The Browns have tons of money to spend and lots of holes to fill. Luckily for them, free agency officially starts today at 4 p.m.
After a three-day window in which teams were allowed to negotiate with agents but not talk to players, finalize deals or publicly discuss their intentions, players will be free to sign this afternoon.
CEO Joe Banner, in his first offseason with the Browns, isn’t worried about making a splash — the organization remains committed to building through the draft — but realizes the possibilities of free agency. His focus will be to improve the roster with guys still in their prime and who will be around as the team grows together into a contender.
“We have the cap room to do what we want,” Banner said last month at the scouting combine. “I think you need a certain number of impact, difference-making players at key positions to be a really good football team. Sometimes you get those through free agency, preferably you’re drafting them and developing them.
“We’re not going to rush and make a mistake because we have a need and leave ourselves in a position where we have to solve the same problem twice. We do have an order of what we’d like to solve if the world falls the way we want it to, but if it doesn’t we’re not going to force it just so that we’re not going into this season with some glaring hole when it’s really going to hurt us with where we want to be two, three years from now.”
The Browns are reportedly about $45 million under the league’s $123 million salary cap. The cap has been mostly stagnant for the last couple of years, so having millions of dollars to spend isn’t common.
“The fact we have cap room and other teams don’t I think will help us in the marketplace,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to get any bargains, but I think there is a better chance of getting fair market value in free agency.”
The positions of need are obvious. Between free agency and the draft in April, Cleveland will look to add multiple cornerbacks, a pass rusher to pair with Jabaal Sheard in the conversion to the 3-4 scheme, linebackers, a safety, a tight end or two, a receiver and depth on both lines.
The Browns have been private with their specific itinerary for free agency, but here’s my suggested plan of attack.
Dozens of free agents would improve the Browns, and they’ve probably inquired about at least 10. One tops the list for me: Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.
He is only 26 years old, fills a gaping hole and would weaken the rival Steelers, who are in a cap crunch. Lewis only became a starter in 2012 and would seem to have a large upside. He didn’t have an interception last season but had 23 passes defensed and a forced fumble. At 6-foot, 208 pounds, he has good size for the position.
With the Browns allowing veteran starter Sheldon Brown to leave in free agency, they need to bring in more than one cornerback — a starter opposite Joe Haden and a nickelback to push Buster Skrine down the depth chart. Lewis would be the starter.
San Diego’s Antoine Cason, Arizona’s Greg Toler, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn and Baltimore’s Cary Williams are also options.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden could use an upgrade in catching talent and most people are focused on adding a veteran receiver. Titans tight end Jared Cook is the preferable option.
New coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner love to use the tight end in their vertical passing attack, and Cook would be a perfect fit. I can still see him running away from Cleveland linebackers in 2011 for an 80-yard touchdown.
He’s 6-5, 258 pounds, turns 26 next month and has 131 catches in four years as a part-time starter. In 13 games in 2012, including five starts, he caught 44 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
Cook could command $7 million a year but is still a cheaper and safer option than the high-profile wideouts on the market, especially after Brian Hartline re-signed with Miami. Pittsburgh speedster Mike Wallace would fit Cleveland’s new offense, but is coming off a down year and the Steelers don’t let their best players leave in their prime without reason. He’s also likely to cost more than $10 million a season.
Good as Goldson
San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson started every game for the NFC champions, forcing four turnovers and making 69 tackles. Yet he is about to hit the open market at age 28.
Goldson can play deep in coverage and attack the line to stop the run. He’s been a full-time starter for four years after two seasons as a reserve. He would form a dynamic pairing with Cleveland strong safety T.J. Ward.
The Browns have choices at free safety with Usama Young, Tashaun Gipson and Eric Hagg returning with starting experience, but none projects as the long-term answer. Goldson fills a need and was part of the 49ers’ rapid turnaround under a new coaching staff.
With the transition to a 3-4 scheme under coordinator Ray Horton, linebacker is a top priority. The Browns’ most glaring need is a pass rusher on the outside, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the $10 million a year it will take to land Baltimore’s Paul Kruger or Detroit’s Cliff Avril.
Kruger has never been out of the Ravens system or in a lineup without Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs to draw the attention. Defenders who’ve left Baltimore have historically failed to match their production elsewhere, and Kruger could struggle to duplicate the career-high nine sacks he managed in 2012. He’s never started more than six games in a season and seems too similar to Sheard to both fit in Horton’s base 3-4.
Avril, 26, has a better resume, with at least five sacks in all five of his seasons and 8.5, 11 and 9.5 in the last three years. But he would be switching from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, the same conversion being asked of Sheard.
Avril would be preferred over Kruger. But if the price tag hits $10 million a year — the Baltimore Sun reported the Browns and Colts are expected to get into a bidding war for Kruger — I would seek a cheaper veteran option, then draft a pass rusher in the first round. Oregon’s Dion Jordan, LSU’s Barkevious Mingo and BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah are possibilities at No. 6 or if the Browns trade down.
Multiple reports said the Browns reached out to the agent for Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. I would also refrain from paying him a premium.
D’Qwell Jackson signed a big-money extension after the 2011 season and I wouldn’t tie up more money at inside linebacker. It’s the least impactful position on defense, so I’d pair Jackson with a rookie or give young holdovers James-Michael Johnson, Tank Carder, L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson the chance. Veteran Chris Gocong is also an option if he returns to health following a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Bring ’em back
I don’t expect it, but I would like to see kicker Phil Dawson and, to a lesser degree, receiver/special teamer Joshua Cribbs re-signed.
Neither may be at the same level in a couple of years — Dawson is 38, Cribbs 29 — but they are respected veterans who could bridge the gap until the team becomes a contender. And if that happens sooner than anticipated, you’d hate to lose meaningful games because Dawson’s replacement fails in the clutch.
I’d offer Dawson and Cribbs two-year deals at market value. If they walk, it’s not the end of the world, but it’d be ideal if they returned.