NFL Free Agency: 7 Best Former Free Agents on the Browns Current Roster

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst IMay 18, 2011

NFL Free Agency: 7 Best Former Free Agents on the Browns Current Roster

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    With the 2011 NFL draft now behind us, Browns fans are eagerly looking forward to free agency to fill the team's remaining needs. Unfortunately due to lockout conditions, we have no idea when (or if) the free-agency market will open for business. 

    It's tough to speculate on who the Browns might bring in through free agency with conditions such as they are (though many of us have certainly tried).

    Still, we all have free agency on our minds, and the offseason rolls along. Since we can't actually make any moves on the open market at the moment, it seems like a good time to address the free-agency topic from a different angle: Current players on the Browns roster who were signed through free agency in the past. 

    Following are seven of the team's biggest contributors (or potential contributors in some cases) who came to the Browns through free agency. Some were URFAs or RFAs, and others were undrafted free agents. Not included here are players who were already in the Browns organization who later re-signed with the team after they entered free agency. 

    I believe the following seven are the most valuable former free agents currently with the team, though honorable mentions are in order for Robaire Smith, Brian Schaefering and if he ever gets healthy, Tony Pashos. 

    As always, your opinions are highly valued, so please share your thoughts on the players on the list or others who you think may have deserved to be there in the comments below.

1. TE Ben Watson

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    Probably the team's best current asset acquired through free agency, TE Ben Watson almost single-handedly carried the Browns' passing game last season. He led all receivers with 763 yards, 68 receptions and three touchdowns. 

    While the fact that he racked up the top statistics in all of those categories mostly speaks to how poorly the teams WRs performed in 2010, we can't ignore the fact that for a TE, Watson put up pretty good numbers just in his own right. 

    Watson was signed to a three-year deal in 2010 after leaving the Patriots through free agency. Obviously, it's always best to be skeptical about any player Bill Belichick allows to walk away, but it turned out that Watson was essentially a roster casualty. 

    At age 30, Watson has the benefit of eight years of experience in the league, but doesn't seem to be slowing down or having injury troubles yet. He didn't exactly come cheap on the free-agent market, but the contract didn't break the bank for the Browns either and so far, he's been well worth his price.

2. LB Marcus Benard

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    Earlier this week in a piece on potential breakout players, I discussed LB Marcus Benard as one of the team's best candidates for a breakout season. 

    Part of the reason for this was that though he is in just his third year in the NFL, he's already made tremendous improvements from year to year. What we didn't discuss there was that Benard isn't just a guy who has improved impressively from his rookie year to his third season—he's a guy who had a lot farther to go right off the bat. 

    That was, of course, the result of Benard going undrafted in 2009. The Browns signed him later as an undrafted free agent. No other undrafted free agent the team brought in that season is even still on the roster, let alone competing for a starting job. 

    That makes Benard one of the team's best players acquired through free agency. What makes signing Benard look even better is that, like all undrafted free agents, he came cheap. 

    Benard played in 15 games last season, made 28 tackles (18 solo) and had an impressive 7.5 sacks. Not bad for a guy no one thought was worth drafting just a few years ago.

3. OG Eric Steinbach

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    Another one of the best free-agent signings by the Browns in their recent history is OG Eric Steinbach, brought over from the division rival Cincinnati Bengals in 2007 on a seven-year contract. 

    On an offensive line that has had many, many woes over the last few years, Steinbach has been one of the better players there of late. Though he's 31 years old, he played all 16 games in 2009 and 2010 for the Browns, giving him the advantage of experience but few of the injury concerns attached to players approaching the 10-year mark in pro football. 

    Seven years seems like a long contract for a player who isn't a full-out All-Star, but Steinbach has held his own pretty well and proven his durability. Originally, he was a second-round pick for Cincinnati in 2003, and even at age 31, he appears to be coming close to living up to his original draft slot nine years later for the Browns.

4. LB Scott Fujita

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    LB Scott Fujita came to the Browns as a free agent in 2010 from the fresh-off-a-Super Bowl-win New Orleans Saints. A proven commodity on the field, Fujita quickly established himself as a valuable asset as a team leader as well.

