The NFL lockout has produced an astounding number of negative side effects on the 2011 offseason, one of the most notable being the lack of a free agent market. Uncertainty about the future has never been higher for teams like the Browns, who have a number of needs best filled through free agency and have indicated that they'll be aggressive bidders on the open market this year. That is, if that market is ever actually open.
The lockout has forced us all into a "hope for the best, prepare for the worst" mentality this offseason. While we have to prepare for the worst to protect ourselves from the mental anguish that would come with there being no NFL season in 2011, we also have to prepare for the fact that this just might work out, and thus the free agent market will open for business prior to the start of the season. And depending on the manner in which the lockout is resolved, it could open with little notice and in a big hurry.
In light of that, I'm getting our shortlist of free agent desirables ready now. Following are slides of each position the Browns may want to pursue in free agency (WR, RB, OL, DL, LB, S, CB), and a list of players at each position who could be a good fit for the Browns. Note that these are not necessarily the "best" players at each spot, but rather those who are the best combination of (hopefully) realistically attainable and a good fit for the Cleveland system.
Obviously, we won't be able to sign a candidate for each of these positions this season (I'd guess 3-4 players out of the entire list, tops), but it's good to have plenty of options. This list does not include 2010 Browns players currently eligible for free agency or undrafted free agents.
Please share your opinions on any additions you'd like to see included in the next installment of this list in the comments below!
Between drafting Greg Little and revamping their offense to a West Coast System more compatible with the receivers already on the roster, the Browns needs at WR are not nearly as intense as they were back in January. WR is no longer the top (or even close to the top) priority for the Browns in free agency this offseason.
Still, there's a good argument for picking up an additional WR in free agency anyway, as the receiving corps as it stands is far from perfect and could definitely use some veteran leadership and experience.
Tops on my list at WR at the moment is ex-Charger Malcom Floyd. Floyd is a hard worker and a never-say-die kind of guy who didn't get his chance to start for the Chargers until 2009, when he was 27 years old. He's done pretty well since, putting up 717 yards on 37 receptions with six TDs in 11 games in 2010. That makes for two 700+ yard seasons in a row for Floyd, averaging over 17 YPC in each of those.
Whether San Diego will let him go and whether he'll be affordable is questionable (the Browns may need to go for a lesser WR here), but if the price is right, he would be a fantastic addition to the receiving corps.
Also on the radar is Arizona's Steve Breaston. He's an RFA who was offered a first-round tender by the Cardinals, but all signs seem to indicate that he'll hit the open market. Breaston put up respectable numbers last season and while he won't be blowing anyone's doors off this year, he should have enough left to contribute.
And don't forget about Santonio Holmes. Character issues and cost will likely keep him off the Browns' wish list, but he would certainly deliver on the field.
Ideally, the Browns will have a healthy Montario Hardesty in 2011 and won't need to add a RB through free agency. Given Hardesty's injury history though, that's highly unlikely.
That leaves the Browns in a tight spot. Running back feels, on the surface, like it isn't the place where they should be spending their money. But in reality, when (barring a healthy Hardesty), re-signing Mike Bell is the best option they'll have to spell Peyton Hillis and keep from wearing him down to the point of ineffectiveness by week eight, they'll likely need to do something on the open market to solve their problem and ease the burden on Hillis.
My first choice would be Miami's Ronnie Brown. He's going to be a bit pricey and he's 29 (in other words about 60 in running back years), but he'd be a great fit to spell Hillis and give the Browns some more diverse options in their ground game.
Brown legged it out through all 16 games last season for the Dolphins, logging 200 carries, 734 yards and 5 TDs. I see Brown as a solid, reliable and guaranteed to contribute kind of guy. He won't be cheap, but he's not at the top of the RB market either.
Aside from Brown, there is of course Darren Sproles, who is certainly tempting, and Cedric Benson, who in my opinion is decidedly less so. As more under-the-radar options, I like New Orleans' Ladell Betts and New England's BenJarvis Green-Ellis, who seems to be getting far less attention than he should.
The Browns situation on the offensive line is one of the most uncertain of any spot on the field. If everyone is healthy, they won't really need much help here. But let's face it; when have you ever seen that happen?
The left side should be fine in terms of starters, but it does lack depth. The right side is much, much shakier. There's no depth there at all, and those who would ideally be the starters have serious health issues (Pashos and Lauvao).
That means the Browns need help here no matter what, even if the starters begin the season healthy and it's just a matter of building depth.
