Speculating about the Browns’ draft plans has become a yearlong ritual in Northeast Ohio, and the hype will naturally intensify this week during the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
But before you indulge in too much draft buzz, remember — it’s only February. And free agency comes first.
Starting March 9, teams are allowed to enter negotiations with agents of players whose contracts are set to expire. Free agency will begin at 4 p.m. March 12. With a projected salary cap of $121 million, the Browns are set to have $44.7 million in space, according to the latest estimate by NFL.com. ProFootballTalk.com, though, reported the cap would exceed $122 million, meaning all 32 teams could have a little more room than previously expected.
Either way, the collective bargaining agreement requires each team to spend at least 89 percent of the cap in cash on a four-year average, and the Browns, consequently, should be much more active in free agency than they were the past couple of years. Owner Jimmy Haslam told the Beacon Journal last week that the organization would hold a daylong meeting about free agency Tuesday before shifting its focus to the combine, which runs today through Feb. 26.
The Browns, who were 5-11 last season, have the sixth overall pick the draft, which will be held April 25-27. By the time it rolls around, they will have trimmed their needs in free agency, and the new regime of Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, coach Rob Chudzinski and Mike Lombardi, vice president of player personnel, should have a clear vision of their strategy.
The team’s decision makers are on a mission to upgrade the quarterback position, or at least secure someone capable of competing with Brandon Weeden for the starting job. They also must acquire players who can help ease the transition from a 4-3 defense to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 multi-front scheme.
Below is a breakdown of the Browns’ top needs and who is expected to be available this offseason. Keep in mind that some players with expiring contracts could re-sign with their current teams or be kept off the open market with a franchise tag before free agency begins next month. And don’t forget to watch players from the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers because they likely have ties to Chudzinski, Horton and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Under contract for 2013: Thaddeus Lewis, Colt McCoy and Weeden.
Overview: During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Haslam vowed to create competition at this position before next season. Lewis and McCoy don’t have the big arms needed to challenge Weeden, the incumbent starter, in Chudzinski and Turner’s downfield, vertical passing game. So the Browns will look to nab at least one quarterback via free agency, a trade or the draft.
Free-agency outlook: Assuming the Ravens don’t let Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Flacco get away — the franchise-tag deadline is March 4 — there might not be any surefire starters on the open market. Matt Moore (Miami Dolphins), Brian Hoyer (Cardinals), Chase Daniel (New Orleans Saints) and Derek Anderson (Panthers) have been linked to the Browns by reports. However, Alex Smith remains the big name to watch. The San Francisco 49ers want to trade him, and he would like to be released and test the market. Either way, he’s expected to become available because Colin Kaepernick established himself as the 49ers’ quarterback of the future with a run to the Super Bowl, and Smith’s $8.5 million salary for 2013 becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster April 1.
Draft outlook: Mike Mayock of NFL Network and Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay of ESPN are among the draft gurus who believe picking West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Southern California’s Matt Barkley or any other quarterback in the top 10 this year would be a reach. The Browns don’t have a second-round pick because they forfeited it by selecting wide receiver Josh Gordon this past summer in the supplemental draft. If the Browns choose to pursue a quarterback in the middle rounds, Mayock lists Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones as players who could be available.
Under contract for 2013: Emmanuel Acho, Tank Carder, L.J. Fort, Chris Gocong, D’Qwell Jackson, James-Michael Johnson, Adrian Moten, Craig Robertson and Jabaal Sheard.
Overview: Jackson and Johnson could start on the inside. Gocong could play on the outside if he succeeds in returning from a torn Achilles tendon, and Sheard will likely be relied on to covert from a 4-3 end to a rush linebacker. Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava are unsigned for next season, and Fujita might retire with an injured neck. The bottom line is the switch to a 3-4 system has made the need for linebackers even more glaring — and pressing — than before. A bona fide pass rusher is a top priority.
Free-agency outlook: Paul Kruger (Ravens) highlights a list of outside linebackers who have shown they can rack up sacks in a 3-4 system. Others are Anthony Spencer (Dallas Cowboys), Shaun Phillips (Chargers) and Connor Barwin (Houston Texans). Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens) has emerged as a top inside linebacker.
Draft outlook: Mayock, Kiper Jr. and McShay believe the Browns will likely target an outside linebacker at No. 6 overall. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore, Louisiana State’s Barkevious Mingo, Oregon’s Dion Jordan and Brigham Young’s Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah are names to watch.
