Amidst the swirling rumors around the NFL this week of a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players, the focus of many organizations has now shifted towards the start of free agency. It has been reported that once the new CBA is ratified by the owners, the teams will have a seventy-two hour period in which they will be able to re-sign their free agents. Commencing with this three day period, the official start of free agency will begin.
Like the Browns, many organizations will be looking to make major changes to their rosters. But, due to the current labor negotiations this year’s free agent market will be unique. It appears that the new CBA agreement will allow any free agent player who has been labeled “restricted” to become “unrestricted” and free to sign with whomever. For the Cleveland Browns, this new CBA deal presents two free agency dilemmas on which they must focus their immediate attention.
First off, all the Browns’ restricted free agents are now unrestricted, so they must take the seventy-two hour period to re-sign current players who they still want. This list probably includes cornerback Eric Wright, tight end Evan Moore, defensive end Jayme Mitchell, and offensive linemen Billy Yates and Floyd Womack. Certain people with knowledge of the situation agree that the Browns appear open to allowing Vickers, Elam, Trusnick, and Stuckey hit the open market.
Many will be upset with fan-favorite Lawrence Vickers leaving but the reality is that the Browns drafted fullback Owen Marecic, who will be able to contribute more than just run blocking skills. Elam and Trusnick will become victims of a new defensive coordinator whose scheme their skills do not translate with well. And finally, let’s face it, Stuckey never did much as a Brown, other than running three yard routes on third and ten.
The second dilemma facing the Browns free agency plan will be the influx of young talented players in the free agent market due to the new CBA deal that will not allow for restricted free agents. General Manager Tom Heckert has said before that the Browns will not be aggressive during free agency. But it is hard to believe that statement when one looks at all the holes that still need to be filled on the current roster.
The Browns will need to be assertive from the beginning of free agency. There will be no time for the front office and player agents to exchange contract numbers. Once the free agents enter the building, the Browns front office and coaches will need to do everything in their power to make sure those players do not leave without a signed contract.
Considering that during this time, the players that are under contract will be making their way back to Cleveland for organized team activities, it will be imperative that free agents are signed quickly. Also, the team doctors must be available to administer physicals so that the newly signed players can get acquainted with their teammates, coaches, and most importantly the playbook.
The thought that the Browns will sit back and wait for free agency to unravel seems a bit far-fetched, but many are under the impression that the Browns will try to sign as many as ten undrafted rookie free agents. The front office realizes that the team must get younger and the best way to go about that is to sign rookies who they think can make an immediate impact. But, what the Browns must not do is forget that there are many quality free agents on the market this off-season and it would be irresponsible not offer contracts to at least a few players.
With the new CBA deal, the wide receiver free agent market would be very enticing for the Browns; with players such as Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, and former Buckeye Santonio Holmes available. They really need to focus on the defensive side of the ball and try acquiring starting caliber players. The most likely targeted players will probably be Donte Whitner and Paul Posluszny because of their connection to new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who they both played under in Buffalo.
With Whitner and Posluszny, the Browns will get two young players who have great upside and are familiar will the new 4-3 defensive scheme. The defensive line will also be a priority but do not expect the Browns to overpay for a player such as Charles Johnson (Carolina Panthers) or Ray Edwards (Minnesota Vikings). Simply put, they need depth at both the defensive and offensive line but they will not spend big dollars on either of those two positions.
What gets lost in the whole scheme of things is that the Browns will still need to sign their 2011 draft picks. The reports are that player agents are expecting long hold-outs for their rookies because teams will be more focused on players that are not protected from signing with other clubs.
From here on out, this will be a very unique and interesting offseason for the Browns and the rest of the NFL. There will be many decisions made by teams that might have their fan base second-guessing them but every fan, player, coach, or anyone else associated with the NFL cannot help but feel relieved that the possibility of a full NFL season is becoming a reality.