October 21, 2014

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Browns analysis: Receiver should be No. 1 priority in free agency

The Browns, coming off another 4-12 season, have needs across the roster.

Free agency begins today at 4 p.m. and is the first avenue to address those.

General manager Tom Heckert has vowed to “not go crazy” signing free agents.

It may not be the Bermuda Triangle, but how these three points intersect will begin to chart the course for the 2012 season and beyond.

I believe Heckert when he says he’ll stick to his philosophy of building through the draft and not overspend for other teams’ castoffs. But that doesn’t mean he can’t improve the team in the next week or two with a streamlined plan, an aggressive approach and the willingness to overpay slightly.

Here’s my blueprint for the Browns, who are $17.4 million under the $120.6 million salary cap.

Bring in a wideout

The Browns have had problems at receiver for years. It’s time they look for the cure in free agency.

Greg Little was productive as a rookie in 2011, but he needs help. If the Browns find the right complement, Little, Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi would all benefit from another threat on the outside.

Heckert and his scouts better have spent the last two months watching film of the Saints, because that’s where two of the top free-agent receivers played in 2011 — Robert Meachem and Marques Colston.

Meachem is my first choice for the Browns. He has the speed required to be a consistent deep threat, which is an element that’s been missing from the Cleveland offense. He has put up good numbers (84 catches, 1,258 yards, 11 touchdowns the last two years) despite playing in an offense that spreads the ball to multiple targets, and he’s 27 years old.

Colston has been more productive (80 catches, 1,143 yards, eight TDs in 2011) and would also fit, but he’s a year older and has battled injuries.

If the first call goes to Meachem, the second should be to Indianapolis’ Pierre Garcon, who starred at Mount Union. He’s only 25 and is coming off a season in which he had 70 catches, 947 yards and six touchdowns, despite a series of bad quarterbacks.

Let Peyton go

I know the thought of watching running back Peyton Hillis walk away and go play for someone else is difficult for a lot of fans. But it’s the right move for the Browns.

Hillis was way more trouble than he was worth in 2011 and turned off many people inside the organization, including teammates. Even in his one good year, 2010, he wasn’t an elite back.

So the Browns shouldn’t chase Hillis. If he tests the market, finds the grass greener in Cleveland and is willing to play for the minimum and incentives, then the Browns can think about re-signing him. But he’s certainly not worth a long-term deal or much guaranteed money.

Yes, the Browns will have to find another back to join Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. But that’s why there’s a third round in the draft.

Out like Flynn

With Robert Griffin III no longer an option, the Browns must be taking a second look at Green Bay free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn. He’s considered the best available quarterback next to Peyton Manning, is 26 years old and would fit seamlessly into coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense.

But Flynn is a huge risk. He was a seventh-round pick, has started only two games and doesn’t do anything spectacularly well. Sure, he’s an upgrade over Colt McCoy, but that isn’t enough.

It’d be one thing if the Browns loved Flynn. But Heckert has twice said signing him was unlikely, and the team clearly valued Griffin more. It would look like a panic move if Heckert threw $50 million at Flynn.

If the Browns don’t like their remaining options in the draft, they can hope Arizona lands Manning. That would free Kevin Kolb, whom Heckert drafted in Philadelphia. He knows the offense and the move would be automatic.

Don’t forget defense

The Browns made significant strides on defense last year, ranking 10th overall, second against the pass and fifth in scoring. That doesn’t mean they can ignore that side of the ball.

The Browns could use another defensive end opposite Jabaal Sheard, an outside linebacker to split time with Scott Fujita and a cornerback to pair with Joe Haden, which would allow veteran Sheldon Brown to try his hand at safety. I think he’s a natural free safety.

Jacksonville’s Jeremy Mincey (eight sacks, four forced fumbles) and Baltimore’s Cory Redding (4 1/2 sacks) were productive last season and are options at end. Cincinnati’s Manny Lawson would add athleticism at linebacker, and Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan is the best option at cornerback. Finnegan could fetch $10 million a year, but he’s a proven starter who’d fit in Cleveland’s system.

That’s the type of risk Heckert should consider. Because it comes with great rewards.

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