My top pick is probably Saints guard Carl Nicks, a 2010 Pro Bowler who was excellent in helping New Orleans' ground game succeed. He's a good fit for a team like the Browns that relies heavily on the run, and he's a great power blocker and adequate in pass protection.
There's a good argument that the Browns have greater needs at tackle than guard though, so consideration has to be given to Washington's Jammal Brown, Atlanta's Tyson Clabo, and maybe most of all, Tampa Bay's Davin Joseph.
Joseph was injured and his season thus ended early last year, but he would be a great pickup for the Browns because he's versatile enough to play both tackle and guard. It seems doubtful that Tampa Bay would let him go, but if they do, the Browns should be all over him.
The Browns made huge strides on their defensive line in the 2011 draft, slashing their needs on the front seven from what they were back at the start of the offseason. Given how well they did improving the line through the draft, this went form being one of the highest priority areas for the Browns in free agency to one on the lower end.
Still, if nothing else, they absolutely have to build up some depth here. As it is they currently have barely enough players to fill are seven starting spots, and if anyone gets injured, they'll be in a world of trouble. Add to that the fact that it looks like several of their starters on d-line will be rookies, and thus they'll need to build some depth because of that too in order to provide insurance for players who are essentially unknowns in professional football.
Heading up the list here are DE Mathias Kiwanuka and DT Brandon Mebane. I've had my eye on Kiwanuka since my first pass at a list like this back in January. He was an explosive pass rusher on the Giants' impressive 2010 front seven who has great bursts of speed and a nose for the quarterback. New York is overloaded in this area of their team, so the likelihood that he's available is pretty good.
Mebane is a solid DT option who should be particularly attractive to the Browns thanks to the Holmgren-Seahawks connection. Seattle was in the top half of the league at stopping the run when Mebane was playing and in the bottom five when he wasn't. Sounds like a guy I want on my team, if the Seahawks are willing to let him walk.
Mike Bell and Paul Posluszny
Among those spots where the Browns needs weren't resolved in the draft is linebacker. The team has some talent here but also still needs help. They didn't make progress with that in the draft, so it is now critical that the Browns grab a linebacker or two in free agency.
I've had my eye on Buffalo's Paul Posluszny since January. Posluszny is just 26 years old and kept the Bills' struggling defense afloat last season practically on his own. He might not be an "elite" caliber linebacker, but he was among the best ILBs at shutting down the run. The way he was able to shut down Peyton Hillis in last year's Browns-Bills tilt was proof of that.
Coming in at a very close second is Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, another guy I'd love to see in a Browns uniform in 2011.
Another guy who has to be mentioned is Minnesota's Chad Greenway. With Minnesota having financial issues and essentially entering a rebuilding period, Greenway seems likely to be available. The Browns had trouble following through on pressuring the quarterback last season, and Greenway would be a tremendous help with that.
He's an excellent playmaker at the line of scrimmage and around the pocket, is among the league's best against the run, and is an experienced player in the 4/3. He'd be pricey, but he could be well worth it.
The Browns have what could be considered two of the league's best defensive backs in CB Joe Haden and S T.J. Ward and some decent depth beyond that, so the secondary isn't exactly the top area of need for them in the free agent market.
Still, I wouldn't exactly say they're all set there either. There is some decent depth at the position, but not as much as there appears to be on paper, and much of the quality of depth depends on older players staying healthy (like Sheldon Brown), troubled players overcoming their issues (Eric Wright), veterans being re-signed (Abe Elam) and rookies stepping up (Buster Skrine).
Thus it seems like a good idea to pick up some insurance in the backfield on the open market if finances allow for it.
My number-one guy here is SS Quintin Mikell. Formerly with the Eagles, he has a connection to Heckert, which has proved to be a good facilitator for trades and free agent acquisitions thus far in Heckert's tenure with the Browns. He's an impact safety who is extremely aggressive on blitzes, an area where the Browns could use some help. It may also be worth keeping an eye on Baltimore's Dawan Landry San Diego's Eric Weddle, should their respective teams allow them to walk away.
At cornerback, I like Atlanta's Brent Grimes best (or have we taken enough from the Falcons already this offseason given the first round draft robbery?!) Grimes has 11 interceptions in the last two seasons and was a Pro Bowl invitee last year. Rounding out the list of CBs who might be of interest for the Browns are the Chiefs' Brandon Carr, Washington's Carlos Rodgers, and Baltimore's Chris Carr.