Last year, General Manager Tom Heckert warned everyone that the Browns weren’t going to be “gung-ho” in free agency, and he kept his promise.
They signed three unrestricted free agents, cornerback Dimitri Patterson, safety Usama Young and running back Brandon Jackson. They re-signed two of their players who became unrestricted free agents, defensive ends Jayme Mitchell and Derreck Robinson. They later added a few injury replacements like punter Brad Maynard and offensive lineman Artis Hicks.
Last Thursday, Heckert said the Browns won’t “go crazy” in free agency once it starts at 4 p.m. today, and he’s probably not kidding this time, either. With two first-round picks, fourth and 22nd overall, the front office’s primary focus is expected to remain on this year’s draft.
According to figures released Sunday night by ProFootballTalk, the Browns were $17.4 million under the salary cap of $120.6 million. On Monday, ESPN reported 28 NFL teams, including the Browns, would gain $1.6 million in cap space because of penalties against the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, both of whom were docked millions in cap room for front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season. The Browns are also expected to save about $2 million in cap space today by releasing offensive right tackle Tony Pashos.
In other words, the Browns should have about $21 million in cap space, barring other transactions that might occur today. Even though they’re not expected to be incredibly active in free agency, they will make some moves to whittle down their long list of needs before the draft begins on April 26.
Here’s a look at the positions for which they could use reinforcements:
The Browns aren’t convinced they have a long-term solution at quarterback. Their reported push in the sweepstakes for Baylor’s Robert Griffin III confirmed they have doubts about Colt McCoy.
Cleveland has often been labeled as a logical landing spot for Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn, who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent today. After all, Flynn’s knowledge of the West Coast offense would seemingly allow him to make a smooth transition to coach Pat Shurmur’s system.
Heckert said it’s doubtful the Browns will sign a big-name quarterback in free agency. But Heckert made those comments before the Browns fell short in their bid for Griffin.
With the Browns now resorting to their backup plan, they could still pursue Flynn, especially if they’re not comfortable with the idea of sticking with McCoy as their starter or drafting Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill or Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden.
Flynn should draw interest from the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks. He will command a substantial salary despite having only two NFL starts on his resume, so the Browns must decide whether they want to pay a hefty price for someone whose physical tools are similar to those of McCoy.
Kevin Kolb could become another option. Kolb is owed a $7 million bonus if he’s still on the roster Saturday, and he’ll likely probably be released if Peyton Manning joins the Arizona Cardinals.
Other potential targets: Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders) and Kyle Orton (Kansas City Chiefs).
The Browns led the league in dropped passes last season, so it’s no secret that they desperately need playmakers who can secure the ball and gain yards after the catch. Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon, Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, Baylor’s Kendall Wright and Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill are potential first-round targets, but the Browns also seem willing to acquire a free-agent receiver to pair with Greg Little and Josh Cribbs.
Vincent Jackson (San Diego Chargers), Marques Colston (New Orleans Saints), Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts) and Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis Rams) are the top receivers on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents. But the Browns might be more likely to pursue some second-tier options like former Mount Union standout Pierre Garcon (Colts), Warren native Mario Manningham (New York Giants), Laurent Robinson (Dallas Cowboys) and Robert Meachem (Saints).
There’s also a possibility the Browns could go after a tight end who can do damage as a receiver. They have Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore. But Watson is coming off a season in which he suffered three concussions, and third-string tight end Alex Smith is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
It would make sense for the Browns to be interested in Seattle Seahawks tight end John Carlson, as Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel tweeted last month. In 2008, Browns President Mike Holmgren’s final year as Seattle’s coach, the Seahawks drafted Carlson in the second round (38th overall). He had 55 receptions for 627 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.
Other potential targets: Harry Douglas (Atlanta Falcons), Eddie Royal (Denver Broncos) and Early Doucet (Arizona Cardinals).
Peyton Hillis is expected to hit the open market today. Heckert said the organization would like to re-sign Hillis at the right price, but if the two sides can’t work out a deal, this will become an urgent need for the Browns.
Brandon Jackson spent all of last season on injured reserve and Montario Hardesty continued to be plagued by injuries. Chris Ogbonnaya showed promise, though he still lacks significant experience.
Alabama’s Trent Richardson could be an option in the draft if the Browns don’t sign a feature back.
Potential targets: Michael Bush (Raiders), Cedric Benson (Cincinnati Bengals), Ben- Jarvus Green-Ellis (New England Patriots), Mike Tolbert (San Diego Chargers), Ryan Grant (Green Bay Packers) and Brandon Jacobs (cut by the New York Giants).
Pashos, who started 12 games at right tackle last season, has been told the Browns will release him, Pashos’ agent, Rick Smith, said. Pashos’ backups, Hicks and Oniel Cousins, have expiring contracts.
In other words, the Browns need someone to step in as a starter.
Potential targets: Kareem McKenzie (Giants), Eric Winston (cut by the Houston Texans), Max Starks (Pittsburgh Steelers), Paul McQuistan (Seattle Seahawks), Anthony Collins (Bengals), Brandon Keith (Cardinals), Khalif Barnes (Raiders) and Barry Richardson (Chiefs).
The Browns need an upgrade at right end, someone who can rush the passer opposite Jabaal Sheard. Heckert virtually ruled out the top free-agent pass rusher, Mario Williams of the Houston Texans, as an option, but there are others the Browns can go after if they don’t want to wait until the draft to address the position.
Potential targets: Jeremy Mincey (Jaguars), John Abraham (Falcons), Frostee Rucker (Bengals), Dave Tollefson (Giants), Andre Carter (Patriots) and Mark Anderson (Patriots).
D’Qwell Jackson had a stellar season in the middle. After Scott Fujita suffered a broken hand, Chris Gocong moved to the strong side and showed he’s at his best there. But another outside linebacker — whether he’s obtained in the draft or free agency — could help the defense fix its problems against the run.
Potential targets: Erin Henderson (Minnesota Vikings), Leroy Hill (Seahawks), Manny Lawson (Bengals), Wesley Woodyard (Broncos), Rocky McIntosh (Redskins) and Philip Wheeler (Colts).
The Browns want to re-sign Mike Adams, who’s set to hit the open market. If that’s not in the cards, they’ll probably seek another free safety to start alongside T.J. Ward. They have Young and Eric Hagg, but they’re both better as strong safeties. This year’s draft class is thin.
Potential targets: LaRon Landry (Redskins), Dwight Lowery (Jaguars), Reggie Nelson (Bengals), Haruki Nakamura (Baltimore Ravens) and Deon Grant (Giants).
Dimitri Patterson thrived as a nickel corner last season, and the Browns believe he has the ability to start on the outside opposite Haden.
Patterson is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, so if the Browns can’t re-sign him, they’ll need a replacement. Louisiana State’s Morris Claiborne could be an option in the draft, too.
Potential targets: Jason Allen (Texans), Aaron Ross (Giants), Jarrett Bush (Packers), Tracy Porter (Saints) and Alan Ball (Cowboys).
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.