Ray Farmer believes in building a roster through the draft.
But even though he’s in his first year as a general manager, he’s been around the NFL plenty long enough to know he couldn’t ignore free agency. The Browns had too many holes and too much salary cap space to stand idle in March while other teams threw tens of millions of dollars at the best available veterans.
So Farmer dived headfirst into the pool and resurfaced with seven free agents in the first two weeks of the league year. Offensive lineman Paul McQuistan — a candidate to start at right guard — was the latest, agreeing to terms Monday. He followed strong safety Donte Whitner, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, running back Ben Tate, slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, tight end Jim Dray and defensive back/special teamer Isaiah Trufant.
As Farmer’s attention shifts to draft preparation, it’s time to assess his first venture into free agency.
He deserves credit for starting his GM career with a string of solid moves. His best acquisition is Tate.
Not only does he fill a vacuum in the backfield, he brings a vast amount of potential. Tate is only 25 years old, has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry and gained 942 yards on 175 carries in 2011.
If Tate can stay healthy — a big IF considering his injury history — he will give the Cleveland offense a key component that was missing in 2013. He will also take pressure off quarterback Brian Hoyer or whatever draft pick winds up under center.
The best part of the Tate signing is the contract. It’s for only two years and $6.2 million. Even if Tate flops, the Browns made a minimal investment and won’t regret it down the line.
Farmer took nearly a week to finalize the deal for Tate. He needed much less time to secure the first two priorities for him and coach Mike Pettine: Dansby and Whitner.
At first glance, the moves appeared curious. Farmer created the holes he then filled by releasing well-respected inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and letting Pro Bowl strong safety T.J. Ward walk in free agency. Dansby and Whitner are slightly older than Jackson and Ward and the contracts are similar.
But Farmer had a plan. Get the players Pettine wanted to add toughness and intensity to his defense.
Pettine chased Dansby the year before as coordinator in Buffalo, and it’s obvious he felt it necessary to move on from Jackson and Ward in favor of the new additions.
“I think you have something special when your best leaders are your best players, and that’s why we felt so strongly about bringing in Karlos and Donte,” Pettine told reporters this week at the NFL owners meetings. “We wanted to add toughness up the middle of the defense — not to say that T.J. and D’Qwell weren’t tough — but we wanted to add just some fresh juice there, too, get some guys that had a chip on their shoulder.”
The rest of the moves had value, if not overwhelming impact.
Hawkins should be an upgrade over Davone Bess in reliability and explosiveness in the slot. McQuistan can play guard and tackle and was good enough to start 14 games in Seattle’s march to the Super Bowl.
Dray and Trufant provide depth off the bench and specific attributes. Dray’s a top-notch blocker and Trufant a special teamer who has a history with Pettine.
The strongest benefit of the additions in free agency is the flexibility gained for the draft.
When May 8-10 comes around, Farmer won’t have to force a position early.
Sure, the Browns still have obvious needs at quarterback, receiver and cornerback. There’s no viable alternative to Hoyer on the roster, no No. 2 wideout to complement Josh Gordon and no second corner to pair with Joe Haden and let Buster Skrine assume his natural spot in the slot.
But Farmer has reduced the needs on the roster and given himself options with his 10 draft picks. He’s also shown impatient owner Jimmy Haslam he feels an urgency to win.
Dansby is 32 years old, Whitner 28 and Tate signed for only two years. All of the moves are to increase the Browns’ chances of winning in 2014 and ’15, rather than lay the groundwork for a four- or five-year plan.
If Farmer carries that philosophy to the draft, taking a quarterback is unlikely with the No. 4 pick. Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins would have the most immediate impact, giving coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Hoyer a handful of threats. Pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack would also be expected to step right in as playmakers.
Free agency never really ends, but most of the splash moves are over. Farmer can’t be expected to add any more starters.
He better not lose a pivotal one.
Center Alex Mack remains a free agent, and the deadline to sign the $10 million transition tag used by the Browns isn’t until July 22. He can sign it anytime, but seems content to wait awhile to see if another team makes a long-term offer.
The Browns want and expect to keep Mack and have the right to match any offer sheet he signs. Their worst nightmare is a well-constructed, high-priced deal that would be impossible or irresponsible to match.
If that happens, all the good work done by Farmer would be overshadowed. Losing Mack would be borderline catastrophic, as it would create a giant hole with no way to fill it.
Until Mack returns to Cleveland by either signing the one-year tag or agreeing to a long-term deal, a sense of uneasiness will linger. In the meantime, Farmer deserves a passing grade for his offseason work.
The purpose of NFL free agency is to improve. And the Browns did that.
Then again, it would’ve been tough to get much worse.