    Fujita's actual performance in 2010 turned out to be a bit on the disappointing side. It wasn't that he didn't play well when he was on the field (he racked up 51 tackles {36 solo} and 3.5 sacks), but that he couldn't stay healthy enough to contribute for nearly half the season. 

    In the nine games he did play, Fujita was a huge asset both in terms of on-field leadership and purely in a football sense. Unfortunately, the other seven games he didn't play made many wonder if the signing might have been a mistake. 

    Personally, I can't agree with that. Obviously when the Browns signed Fujita, we expected him to be on the field and healthy for the majority of the season. Anything less than that certainly is a disappointment. However, in addition to playing very well in the games he was healthy enough to start, Fujita has been tremendously valuable in the lockerroom, on the sidelines and everywhere else as a team leader. 

    Fujita is 32, so some injury trouble was obviously a possibility. It will be disappointing and will somewhat decrease his value relative to what he's being paid if he can't stay healthy for most of 2011. But no matter what, Fujita will continue to bring immense value to the team through his leadership skills, whether he's playing every Sunday or not. That alone makes the Browns decision to sign him as a free agent a good one.

5. OG Billy Yates

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    OG Billy Yates was the former free agent now with the Browns who made this list by the slimmest margin. 

    We've all said it before, and I'll say it again: in terms of what he'll ultimately bring to the table, Yates is a wild card. The Browns have serious depth issues on the offensive line, so Yates is valuable even in a backup role. We won't know how valuable, however, until we see if Yates can succeed at nabbing a starting role on the line this season. 

    The odds aren't great on that, but if Yates is as good as he was at times in 2010 for the Browns, he could be the next guy down the depth chart at RG for the Browns behind the starter. Considering that that person might be Shawn Lauvao, who has struggled with injuries before, Yates could potentially see a lot of playing time even as a backup. 

    Yates was originally an undrafted free agent signed by the Miami Dolphins in 2003. He later went to the Patriots and was signed as a free agent by the Browns after the Patriots released him in 2009. 

    Yates has played just 14 games in the two seasons since he came to the Browns, and he's 31 years old, but based on what we saw last season, it appears Yates may still have something left in the tank. Further, considering how inexpensively he came through free agency, if Yates can even be a solid backup at OG in 2011, he'll have been well worth the money.

6. P Reggie Hodges

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    Punter Reggie Hodges is like the Orlando Cabrera of the NFL: he's played just about everywhere. 

    Hodges was drafted by the Rams in 2005 and has since played for the Eagles Colts, Seahawks, Patriots, Jets and finally the Titans, who released him in 2009. He was then signed by the Browns, who needed another option at punter after an injury to Dave Zastudil. 

    As it turned out, Hodges became more than just an injury replacement; he became the team's full-time punter on his own merit. In 78 punts last season, Hodges averaged 43.9 yards per punt, good for 13th in the league. Not exactly knock-your-cleats-off yardage but pretty darn good for a journeyman special teamer who came with a lot of experience at a relatively low cost. 

    And then there's that added appeal that Hodges earned last season with his 68-yard fake punt against the Saints, which you can watch here. You know, in case we need an extra running back this season. 

7. WR/KR Josh Cribbs

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    Among the best undrafted free agents not just on the Browns but in the league currently is certainly kick returner and wide receiver Josh Cribbs.

    Given Cribbs' performance over the last few years, it comes as a shock to many that Cribbs actually went undrafted in 2005 and was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent that April. Cribbs made his mark immediately, setting a franchise record of 1,094 return yards.

    He signed a six-year contract extension with the Browns in 2006, and another extension for three years in 2010.

    While Cribbs' role with the Browns for the future is in limbo, with kick return rules being changed and the fact that his attempts to play receiver last season didn't go all that well, there's no denying he's about the top level of talent you can get out of an undrafted free agent.

    His potential for versatility is perhaps his greatest asset - despite the change in kickoff rules, Cribbs still has a chance to make an impact for the Browns as a receiver or in wildcat packages, and many think he might do well out of the backfield.