Free-Agency Moves the Browns Still Need to Make

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Free-Agency Moves the Browns Still Need to Make
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Browns could soon land wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, as long as the Bengals don't match the offer Cleveland gave him. Who else could the Browns sign?

The Cleveland Browns made three free agency additions in the first 48 hours of the signing period, all on defense. They signed inside linebacker Karlos Dansby to replace D'Qwell Jackson, safety Donte Whitner to take on T.J. Ward's job and cornerback Isaiah Trufant to provide depth and special-teams acumen. They also announced the signing of former Arizona Cardinals tight end Jim Dray on Thursday.

After the four signings, the Browns still have around $34 million remaining in salary cap space according to Spotrac. That's more than enough money to make additional moves on free agents to fill roster holes. Though some of these positions will be better addressed in May's NFL draft, others can certainly be addressed by signing veterans who still remain on the open market.

Let's take a look at the positions the Browns could still be looking to address by signing additional free agents. 

 

Quarterback

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Though the Browns may have designs on quarterback Matt Schaub, they may have to settle for Rex Grossman as their backup instead.

The Browns' starting quarterback in 2014 may or may not be currently on the roster, but even if he is, they still need to add depth at the position. As Vic Carucci of ClevelandBrowns.com reports, the team released quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden on Wednesday. They now have just two quarterbacks on the roster: Brian Hoyer and Alex Tanney.

Though Hoyer is certainly in play to start this year, Tanney is at best a practice squad candidate. The Browns need to bring on a veteran passer to take on a backup role, and it's almost certain they'll mine the free agency pool for this player soon.

The two quarterbacks linked to the Browns are the Houston Texans' Matt Schaub and Washington's Rex Grossman. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot cited a source that said it's a "serious possibility" that Schaub lands with the Browns, and he could provide direct competition with Hoyer for the starting job.

CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported that if the Browns cannot get Schaub, their next option would be Grossman. 

Schaub is coming off of his worst season in his 11-year career, with a 61.2 completion percentage, just 2,310 passing yards and 10 touchdowns thrown to 14 interceptions, a number of which were returned for touchdowns. 

However, Schaub flourished from 2007 through 2009, when current Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was first his quarterbacks coach and then his coordinator in Houston.

That peaked in 2009, when Schaub had career highs in completion percentage (67.9) passing yards (4,770, the most in the league that year), touchdowns (29) and passer rating (98.6). During Shanahan's tenure, Schaub's completion percentage never dipped below 66.1.

Matt Schaub Under Kyle Shanahan vs. 2013 Stats
Year Atts. Comp. Comp.% Yds. TDs INTs QB Rat.
2007 289 192 66.4% 2,241 9 9 87.2
2008 380 251 66.1% 3,043 15 10 92.7
2009 583 396 67.9% 4,770 29 15 98.6
2013 358 219 61.2% 2,310 10 14 73.0

via ESPN

A change of scenery—and a competition for a starting job (that he won't likely win)—could be a boon for Schaub's career. And though his 2013 certainly didn't go according to plan, his NFL experience will provide the Browns' younger quarterbacks with a wealth of knowledge.

However good a fit Schaub may be in Cleveland, everything rests on the Texans either releasing him or agreeing to trade him—things that ultimately may not happen. The Houston Chronicle's John McClain said on Wednesday that Schaub is "not going anywhere anytime soon," and that the "Texans are keeping Matt Schaub for a while."

That's where Grossman comes in. Grossman hasn't played a full season in years, but has a lot of experience in Shanahan's system having worked with him in Washington since 2010. He has a career completion percentage of 55.3, has thrown 56 touchdowns to 60 interceptions and has a passer rating of 71.4. 

With a background like that, it wouldn't be likely that Grossman would be competing with Hoyer for the Browns' starting quarterback job, as is expected should they be able to sign Schaub. However, his familiarity with Shanahan's offense makes him an asset, even if he never sees the field during the regular season.

 

Wide Receiver

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Current Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer is lobbying hard for the team to pick up free agent receiver Julian Edelman.

Prior to the start of free agency, the Browns parted ways with receiver Davone Bess. Though the move was necessary, considering his string of off-field issues and his team-leading 14 dropped passes in 2013, it also meant they needed to look for another slot receiver to take his place. 

The leading free agent candidates are Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots and Andrew Hawkins of the Cincinnati Bengals, the latter of whom has already received an offer from the Browns. The NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports that Hawkins has already signed the offer sheet, which pays him a total of $13.6 million over four years, $10.8 million of which will come in the first two years. 

Because of the size of the contract, Rapoport's colleague Albert Breer reports that the Bengals aren't likely to match the offer, which means that Hawkins could officially join the Browns anytime between now and Tuesday's deadline for the Bengals to make a decision. 

