The Cleveland Browns were one of the most aggressive teams in the NFL at the start of free agency this season. This was a departure from the past few years when they stood idly on the sidelines and picked up the scraps.
But after shelling out four big contracts, where do the Browns go from here?
By signing Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Ben Tate and Andrew Hawkins the Browns upgraded four key positions. Former Brown D’Qwell Jackson was solid but never the playmaker at the inside linebacker position that Dansby has been. T.J. Ward and Whitner could be called a wash at the safety position except for the fact that Whitner has a longer track record of success.
After the Browns traded Trent Richardson last season they used a stable of running backs that was shamefully ineffective. Tate will take the reins as the feature back and hopefully revive a Browns rushing attack which has been dormant since Peyton Hillis rushed for nearly 1,200 yards in 2011.
Hawkins seems to be a clear upgrade over Davone Bess, who had his worst season as a pro with the Browns in 2013 before being released.
The Browns maintain that the signings they have made all fit one mold: they play like Cleveland Browns.
“Like Coach [Mike Pettine] has articulated, we want guys that play like Browns, and we feel like every player we’ve added in free agency embodies the characteristics we want: Passion, toughness, relentlessness, competitiveness, accountability and productivity,” said general manager Ray Farmer in a statement to the media.
What grade would you give the Browns' free agent class so far?
For years, saying someone was "playing like a Cleveland Brown” carried a negative connotation, but Farmer and Pettine want to change that. Still, more moves are needed if they want to make a serious push in the right direction.
Free agency is still open and there are still plenty of players available. This is the time where teams can sign quality depth. Depth is the key to winning games down the stretch in the NFL.
The Browns need more depth on their offensive line as well as for their linebacking corps. Both of these positions will be addressed in the draft, but there are still quality rotation guys available to snag.
At guard, the Browns should look at Jacksonville's Uche Nwaneri. He just turned 30 years old and while he has never been one of the best guards in the NFL, he has always been consistent and durable. He has started 15 or more games in all but one season since playing for the Jaguars.
For a low price tag, he would create quality competition with John Greco, Jason Pinkston and whomever the Browns draft.
They should also continue their reported pursuit of inside linebacker Arthur Moats. Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer recently reported that Moats doesn’t appear to be on the team’s “front burner” right now. If he's still available after his visit with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns should take another stab at the 26-year-old who played under Pettine with the Buffalo Bills last season.
Steelers to meet with free agent LB Arthur Moats, probably on Monday. RB LaGarrette Blount pushed back to Friday.— Alan Robinson (@arobinson_Trib) March 23, 2014
While the Browns could certainly use another good cornerback, they will have to find him in the draft. It is slim pickings among defensive backs in the free-agent market right now.
I fully expect the Browns to select a quarterback, wide receiver and guard with their first three picks. What remains to be seen is in what order that happens. Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com predicts the Browns will select Greg Robinson from Auburn with the fourth overall pick and play him at guard instead of tackle.
They shunned the pro days of Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles (Johnny Manziel’s pro day is March 27).
And they refused to say why.
Are they being overly coy? Are they being derelict? Or have they simply moved beyond taking a quarterback in the first round of the draft?
CBSSports.com disagrees and has every one of their analysts predicting the Browns select a quarterback at fourth overall—they just can’t agree on which quarterback it will be.
Three analysts have the Browns selecting Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater; Rob Rang has them selecting Central Florida's Blake Bortles, and Pat Kirwan has them taking Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
One thing is for sure, they need to find someone to compete with Brian Hoyer for the starting quarterback job. As of now they would be handing the position over to a guy with four career starts and seven career touchdown passes in five years.
They also have a desperate need for a wide receiver to line up opposite Josh Gordon. Cleveland could choose to select Clemson’s Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick or take someone later. Perhaps the Browns will take Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, Penn State’s Allen Robinson or LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. with the 26th pick.
The Browns should, however, strongly consider using that pick on Xavier Su’a Filo, the guard out of UCLA. He is a strong, athletic guard who will fit new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme well. If the Browns try to wait until the second round he will probably be gone. There will still be plenty of receivers available with the 35th pick.
Later in the draft they need to address the lack of depth at cornerback as well. There are starters to be had in the first three or four rounds, so if the Browns fail to draft one in the first two days of the draft, they will look very similar to how they did entering camp last season. This seems highly unlikely as Pettine’s defense is predicated on dominant corners and aggressive linebackers.
Every team has work to do in the offseason, but it always seems as though the Browns have the most. They started free agency aggressively, and now it is time to be selective and thorough as they round out this period and enter the draft.
Even though Browns owner Jimmy Haslam appears to have committed to Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer for the long haul, this offseason will likely define their tenure as leaders of the Browns.