperate need of help on their offensive line. Whether they address those concerns through the draft or free agency (or both) remains to be seen, but they must find a viable solution to their struggles at the guard positions.
With Joe Thomas returning and Alex Mack currently testing the open market via the transition tag, the Browns are set at left tackle and center, respectively. That strength, however, did not keep opposing defenses from exposing the deficiencies in other areas of the line last season.
If the Browns choose to begin finding solutions in free agency, their first call should be to the agent of Willie Colon. According to ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini, the Jets are ready to let Colon walk in free agency and have yet to engage the right guard in contract talks.
Despite his injury history in eight seasons with the Jets and Steelers, Colon is the 36th-rated guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Dom Cosentino of NJ.com). He excels in pass-blocking—he was the fourth-best in the NFL—and would provide some stability to the right side of the line.
With Thomas and Colon anchoring the left and right side of the line, respectively, the Browns could address the remaining holes via the draft and provide Brian Hoyer (or whoever starts at quarterback this coming season) with enough time to find weapons like Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron downfield.
While the Browns receiving corps was an undeniable bright spot last season, their offense is still in dire need of a possession receiver. Both Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron are remarkable threats downfield, but neither receiver is best suited for quick passes across the middle of the field.
The solution: Look no further than New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Much like Whitner, whom the Browns signed Tuesday, Edelman has ties to Ohio. The former Kent State quarterback is 27 years old and is coming off his most productive season as a pro. As Tom Brady’s favorite target, Edelman posted career highs in every statistical category. He caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns for a New England offense that lacked a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Most assuredly an upgrade over the catastrophe that was Davone Bess, Edelman would quickly become a viable third option in the Browns passing game. He is the perfect receiver to complement the downfield threat of Gordon and Cameron, and, more importantly, he is a hard-nosed receiver whose tenacity will almost immediately make him a fan favorite for the Browns.
The Browns continue to bolster their defense, with reports suggesting they are close to a deal with Moats. It is now time to turn their attention to patching some holes in an offense that ranked No. 27 in passing yards last season.
Edelman is a good start.