Hawkins missed most of the 2013 season with an ankle injury, returning in Week 9 and seeing his playing time increase weekly. He caught 12 of 18 passes thrown his way for 199 yards and zero touchdowns.

His biggest impact came in 2012. Including the playoffs, Hawkins caught 53 of 77 targets, or 68.8 percent, for 548 yards and four touchdowns. He dropped only three passes and fumbled once. Though small—he's 5'7" and 175 pounds—Hawkins is extremely fast and elusive. In space, he's a threat to score a touchdown every time. 

Hawkins is a true slot receiver. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was in the slot for 86.2 percent of his snaps in 2012, and catches in the slot resulted in all four of his touchdowns that season. Though limited because of his injury in 2013, Hawkins still saw more of his playing time in the slot yet again, at 85.4 percent of his snaps.

Slot Receiving Production for Hawkins & Edelman, 2012-2013
Player Year Total Routes Slot Routes Slot % Tgs. Rec. Yds. TDs
Edelman 2012 182 44 24.2% 7 3 32 0
Edelman 2013 594 294 49.5% 73 54 506 3
Hawkins 2012 384 331 86.2% 64 42 449 4
Hawkins 2013 82 70 85.4% 15 11 186 0

via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

Because of the contract offer the Browns have tendered to Hawkins and the Bengals' apparent reluctance to match it, it's almost a given that he'll be joining the team shortly. However, that doesn't preclude them from continuing their pursuit of Edelman, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer confirming reports that quarterback Brian Hoyer has been pushing the team to sign him.

Edelman was the Patriots' leading receiver in 2013, with 105 catches on 151 targets for 1,056 yards, six touchdowns and no fumbles. He had 54 first downs and 406 yards after the catch. 

Edelman didn't work out of the slot as exclusively as Hawkins did, with only 49.5 percent of his routes run out of the slot. However, his ability to work both the inside and outside of the field makes him a versatile weapon, one the Browns could use in a variety of ways.

It also means that the Browns could easily sign both Edelman and Hawkins and have more options in the passing game. There is more than enough room for both receivers on Cleveland's roster.

 

Center

Karl Walter/Getty Images
Anything is possible when it comes to Alex Mack and the status of his transition tag.

The Browns gave center Alex Mack the transition tag prior to the start of free agency, which is worth $10.039 million for 2014. However, Mack has yet to sign the tag and is in search of a contract elsewhere, one that his agent, Marvin Demoff, seems to believe the Browns won't be able to match.

That means the Browns may have to prepare for life without Mack as their center. Because it is such a crucial position, the Browns are more likely to find his replacement among the veteran free agents rather than via the draft. 

The current crop of free agent centers isn't a poor one. However, Mack's stalling might cost the Browns should he move on. Former Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith is the best available center, ranking eighth at the position in 2013 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He allowed only five sacks, one quarterback hit and eight hurries in his 1,073 snaps last season.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If Mack moves on, maybe Evan Dietrich-Smith will still be available.

However, he's already had a meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the Browns are still sitting tight on inviting centers in for visits so as to not further widen the gulf between Mack (and Mack's agent) and the team. Dietrich-Smith could be long gone by the time Mack makes up his mind.

The next-best options are former San Francisco 49er Jonathan Goodwin and former New Orleans Saint Brian de la Puente. Goodwin is the better run-blocker while De la Puente is stronger as a pass protector. In terms of experience, former Cincinnati Bengal Kyle Cook and former Pittsburgh Steeler Fernando Velasco could also potentially be in play, but neither had exceptionally great 2013 seasons.

Alex Mack vs. Other Top FA Centers, Per Pro Football Focus
Player Frm. Team Overall Pass Block Screen Block Run Block Sacks Hits Hurries
Mack CLE +17.8 +5.9 -0.5 +10.0 2 5 18
Dietrich-Smith GB +12.1 +6.7 +2.0 +1.2 5 1 8
Goodwin SF +5.8 -1.3 0.0 +6.9 4 1 14
De La Puente NO +4.0 +2.7 +1.5 -3.7 3 3 9
Cook CIN -4.8 -0.9 -1.0 -4.3 5 3 12
Velasco PIT -4.9 -2.4 +1.5 -6.2 1 3 15

via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

Giving the transition tag to Mack rather than successfully negotiating a long-term deal with him is a major risk the Browns chose to take. If they lose him, the risk grows by replacing him with a rookie.

It may be some time until the situation with Mack is resolved, which increases the odds they cannot sign a higher quality veteran center and may have to settle for simply one with adequate experience. But any free agent center would be better for the Browns in 2014 than a draft pick starting in his first year.

At the very least, a one-year deal given to a stopgap center will cost the team less than Mack's transition tag, which would make him the highest-paid center in the league this season. Though the ultimate goal is for Mack to agree to a long-term deal in Cleveland, they need to start lining up meetings with veteran centers in case the plan falls through.

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