Browns make waves as free agency opens

Anxious for any positive news that might energize their angry fan base, the Cleveland Browns went after the first day of the free-agent signing period with a shopping-spree mentality.

The Browns, who entered Tuesday close to $50 million below the salary cap, acted quickly by signing Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby and San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner. The moves were made to fill holes created when linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was waived and safety T.J. Ward signed with the Denver Broncos.

The moves are significant and somewhat curious. Significant in that Dansby and Whitner are among the best at their respective positions in the NFL. Curious in their advanced ages – Dansby is 32; Whitner is 28.

The decision to make the team slightly older is in direct correlation to the upcoming draft, when the Browns will have seven picks in the first four rounds, including two in the first, third and fourth. General manager Ray Farmer figures it’s better to balance another youth movement with the wisdom and proven track record that comes with age.

Dansby will bring more consistent run support from the inside than Jackson, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts last week. Dansby is a run-through linebacker who will make more plays near or behind the line of scrimmage than Jackson.

Another key factor in landing Dansby is his ability to play the pass. He was a leader among all NFL linebackers in passes defensed last season with 19. He intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns.

Browns linebackers were terrible in defending the pass last season. Opposing offenses successfully converted third downs 44.7 percent of the time, which was a big reason why the Browns squandered several fourth-quarter leads.

Dansby also is an effective blitzer. He had 6.5 sacks last season, while Jackson finished with 1.5.

The Browns were wise in the way they structured Dansby’s four-year, $24 million contract. Because of his age, the deal frontloads $10 million of guaranteed money next season. That means a lower cap hit in 2015, when he might not be as effective, while also clearing cap room for a possible extension for cornerback Joe Haden.

Whitner’s signing will be popular because he’s a home-grown product, having played at Cleveland Glenville High School before three seasons (2003-05) at Ohio State. He was selected eighth overall by the 49ers in the 2006 draft.

Browns coach Mike Pettine prefers safeties who can play left and right more than simply free and strong side. Ward is a pure strong safety who was often used like an extra linebacker. Whitner also is strong in run support with a style of play that occasionally skirts the edges of the rules, but he’s also more of a ballhawk who can play a deep half or the entire field if needed.

Whitner, who signed a four-year contract for $28 million, had 78 tackles last season for one of the NFL’s best defenses. He defensed 12 passes (Ward had nine) and intercepted two.

The Browns addressed the offensive side when they signed Cincinnati Bengals restricted receiver Andrew Hawkins to a four-year contract. The Bengals have five days to match the offer.

If the Browns are able to retain Hawkins’ services, he’ll step in for Davone Bess, who was recently waived after one tumultuous season in Cleveland. Hawkins is small (5-7, 175) and fast (a 4.34 40 time). He had 51 receptions for 533 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, but an ankle injury limited him to eight games and 12 catches for 199 yards in 2013.

The moves will undoubtedly play well to the fans, but so did the 2006 free-agent haul that included receiver Joe Jurevicius, offensive lineman Kevin Shaffer, center LeCharles Bentley and punter Dave Zastudil. Then general manager Phil Savage received wide praise for bringing home three players with local ties – Jurevicius, Bentley and Zastudil.

Jurevicius’ career ended after he developed a staph infection following a knee procedure, while Bentley tore a patellar tendon on the first team drill of the first full day of practice and never played another down in the NFL. Zastudil also fell victim to an injury and is now punting for the Cardinals.

As with everything involving the Browns, all optimism should be shrouded in the knowledge that Murphy’s Law is constantly in play – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.