The Browns are on the verge of entering free agency for the first time with the organization’s new regime in place, and they’re expected to make their presence felt.
Although owner Jimmy Haslam reiterated Feb. 1 that the Browns would commit to building through the draft and said they would likely avoid “big, splashy, high-priced moves,” he and CEO Joe Banner have also indicated the franchise plans on being active in free agency.
It doesn’t hurt that the new sheriffs in town inherited excellent salary-cap flexibility. Entering this week, the Browns were $47,049,064 under the $123 million cap and had the most space in the league, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported, citing figures from the NFL Management Council.
“The fact we have cap room and other teams don’t I think will help us in the marketplace,” Banner said Feb. 23 at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I view this as a good year to be in the free-agent market and to be able to get fair market value. Historically, by definition, you generally have to overpay to get free agents, especially in the early part of it. 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. You never know, but I would expect us to be participants in free agency. How big the names are, that will be determined as we see who’s available and who’s interested in us and who we’re interested in.”
Free agency does not officially begin until 4 p.m. Tuesday, so teams may not sign players until then. But starting Saturday, teams are allowed to enter contract negotiations with agents of players whose deals are set to expire.
The new collective bargaining agreement requires each team to spend at least 89 percent of the cap in cash on a four-year average.
“It doesn’t affect us at all,” Banner said of the rule. “We’re going to be an active, aggressive team in spending over the years. I say ‘years’ on purpose. In a given year, depending on where you’re at, you might not be. But over the course of years, we’ll be on the aggressive end of team spending.”
The Browns will likely be aggressive this year, though they’re not interested in pursuing many stopgap solutions. They want to invest in players they believe are capable of stabilizing positions for at least the next few years. In the eyes of Banner and Co., it’s a recipe for building a consistent winner.
Whether the Browns, who were 5-11 last season, achieve their goal by signing a couple of big names or a handful of lesser-known players remains to be seen.
“I’ve done both,” Banner said. “I don’t have a rule. 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. But I’ve also picked up a lot of less expensive players that have turned out to really contribute. So we’d be open to either.”
As for the Browns’ own unrestricted free agents, they’re not expected to re-sign any of them. With all of this in mind, here is a breakdown of some soon-to-be free agents the team could target to fill its top needs:
Under contract for 2013: Emmanuel Acho, 22, Tank Carder, 24, L.J. Fort, 23, Chris Gocong, 29, D’Qwell Jackson, 29, James-Michael Johnson, 23, Adrian Moten, 24, Craig Robertson, 25, and Jabaal Sheard, 23.
Expiring contracts: Scott Fujita, 33, and Kaluka Maiava, 26.
Why it’s a need: Banner conceded the Browns need to bolster their front seven as they convert from a 4-3 system to defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s multi-front 3-4 scheme. Gocong, who’s coming off a torn Achilles tendon, and Sheard, who has only played end in a 4-3, will likely be experimented with at outside linebacker. Still, nabbing at least one more outside linebacker who can rush the passer is a top priority. If the Browns don’t secure a rush linebacker in free agency, they’ll be expected to do so with the sixth overall pick in the draft, which runs April 25-27. Johnson is a candidate to start alongside Jackson on the inside, but the Browns will probably look for support up the middle, too.
Free agents to watch: Outside — Cliff Avril (26, Detroit Lions), Antwan Barnes (28, San Diego Chargers), Connor Barwin (26, Houston Texans), Victor Butler (25, Dallas Cowboys), Quentin Groves (28, Arizona Cardinals), Paul Kruger (27, Baltimore Ravens), Manny Lawson (28, Cincinnati Bengals) and Shaun Phillips (31, Chargers). Inside — Nick Barnett (31, Buffalo Bills), Justin Durant (27, Lions), Dannell Ellerbe (27, Ravens), Larry Grant (28, San Francisco 49ers), Erin Henderson (26, Minnesota Vikings), Brad Jones (26, Green Bay Packers), Dan Skuta (26, Bengals), Daryl Smith (30, Jacksonville Jaguars) and Philip Wheeler (28, Oakland Raiders).
Under contract for 2013: Johnson Bademosi, 22, Joe Haden, 23, Prince Miller, 25, Buster Skrine, 23, and Trevin Wade, 23.
Expiring contract: Sheldon Brown, 33.
Why it’s a need: The Browns don’t have anyone ready to fill the shoes of Brown as a starter opposite Haden. They also need a nickel corner after cutting Dimitri Patterson in December. Skrine received extensive playing time last season but often struggled.
Free agents to watch: Kyle Arrington (26, New England Patriots), E.J. Biggers (25, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Antoine Cason (26, Chargers), Derek Cox (26, Jaguars), Bradley Fletcher (26, St. Louis Rams), Chris Gamble (29, Carolina Panthers), Brent Grimes (29, Atlanta Falcons), Chris Houston (28, Lions), Mike Jenkins (27, Cowboys), Keenan Lewis (26, Pittsburgh Steelers), Leodis McKelvin (27, Bills), Captain Munnerlyn (24, Panthers), Tracy Porter (26, Denver Broncos), Jerraud Powers (25, Indianapolis Colts), Sean Smith (25, Miami Dolphins), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (26, Philadelphia Eagles), Aqib Talib (27, Patriots), Greg Toler (28, Cardinals) and Cary Williams (28, Ravens).
