What's Next for the Cleveland Browns After Active Free Agency?
The Cleveland Browns were projected to be among the most active teams in free agency, and they certainly did not disappoint. General manager Ray Farmer made significant changes on both sides of the ball, signing linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Isaiah Trufant, running back Ben Tate and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
The moves, of course, do not make the Browns an automatic contender heading into next season. Competition and depth is still a premium and another need was created after free agency started when the Browns released both Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell within 30 minutes of each other. The team needs to add a veteran to either back up or compete with Brian Hoyer for the starting job and, as always, the pressure is on Farmer to find the club’s quarterback of the future.
If this offseason has proven anything, it's that nothing is certain in Cleveland. The Browns would probably be wise to continue filling as many holes as possible via free agency, in order to further their ability to target the quarterback of their choice in the draft. With 10 draft picks and an overload of cap space, the Browns are still equipped to further improve a roster that produced five returning Pro Bowlers in 2013.
Stabilize the Offensive Line
After entering the free agency period with a handful of holes to fill, the current Browns roster has just one serious question mark: offensive guard.
If the Browns can hold onto Alex Mack via the transition tag, Cleveland will have two of the best offensive linemen in football: Mack at center and Joe Thomas at left tackle. Unfortunately, though, the three remaining spots on the offensive line could stand to be upgraded.
General manager Ray Farmer may choose to address this need as price tags drop on current free agents, or he may elect to find a suitable solution in the draft.
If Farmer looks to the draft, Cleveland may elect to tap Auburn right guard Greg Robinson as the ideal bookend opposite Thomas at No. 4 overall, but it may be more realistic to see them bolster the offensive skill positions first. Given the Tate signing, the Browns are obviously looking to jump-start a putrid run game and will need athletic linemen to excel in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.
While Robinson will be out of reach by the time the Browns are on the clock again at No. 26, Farmer could look to talented linemen such as Cyrus Kouandjio (OT, Alabama), Xavier Su'a-Filo (OG, UCLA) or David Yankey, OG, Stanford).
Sign or Draft an Inside Linebacker to Start in Place of Craig Robertson
After releasing long-time Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, Cleveland spent big money to bring in 32-year-old Karlos Dansby to fill the void. Still, the defense is in dire need of another inside linebacker to make coach Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense work on Lake Erie.
Few impact players at that position remain in free agency, so Farmer will more than likely attempt to steal a talented linebacker within the first four rounds of the draft.
If the Browns trade back to stockpile even more picks, C.J. Mosley would be the perfect fit. Mosley offers outstanding instincts and versatility, and he brings a winning attitude from his pair of national championships at Alabama.
If Cleveland chooses to wait until the second round to snag a linebacker, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland is an excellent pick. At 5’11” and 147 pounds, Borland lacks the ideal size, but he brings the toughness and quickness necessary to excel in the NFL. Stanford product Shayne Skov or Christian Jones of Florida State are viable options in later rounds as well. Neither is likely to compete for the starting job in year one, but they are capable of splitting time with Robertson to help man the interior.
Acquire a Veteran QB to Compete for Starting Job; Draft QB of the Future
Solving the perennial quarterback issue is still a significant road block for the Browns, but they cannot look directly to any of the premier passers in this year’s draft as the immediate savior of the Dawg Pound.
Hoyer was a formidable passer during his three starts, completing almost 60 percent of passes for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. The 28-year-old former Spartan might just be a viable option to captain an offense now full of weapons, but the sample size is much too small to hand him the starting job before camp begins.
Playing for a job in 2013, Hoyer showed signs of being a formidable solution. He is fueled by the competition and would benefit from competing with an experienced passer to win the job in the season opener.
Sure, Rex Grossman knows the offense. He is capable of coming in and mentoring a young quarterback in a familiar offense, but he is not a legitimate option to lead an offense at this stage in his career. Matt Schaub would have been an outstanding addition, but reports have him heading to Oakland.
The problem, however, is that starting options left in free agency are few and far between. According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, the only options tabbed as “starters if necessary” are Michael Vick and Josh Freeman.
Vick showed last season that he might still be capable of leading an offense, and Freeman, at just 26 years old, has the potential to develop into a long-term answer if he finds the right situation. The addition of Tate and Watkins to an offensive already containing Gordon and Jordan Cameron makes the Browns an intriguing situation for any experienced passer looking for a job.
If the Browns are sold on a franchise quarterback in the draft, Farmer will (and should) use the No. 4 pick to land him. If they are not, however, Cleveland will likely draft a work in progress in a later round.
Quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Zach Mettenberger (LSU), Aaron Murray (Georgia) or David Fales (San Jose State) will be available between rounds two through six.
Draft a Capable No. 2 Wide Receiver
Cleveland swiped Hawkins away from the Cincinnati Bengals, giving the Browns an explosive talent in the slot to pair with Gordon on the outside.
But the offense still needs an upgrade at wide receiver.
As the unanimous No. 1 receiver in this class, Sammy Watkins is the ideal fit and comes complete with size, strength, explosiveness and incredibly strong hands. He is widely touted as the best receiver to enter the draft since the Browns passed on Julio Jones in 2011 and will certainly cost the Browns their fourth overall pick.
If the Browns elect to pass on Watkins in favor of a quarterback or offensive lineman, there are still a variety of other options that should be available at No. 26, No. 35 and even later in the draft.
There is a possibility that Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU) will be available in the second round. Otherwise, Farmer should be happy to take Allen Robinson (Penn State), Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Martavis Bryant (Clemson) or Brandon Coleman (Rutgers) off the board in the third round or later.
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