Under contract for 2013: Johnson Bademosi, Joe Haden, Prince Miller, Buster Skrine and Trevin Wade.
Overview: The Browns need to find someone to replace Sheldon Brown, who’s set to become a free agent and not expected to return, in the starting lineup opposite Haden. They also could use a nickel corner.
Free-agency outlook: There are plenty of options, including Brent Grimes (Atlanta Falcons), Sean Smith (Dolphins), Cary Williams (Ravens), Aqib Talib (New England Patriots), Antoine Cason (Chargers), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Philadelphia Eagles), Derek Cox (Jacksonville Jaguars), Mike Jenkins (Cowboys), Chris Houston (Detroit Lions), Tracy Porter (Denver Broncos), Keenan Lewis (Steelers), Greg Toler (Cardinals) and Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers).
Draft outlook: The Browns could consider Alabama’s Dee Milliner at No. 6. After him, there’s believed to be quite a drop-off in a class that lacks depth.
Under contract for 2013: Tashaun Gipson, Eric Hagg and Usama Young.
Overview: Gipson, Hagg and Young all started alongside strong safety T.J. Ward last season, but none of them could lock down the job. The Browns have rotated players at this spot for the past two seasons and need a reliable starter.
Free-agency outlook: Future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, who has been linked to the Patriots and Colts, will generate the most headlines. But Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills), Dashon Goldson (49ers) and Louis Delmas (Lions) will demand attention, too. Ryan Mundy (Steelers) and James Sanders (Cardinals) are backups worth watching.
Draft outlook: Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro is the top-rated safety, but No. 6 is probably too early to take him. Still, Mayock said this is one of the best safety classes in years, and that’s good news for the Browns. Mayock lists Louisiana State’s Eric Reid, Notre Dame’s Zeke Motta, Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas and Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox as prospects who could be available in the third round.
Under contract for 2013: Travis Benjamin, Josh Cooper, Gordon and Greg Little.
Overview: Gordon’s development and Little’s improvement gave the Browns a significant boost at this position last season, but reinforcements are still needed. Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi are set to hit the open market, and the Browns could use a veteran to help guide the young group.
Free-agency outlook: Mike Wallace (Steelers), Greg Jennings (Green Bay Packers), Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City Chiefs), Wes Welker (Patriots), Danny Amendola (St. Louis Rams), Brian Hartline (Dolphins) form a stellar free-agent class. Wallace and the Browns have been linked in a report by Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
Draft outlook: Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and California’s Keenan Allen are the top-rated prospects, but it’s probably a stretch to think they could go in the top 10. NFLDraftScout.com projects Arkansas’ Cobi Hamilton, Texas’ Marquise Goodwin, West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey, Georgia’s Tavarres King, Kansas State’s Chris Harper, Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope, Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills, South Carolina’s Ace Sanders and Virginia Tech’s Corey Fuller as middle-round prospects.
Under contract for 2013: Jordan Cameron, Dan Gronkowski and Brad Smelley.
Overview: With Benjamin Watson and Alex Smith set to become free agents, the Browns will need help at a position coveted by Turner and Chudzinski, a former tight end at the University of Miami who coached the position in the NFL.
Free-agency outlook: Jared Cook (Tennessee Titans) will reportedly be franchised if the two sides can’t reach a deal. Fred Davis (Washington Redskins), Martellus Bennett (Giants), Dustin Keller (Jets), Delanie Walker (49ers), Gary Barnidge (Panthers) and Dante Rosario (Chargers) are others to watch.
Draft outlook: Stanford’s Zach Ertz and Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert are the top prospects and could be selected late in the first round. NFLDraftScout.com projects San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar, Florida’s Jordan Reed, Michigan State’s Dion Sims and Colorado’s Nick Kasa as middle-round prospects.
Overview: If Chudzinski and Turner want a powerful fullback with reliable hands, they’ll need to find one. Owen Marecic is on the roster, but he struggled catching balls last season and was demoted. … The Browns have a surplus of quality defensive tackles with Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn and John Hughes under contract for next season. Horton will likely experiment with Rubin and Winn at end, but there is still a need for experienced, proven 3-4 ends. … With kicker Phil Dawson, punter Reggie Hodges and return man Cribbs on the verge of hitting free agency, the Browns might be in the market for specialists across the board. Benjamin can return punts, as evidenced by his 93-yard touchdown last season, and the Browns recently signed punter Spencer Lanning. Still, there will likely be some holes to fill.
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.