Browns need more brains than money in free agency
The good news for the Cleveland Browns is they will have about $59 million in cap space when the free-agent supermarket opens.
The bad news is they have $59 million in cap space, which, if history is an accurate indicator, usually means wasteful spending on free agents who rarely help turn around a franchise that hasn’t enjoyed consistent success in 25 years.
At 4 p.m. today, NFL free agents are allowed to officially sign their names on contracts, opening what will be a wave of initial signings. The comparison shopping has been done for a few months, which means there won’t be much need to worry about the details.
New Browns general manager Ray Farmer will orchestrate his initial attempt at the open market. He’ll have more available money than all but one of the NFL’s 32 teams and an owner in Jimmy Haslam who’s anxious to make a big splash after a wild offseason in which coach Rob Chudzinski, general manager Michael Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner were fired.
It’s easy to think that all that financial firepower should entice the best of the free agents to Cleveland. It’s also easy to come up with reasons why some of the best players on the market have no desire to get closer than 35,000 feet above ground to Cleveland.
Players who are truly about winning and are willing to take a little less for the potential to earn postseason honors will be attracted to other cities.
Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd is an example of a player the Browns might covet but might not be able to sign because of interest shown by the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins.
One thing for sure is that the Browns, who are in need of an upgrade at quarterback, won’t add one in free agency unless they like players like Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy or Luke McCown. Oops, forgot, the Browns have already tried each of those five.
The buzz of late has centered on San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who played at Glenville High School in Cleveland and Ohio State. Signing Whitner would be widely popular and a necessary move because of the expected loss of safety T.J. Ward.
Farmer reportedly wants safeties who can play right and left as opposed to strong and weak. Ward was often used as an additional linebacker, most notably when he was assigned to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, but a ballhawk safety he isn’t.
Whitner would give new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil a safety who can play the whole field in cover 1 but also move into the box when needed.
Farmer could conceivably go through every available penny and still have holes to fill. Areas that will be a high priority include cornerback, inside linebacker, receiver, running back, interior offensive line and quarterback.
The situation on the offensive line is problematic because of the transition tag that was placed on center Alex Mack. Other teams can sign Mack, but the tag allows the Browns the opportunity to match the offer. If Mack doesn’t sign with another team, the Browns can sign him for the average salary of the 10 highest-paid linemen in the NFL (slightly more than $10 million a year) or allow him to become a free agent.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao wasn’t a priority of the previous regime and would seem to be headed elsewhere. There’s been talk about moving right tackle Mitchell Schwartz inside to guard, but the best plan would be strengthen the interior through free agency or the draft.
There’s a dire need to add a complementary receiver to Josh Gordon. That could come via the draft (can you say Sammy Watkins?). If not, some of the available free agents include Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, Golden Tate, Julian Edelman and James Jones. Sidney Rice of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks might be worth a look, although he’s prone to injury.
Aqib Talib of the Patriots is among the best of a decent group of cornerbacks. At 6-1 and 205 pounds, he fits the mold of the big cornerback who is widely coveted by teams.
Other top corners include Alterraun Verner of the Titans, Vontae Davis of the Colts and Dominique Rodger-Cromartie of the Broncos.