Patient Free-Agent, Draft Approach Can Make Browns Super Bowl Contenders

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 1, 2021

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb line up during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Rams won 20-13. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
David Dermer/Associated Press

Rashard Higgins raced to the end zone as the Cleveland Browns trailed the Kansas City Chiefs by 13 points in the NFL's divisional round of the playoffs. A touchdown would have swung all momentum in the Browns' favor as halftime neared. Instead, a questionable—ahem, illegal—hit by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen jarred the ball loose, and the wide receiver fumbled it out of the end zone.

For all intents and purposes, the turnover ended the Browns' upstart 2020 campaign. However, the loss didn't derail an ascending team now counted among the AFC's best.

General manager Andrew Berry can now help the organization build on last year's success, but he and head coach Kevin Stefanski must remain patient with a roster that has the potential to become a perennial Super Bowl contender. 

A disappointing outcome against the then-defending Super Bowl champions shouldn't outweigh the bigger picture. The Browns finally started to realize their potential. After a dismal season in which many pegged them to finally make the leap thanks to the Odell Beckham Jr. acquisition and the subsequent plummet under Freddie Kitchens' direction, the long-time league doormat finally rose above its previous station. 

Cleveland finished 11-5 and throttled the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the postseason's opening round. If the ball bounced differently or Higgins maintained possession, the conversation would be much different right now.

It should be anyhow. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Before the Browns make a single move this offseason, they already have: 

  • The league's best running back tandem in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. 
  • The NFL's best offensive line. 
  • Two superstar wide receivers in Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
  • A regular Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Myles Garrett. 
  • An emerging franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield who finished fourth overall in positively graded throws last season, per Pro Football Focus

It's a fantastic young core to build around as the team prepares for the new league year, free agency and the draft. Center JC Tretter is the only individual among the positions mentioned who has already turned 30, and the average age of the 11 relevant players is 26.

The mistake many franchises have made in the past is believing they are one or two players away from winning it all. The Browns can't think along those lines. After years of losing and downright organizational buffoonery, Berry and Co. are trying to build a lasting culture in which winning at a high level isn't just possible but expected. 

Progression to that level starts with internal team-building. There's only one Tom Brady a franchise can sign to change the entire culture and immediately claim a championship. Instead, an emphasis on drafting, development and re-signing homegrown talent remains the surest path toward long-term success. 

As such, the Browns' next steps involve internal discussions regarding potential restructures and extensions, and the former is the obvious starting point.

Currently, Cleveland is $25.7 million under the projected 2021 salary cap, according to Spotrac. Typically, the amount of financial flexibility the Browns possess would allow them to make multiple moves. However, the team also understands potential rollover cap will be important as certain balloon payments come due.

For example, the Browns are gliding on previous rollover cap space since their actual active spending already exceeds the expected salary cap. 

Berry's first calls this offseason should have been to the agents of Beckham, Landry and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. The three veterans hold a combined $44.2 million in salary-cap charges—roughly the equivalent of 24 percent of the total cap space for the upcoming season. 

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

"If you have high-earning veterans and you aren't proactively approaching teams about restructuring deals [this offseason], you are doing a disservice," an NFL agent told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano.

Potential restructures help both parties. The players could get signing-bonus money, new guarantees or extensions while the team can massage the numbers and obtain salary-cap relief. Considering the drastically changing market, these types of moves have become even more important. If the player is resistant to a restructured deal and the organization decides to go in another direction, he may not be valued as highly on the open market, thus losing a significant amount of money. 

OBJ, Landry and Richardson remain vital pieces of Cleveland's puzzle. Yet the organization requires extra wiggle room as it enters negotiations with those due extensions and well into free agency. 

Mayfield, Chubb, guard Wyatt Teller and cornerback Denzel Ward are now in the first window of their rookie deals to negotiate contract extensions, and all four are candidates to be paid handsomely. Granted, extensions to their current deals won't significantly affect the team's short-term spending, but this year's expenditures could have a drastic effect on the rollover cap to eventually afford these specific deals. 

By entering into negotiations with each this offseason, the front office would position itself to gain favorable terms. As each looks for his first big payday, the market isn't nearly as strong as it once was, and each of those mentioned, except for Mayfield, missed games this past season with injuries. Even in the quarterback's case, the franchise can save tens of millions in total contractual value by approaching him now instead of waiting through his fifth-year option, as Dawgland's Jack Duffin noted. 

Once possible restructured deals and extensions are out of the way, the Browns must address their in-house free agents. 

Of their 19 unrestricted free agents, Higgins is the only priority. Since Mayfield entered the league three seasons ago, he and Higgins have built a strong rapport. When Beckham suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6 of the 2020 campaign, the 26-year-old stepped in and became the offense's most reliable target.

More importantly, he wants to return. 

"Don't give up on me. I didn't give up on you," Higgins said during an interview on ESPN Cleveland. "Tell Andrew [Berry] to send the papers, and I'll sign where I need to sign."

Linebacker B.J. Goodson, defensive end Olivier Vernon, safety Karl Joseph and cornerback Kevin Johnson could also be brought back at the right price (i.e. short-term, prove-it deals).

After the Browns handle their in-house business, they can turn their attention to available free agents.

Berry can take advantage of the shifting market with the strategy he employed last year. Goodson, Joseph, Johnson and defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who opted out of the 2020 season, each signed one-year deals. With an expected disappearance of the NFL's middle class thanks to the shrinking market, more veterans should sign similar contracts and attempt to cash in again next offseason. 

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

As good as the offense was at points last season, Cleveland's defense didn't hold up its end of the bargain, and that's where the team can improve most for the upcoming campaign. The Browns finished in the bottom half of the league in passing, scoring and total defense. 

Without greatly putting stress on the team's long-term financial status, Berry can fill multiple holes and not splurge in free agency. Defensive end, cornerback, linebacker, safety and defensive tackle must all be addressed to varying degrees. 

By making fiscally sound free-agent decisions, Cleveland can let the draft come to it instead of trying to force the situation. Berry shouldn't feel compelled to invest in a specific position.

Since the franchise currently selects 26th overall, drafting the best defensive prospect available should be an easy decision. At that juncture, the individual's positional designation shouldn't matter because the team should have already made smart choices before the event begins. 

Philosophically, the Browns value cornerback and pass-rusher far more than any other position on that side of the ball. As of now, both need significant help. Even if it addresses both prior to the draft, Cleveland can consider reinvesting to provide quality depth and future progression. 

A year ago, Cleveland had to select a left tackle with the 10th overall pick because it didn't have anyone of note at the position. Fortunately, the offensive tackle class was strong. The front office decided on Jedrick Wills Jr., and he put together a solid rookie campaign. But it's preferable to be completely open to selecting whichever top talent slides down the board, especially in the back half of the first round. 

If the Browns achieve everything laid out before them, they won't be dubbed an "offseason winner" as they have multiple times in the past. The idea of not splurging and staying within their means certainly isn't sexy. Yet the slow-and-steady approach is the surest way for Cleveland to continue rising from the ashes of an 0-16 campaign less than four years ago and achieve a Super Bowl standard. 

    

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.