What in the World Are the Cleveland Browns Doing in Free Agency?

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What in the World Are the Cleveland Browns Doing in Free Agency?
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Sometimes it feels as though the Cleveland Browns operate as a franchise that is simply happy to be part of the NFL. They don't need fancy things like high-quality players, a functional front office or wireless Internet, because unless the league adopts a relegation system, they're entrenched as members of the club. 

Kind of surprising. You'd think an organization that once ceased to exist for a three-year period would be more aware of its mortality. But alas, the Browns continue to phone it in. 

On Wednesday, for instance, a Browns team that, according to Over the Cap, entered free agency with an excess of $40 million to spend allowed four of its starters—center Alex Mack, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and safety Tashaun Gipson—to walk, while signing nobody. 

Nobody in-house...nobody on the open market. 

What the Browns gained and lost Wednesday
Category Gained Lost
Seasons 0 19
Starts 0 228
Pro Bowls 0 4
Interceptions 0 14
Receptions 0 109
Touchdowns 0 10

Pro-Football-Reference.com

A tongue-in-cheek theory as to why the Browns didn't show up for the first day of class: The NFL is a cool club, so why risk ruffling feathers by trying to compete with the cooler, older members? Keep in mind, the current incarnation of this franchise is just 17 years old. It's an impressionable age—easy to get caught up in a crowd that'll convince you that "not trying" is the best way to be accepted.

Of course, it's also possible the league forgot to notify the Browns that free agency began at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday or that a front office that typifies the metaphor of having too many cooks in the kitchen simply got confused. 

Maybe new executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown thought new chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta was handling free agency, and maybe DePodesta thought new head coach Hue Jackson was in charge. It's possible they all thought relatively new owner/meddler Jimmy Haslam was taking care of things. And Haslam may have been dealing instead with the latest fraud charges levied against former high-level employees of his company—Pilot Flying J.

Yeah, maybe it was all a big misunderstanding.

Or maybe the Browns, who have more cap space than all but three teams in football, per Over the Cap, and are coming off a three-win season, felt they didn't need Mack (a 30-year-old three-time Pro Bowler who didn't miss a game in six of his seven seasons with the team) or Schwartz (a 26-year-old whom Pro Football Focus deemed the best right tackle in the entire league last season) or Benjamin (a 26-year-old who was one of only three receivers in football with four 50-yard catches in 2015) or Gipson (a 25-year-old who accounted for 28 percent of the team's interceptions over the last three years). 

Highest-graded right tackles, 2015
Right tackle Grade
1. Mitchell Schwartz 18.7
2. Ryan Schraeder 18.5
3. Marcus Gilbert 9.5
4. Derek Newton 6.5
5. Zach Strief 6.4

Pro Football Focus

Maybe they just figured they'd be better off without those guys—better off with their backups, center Dennis Arceo, right tackle Calvin Baker, wide receiver Michael Murphy and safety Ben Whitehead.

Don’t know any of those guys? That’s because I made those names up using FakeNameGenerator.com. Their actual replacements for the time being would probably be Garth Gerhart, Austin Pasztor, Taylor Gabriel and Jordan Poyer, but I won't blame you for failing to recognize most if not all of those names as well.

You get the point, because after all, all three of the departed offensive players participated in every game last year, and Mack and Schwartz didn't miss a snap.

But by all indications, the Browns are allergic to stability, so who can blame 'em?

Another maybe. Maybe they figured they could simply replace all of those guys in the draft, rather than perusing a free-agent market that has now been picked over by 31 vultures—a particularly odd approach considering all the money they have to spend.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It's one thing for a perennial playoff team like the Green Bay Packers to be fiscally conservative within the confines of the salary cap and floor, but how does a team coming off a 3-13 season justify not spending money on free agents who could at least raise the short-term bar? And before you answer that question, consider that the Browns are worth $1.5 billion; Haslam $2.3 billion. 

I do understand Super Bowls aren't won in March, and free agency can do more harm than good. I understand good teams usually become good—and stay good—by drafting well rather than by breaking the bank in free agency. 

But the one thing teams like the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers and their traditionally conservative peers do early in every offseason is take care of their own by re-signing the players they prided themselves on drafting in the first place.

Most Browns interceptions, 2013-15
Player Picks
1. Tashaun Gipson 13
2. Joe Haden 7
3. Buster Skrine 5
4. Karlos Dansby 4

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Browns drafted Mack in 2009, while Schwartz and Benjamin were drafted in 2012. That same year, they signed Gipson as an undrafted free agent—two years later, he was in the Pro Bowl.

Why let all of them escape? 

The Browns didn't have to overpay a bunch of overhyped outside free agents Wednesday, and they didn't have to re-sign all four of the starters who got away. But when you're already a terrible team with a dismal reputation, you can ill afford so much loss with no return. 

Throw in that troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel inexplicably remains on the roster—despite the team all but confirming over a month ago that he'd be released at the start of the new league year—and you have yourself a perfect storm in the world of Browns football.  

And, yes, it's easy to pour gasoline on a dumpster fire. There's no doubt that's what I'm doing. This is simply your semiannual reminder that the Cleveland Browns are doing it all wrong.

Maybe we do need relegation.  

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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