Under contract for 2013: Tashaun Gipson, 22, Eric Hagg, 23, and Usama Young, 27.
Why it’s a need: None of the aforementioned players has established himself as a full-time starter alongside strong safety T.J. Ward, 26. The Browns have used a rotation of free safeties for the past two seasons.
Free agents to watch: Chris Clemons (27, Dolphins), Louis Delmas (25, Lions), Dashon Goldson (28, 49ers), LaRon Landry (28, New York Jets), Ryan Mundy (28, Steelers), Glover Quin (27, Texans), James Sanders (29, Cardinals) and Gerald Sensabaugh (29, Cowboys).
Under contract for 2013: Kendrick Adams, 24, Hall Davis, 26, John Hughes, 24, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, 24, Ahtyba Rubin, 26, Brian Sanford, 25, Sheard, Phil Taylor, 24, and Billy Winn, 23.
Expiring contracts: Auston English, 25 (exclusive rights), Juqua Parker, 34, and Emmanuel Stephens, 26 (exclusive rights).
Why it’s a need: Coach Rob Chudzinski believes Sheard can play outside linebacker or end. He thinks tackles Taylor, Rubin and Winn can play multiple spots on the line. Rubin and Winn could get shots at end. But the bottom line is not all the experiments can be expected to pan out as players try to adapt to a new system.
Free agents to watch: Alan Branch (28, Seattle Seahawks), Desmond Bryant (27, Raiders), Glenn Dorsey (27, Kansas City Chiefs), Mike DeVito (28, Jets), Ricky Jean-Francois (26, 49ers), Ryan McBean (28, Ravens) and Vance Walker (25, Falcons).
Under contract for 2013: Thaddeus Lewis, 25, Colt McCoy, 26, and Brandon Weeden, 29.
Expiring contract: Josh Johnson, 26.
Why it’s a need: The team’s bigwigs want to acquire someone to compete with Weeden, the incumbent starter and 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, because they’re not convinced he’s the long-term answer. Neither McCoy nor Lewis have the big arm needed for the vertical, downfield passing game of Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, so at least one quarterback will be brought in. Don’t be surprised if one is signed and a developmental prospect is drafted. A trade can’t be completely ruled out, either.
Free agents to watch: Derek Anderson (29, Panthers) and Chase Daniel (26, New Orleans Saints).
Under contract for 2013: Travis Benjamin, 23, Josh Cooper, 24, Josh Gordon, 21, and Greg Little, 23.
Expiring contracts: Josh Cribbs, 29, Mohamed Massaquoi, 26, and Jordan Norwood, 26 (exclusive rights).
Why it’s a need: Gordon is a vertical threat with the talent needed to evolve into a true No. 1 receiver, but the new regime isn’t sold on him yet. Regardless, the Browns must find someone to join Gordon and Little as a regular in the rotation.
Free agents to watch: Danny Amendola (27, St. Louis Rams), Donnie Avery (28, Colts), Ramses Barden (27, Giants), Steve Breaston (29, Chiefs), Austin Collie (27, Colts), Julian Edelman (26, Patriots), Brandon Gibson (25, Rams), Ted Ginn (27, 49ers), Domenik Hixon (28, Giants), Michael Jenkins (30, Vikings), Greg Jennings (29, Packers), Donald Jones (25, Bills), David Nelson (26, Bills), Kevin Ogletree (25, Cowboys), Jerome Simpson (27, Vikings), Mike Wallace (26, Steelers) and Wes Welker (31, Patriots).
Under contract for 2013: Jordan Cameron, 24, Dan Gronkowski, 28, and Brad Smelley, 23.
Expiring contracts: Alex Smith, 30, and Benjamin Watson, 32.
Why it’s a need: Chudzinski and Turner prefer to feature tight ends in the passing game. Cameron has potential, though he’s not a proven starter.
Free agents to watch: Gary Barnidge (27, Panthers), Martellus Bennett (26, Giants), James Casey (28, Texans), Jared Cook (25, Tennessee Titans), Fred Davis (27, Washington Redskins), Anthony Fasano (28, Dolphins), Dustin Keller (28, Jets), Brandon Myers (27, Raiders), Dante Rosario (28, Chargers) and Delanie Walker (28, 49ers).
The Browns also could use reinforcements at guard partly because they aren’t sure about the status of Jason Pinkston, whose 2012 season was cut short when a blood clot was discovered in his lung. They still have John Greco and Shawn Lauvao. … Fullback is another position that could be addressed. Owen Marecic is on the roster, though his unreliable hands caused the old coaching staff to remove him from the lineup last season. … Kicker Phil Dawson, punter Reggie Hodges and return man Cribbs are headed for the open market and probably won’t be back. The Browns signed punter Spencer Lanning last month, and Benjamin can return punts. Nevertheless, more specialists are in demand.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.