April 18, 2014

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Browns: GM Heckert will target free agents, won’t stray from plan

Browns general manager Tom Heckert wouldn’t make a good politician. He doesn’t seek media attention or speak in sound bites.

And he doesn’t flip-flop.

With NFL free agency set to start Tuesday at 4 p.m., Heckert reminded reporters and fans last week that he doesn’t believe in chasing a bundle of big-name, high-priced free agents. He has his philosophy for building a team and he’s not going to change.

He says devoting too many resources to free agency isn’t the way to build a consistent winner. He cites the Giants and Packers — the last two Super Bowl champions — as examples. Perennial powers and nemeses Pittsburgh and Baltimore also didn’t rely on free agency for their foundations.

“You guys know how I feel about free agency and I think that’s kind of an organizational deal,” Heckert said. “We’re not going to go crazy in free agency. We’re not going to do it.

“You look throughout history. I know Green Bay didn’t sign one free agent when they won two years ago. I don’t think the Giants signed anybody, or at least anybody you’ve ever heard of, as a free agent. You don’t win football games by signing a bunch of free agents. You just don’t.”

The logic may be sound, but it doesn’t silence the screams from a frustrated fan base. The fans see a lack of talent on the Browns and want them to add stars they’ve admired on other teams.

They spend the months after the season plotting a strategy to turn the Browns into a contender. Just sign players X, Y and Z, and the wins will follow.

Heckert makes similar plans and knows that free agency can be a useful tool for stocking a roster. But he believes in using self-control.

“Are there guys that we’re targeting? Certainly,” he said. “Now can they help you? Certainly. And if there’s guys that we think can help us, we’ll definitely do it.

“But it’s easier said than done. Obviously there’s a few guys that 31 other teams are interested in as well. So if we get them, it would be great. But let’s say we don’t get the guys we want, we’re not going to say, ‘Oh, no, we didn’t get these guys so we have to go sign three other guys just to sign them.’ I think that’s the wrong way to do it.”

Heckert said he doesn’t get tempted to abandon his philosophy. But he may feel a different sense of urgency after losing out on Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III when the Redskins were able to pull off a trade with the Rams to acquire the No. 2 pick in the draft. They admitted they need an upgrade at quarterback, and their ceiling on improvement is limited if they don’t have a franchise quarterback.

Heckert is entering his third offseason in charge. He’s transformed the roster from old to young and has improved the overall talent and depth. But plenty of holes remain, as the 4-12 record attests.

Heckert believes some of the best free-agent signings escape the radar. They’re second-tier players who come in and fill a role, or backups for another team that become starters.

“More guys like that probably help you than a $10 million a year guy,” he said.

Cornerback Dimitri Patterson was such an acquisition last year. Heckert signed him to a one-year deal and he played about half the snaps at nickelback. He’s a free agent again, and the Browns wish to keep him.

When the dust settles at the end of the week, the most expensive free agents will have new homes. There’s a decent chance none will be in Cleveland.

And Heckert is OK with that.

“I go back to my old rule: There’s always a reason these guys are available,” he said. “There’s something there.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.