September 30, 2014

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Free agency brings hope for Browns … issues, too

If the Browns can land Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, seen sacking Jets QB Geno Smith last season, they may be able to live without T.J. Ward. (AP file photo)

If the Browns can land Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, seen sacking Jets QB Geno Smith last season, they may be able to live without T.J. Ward. (AP file photo)

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. Negotiations officially started Saturday at noon.

Teams were allowed to begin talking to agents about players whose contracts expire Tuesday, but NFL rules stipulate no deals can be reached and teams can’t talk to players who ended last year on other rosters — until Tuesday.

The start of the league year signals a fresh start for the entire league. Perhaps no team more than the Browns.

Ray Farmer enters his first free agency as a general manager. He walks in with a roster riddled with holes and $49.9 million in salary cap space, according to NFL Network.

That’s plenty of cash to improve a team that went 4-12, fired its coach, CEO and GM and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.

Farmer, like most of his counterparts across the league, doesn’t believe in spending wildly in free agency. He wants to build his team through the draft, where he has 10 picks, including three of the top 35 selections.

But Farmer and the Browns can’t — and won’t — allow free agency to pass without adding pieces. There are just too many needs.

So here are the issues facing the Browns as free agency gets going.

Attack Mack

The Browns placed the transition tag on center Alex Mack last week, but that isn’t a guarantee they’ll keep him. Starting Tuesday, he’s allowed to negotiate and receive offers from the rest of the league.

The tag — worth $10 million for one year if he signs it — allows the Browns to match any offer, and retaining Mack should be their top priority.

The Browns would be best served by getting Mack to agree to a long-term contract. He’s worth having for the next five years, and the Browns should be prepared to make him the highest-paid center for all five.

But if Mack prefers to test the market and reaches a deal with someone else — Tampa Bay and Indianapolis are possible landing spots — the Browns must match. Mack, left tackle Joe Thomas, receiver Josh Gordon and cornerback Joe Haden are the most irreplaceable members of the team.

Mack is the best center on the market, and no rookie would be able to step in at his level. Thomas told me as much in the final week of the season. The Browns can ill afford to create a crater at such a valuable position.

Safety dance

T.J. Ward is the next-best Cleveland free agent behind Mack, but the Browns may have already lined up his replacement in Jairus Byrd.

New coach Mike Pettine is familiar with Byrd, 27, from spending last season together in Buffalo, and Byrd would better fit Pettine’s desire to have a pair of “interchangeable” safeties. Ward is among the league’s best run defenders but, despite his protests, he’s limited in coverage. Tashaun Gipson played free safety last year but can also play at the line of scrimmage and could be a solid, complementary pairing with Byrd.

But signing the three-time Pro Bowler isn’t a lock. Buffalo would like to keep him, other teams will be interested and he would like more than $10 million a year.

If the Browns aim for Byrd and miss, they could return their attention to Ward. But by then it may be too late, because he will be hotly targeted.
New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins is another possibility.

Skill set

The Browns undoubtedly need a starting running back and a starting receiver to pair with Gordon, who was an All-Pro in his second season. The decision for Farmer and Co. is whether to address the holes in free agency or wait until the draft in May.

As always, what’s accomplished in free agency will alter the draft strategy.

If the Browns sign Houston’s Ben Tate or Denver’s Knowshon Moreno to take the running back spot, they could wait until late in the draft to find a young complement for the backfield. If they don’t sign a starter, running back becomes a possibility for the 26th or 35th pick in May.

The situation at receiver is even more dire. Not only does Cleveland need a starter, it needs a slot receiver to replace Davone Bess, who was released last week after a disastrous one-year tenure.

If the Browns chase and land Denver’s Eric Decker or Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders as the No. 2 wideout, they could hold off on drafting a receiver until the middle rounds. If they settle on Seattle’s Golden Tate or New England’s Julian Edelman to play in the slot, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins remains very much
in play with the No. 4 pick.

Quarterback options

Free agency is almost never the way to find a franchise quarterback. It certainly isn’t this year, with Michael Vick and Josh McCown the top names on the market.

That doesn’t mean the Browns won’t sign a quarterback, or two. In fact, it would be a surprise if they didn’t.

Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden combined to start 13 games last season, but both are expected to be gone before the draft. That leaves Brian Hoyer as the incumbent and a rookie or two from the draft.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan reportedly wants to add to the mix a veteran who knows his system. Rex Grossman played for Shanahan in Washington and would be valuable in the role of second- or third-stringer.

A more intriguing possibility is Matt Schaub, who’s expected to be released by Houston after losing his starting job in 2013. Schaub isn’t a franchise quarterback, but he has a history with Shanahan and may be viewed as a short-term starter. What the addition of Schaub would mean for Hoyer or a quarterback available in the top five of the draft is unclear, but he’s a name to keep two eyes on when he hits the market.

And the rest

The Browns were 4-12 for a reason. Make that reasons.

In addition to the aforementioned areas, the Browns also need to address inside linebacker, cornerback and guard/right tackle.

The cost-cutting release of D’Qwell Jackson shot inside linebacker up the list. Craig Robertson was retained last week, but he struggled last year and isn’t guaranteed a starting spot. That means the Browns could look to fill two spots between free agency and the draft, so signing a veteran would be helpful.

At cornerback, returning starter Buster Skrine is better-suited to play in the slot, so Pro Bowler Joe Haden needs a partner in the starting lineup. Indianapolis’ Vontae Davis, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn and Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner are options.

Keeping Mack would be a giant step in the right direction, but it wouldn’t answer all the questions along the offensive line. Is Mitchell Schwartz good enough at right tackle? Would he be better at guard? Is Jason Pinkston or Garrett Gilkey a viable option at guard? Who’s a better fit at right tackle if
Schwartz is deemed not good enough?

With huge dollars devoted to Thomas and possibly Mack, the Browns are unlikely to sign a big-name free agent on the line. That doesn’t preclude them from upgrading with a solid veteran.

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