Early Free-Agent Contracts the Browns Must Consider

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2021

Early Free-Agent Contracts the Browns Must Consider

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns enter the 2021 offseason with clear, defined needs. 

    Unlike many offseasons in Cleveland where the roster could use upgrades pretty much everywhere, the team is headed in the right direction. 2020 was a big year to establish their legitimacy, 2021 is all about building a bonafide contender. 

    Much of the work to be done has to be on the defensive side of the football. While Kevin Stefanski brought an offensive identity and the best in Baker Mayfield, the defense left a lot to be desired at times. 

    The draft will help some. Mayfield's payday is coming sooner rather than later. He is entering the fourth year of his contract, and the bill for his fantastic 2020 campaign is due soon. 

    That leaves the Browns with a small window to still spend like a team with a quarterback on a rookie deal. According to Over the Cap's calculations, factoring for a $176 million salary cap, the Browns are expected to start with around $17.9 million in effective cap space. 

    Between restructuring, cuts and trades, there are always ways to carve out some more space, and the official salary cap hasn't been decided after the COVID-19 pandemic has left the NFL's finances in a state of flux. So while it's unclear how much money the Browns will actually have to spend, they are currently in the top 10 of teams with cap space. 

    With a rough feel for how much money they have and an eye on addressing their needs, here's a look at some early targets the Browns should consider and what a potential offer should look like. 

LB Jayon Brown

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    The Browns could really use upgrades at all three levels. That includes the linebacking corps, where a young group took steps in the right direction in 2020 but needs a veteran presence and more competition for snaps. 

    Mack Wilson had a rough second season, only making eight starts and finishing as the 74th-ranked linebacker that Pro Football Focus graded this season. B.J. Goodson served as a veteran run-stuffer in the middle but struggled when asked to play in coverage

    If the Browns are to contend with the likes of Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, an athletic group of linebackers who can cover running backs and tight ends while spying on those passers is essential. 

    The draft is an obvious avenue to obtain those players, but Jayon Brown is a player who can help and has a proven track record in the league. Brown's best season came in 2018 when he had 97 tackles, 10 quarterback hits and six sacks. 

    That's great pass-rush production for a middle linebacker in a 3-4 defense. In Cleveland's base 4-3 alignment, he could play either the Sam or Will positions while offering pass rush off the edge in sub packages. 

    Brown has also proved useful in coverage. 2020 was a bit of a down year, but the previous two seasons, he allowed a passer rating of 67.1 and 77.7, respectively. 

    The Titans will likely do what they can to keep Brown, but they are $7.4 million over the projected salary cap right now, so that could be difficult. 

    Contract Offer: 3 years, $38 million

DT Johnathan Hankins

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    This isn't the splashiest pick or even a huge difference-maker, but the Browns have a lot of talent on their own roster they'll need to sign in the near future, so prudent decision-making will be key this season. 

    One free agent they'll have to make a tough call on will be Larry Ogunjobi. The 6'3" 305-pound defensive tackle has been a consistent starter over the last three seasons. He has played reasonably well against the run while helping out the pass rush with 13.5 sacks in those three seasons. 

    Ogunjobi's market value, according to Spotrac, is $9.3 million in annual average salary. Paired with the $13.6 million that fellow defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is set to make if he isn't cut, it's a huge investment on the interior of the defensive line. 

    With as many holes filled across the defense, the Browns are going to have to find some bargains who won't make headlines but will fill in admirably. 

    Hankins could be one of those players. The 28-year-old heads to free agency with eight years of starting experience at defensive tackle, and while he won't offer any pass-rush upside, he's been average to above-average against the run. 

    Having two defensive tackles on the inside with pass-rush potential is a luxury the Browns might not be able to afford, but signing the former Ohio State product to a deal to come back to the state could be something both sides should be interested in. 

    Contract Offer: 2 years, $6 million

CB Mike Hilton

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Whether through the draft or free agency, the cornerback room is one that will undergo changes in Cleveland. Terrance Mitchell (99.4 percent) and Kevin Johnson (53.3 percent) were among the top three most-played cornerbacks in the Browns' rotation last season alongside Denzel Ward. 

    Both are set to hit free agency and both may have played themselves into bigger contracts than the Browns are willing or able to pay. That leaves the Browns hoping that M.J. Stewart and/or Greedy Williams can step into those roles. 

    Williams missed all of this season with a shoulder injury and is largely an unknown heading into next season. 

    In Mike Hilton, the Browns could solidify another cornerback spot. He's an excellent slot cornerback and would make a lot of sense as the team's full-time nickel.

    In Pittsburgh, he's been good in coverage and has the added element of being a strong player against the run and on blitzes. According to PFF, only Jamal Adams and Budda Baker have generated more pressures among defensive backs since 2017. 

    In four seasons with the Steelers, he has 32 passes defended and seven interceptions showcasing his ability to break on the ball. At 5'9" 184 pounds, Hilton plays with an attitude and aggression that would help set the tone for the defense moving forward. 

    His limitations of not really playing outside should keep his price relative to other corners who are more versatile, but Hilton is still a defensive weapon. 

    The fact they'd be prying him away from a division rival is just an added perk. 

    Contract Offer: 3 years, $15 million