Twenty-six days have passed since NFL free agency began on March 11, and with the major signings out of the way, the league’s attention has turned toward the May 8-10 draft.
The Browns have the following 10 picks: First round (Nos. 4 and 26), second round (No. 35), third round (Nos. 71 and 83), fourth round (Nos. 106 and 127), fifth round (No. 145), sixth round (No. 180) and seventh round (No. 218).
On paper, they have used free agency to effectively whittle down their list of needs as they approach the draft. They entered the signing period armed with $49 million in salary-cap space and now have $30.8 million left, most in the league, according to the NFL Players Association.
The money spent went toward signing seven free agents: Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, offensive lineman Paul McQuistan, tight end Jim Dray and cornerback Isaiah Trufant.
Dansby, Whitner, Tate and McQuistan are projected starters. Hawkins will have a prominent role as the primary slot receiver. Dray should compete for the No. 2 tight end job, and Trufant is expected to provide help on special teams and depth in the secondary.
With that in mind, it’s time to reassess the roster and what might be in the works at each position.
Under contract for 2014: Brian Hoyer, 28; and Alex Tanney, 26.
Projected plan of attack: Despite the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in October in his right knee, Hoyer plans to participate in some capacity in the team’s offseason workout program that begins Monday. But even though Hoyer’s recovery seems to be going well and even though he led the Browns to back-to-back wins last season before getting hurt, the franchise not only needs a long-term solution at quarterback, but also at least one more quarterback who can start next season. Tanney has never appeared in a regular-season NFL game. All of this points to the Browns using one of their two first-round picks or their early second-round selection on a quarterback. They seem to be leaning toward picking the best player available, regardless of position, at No. 4 and then targeting a specific quarterback at No. 26 or No. 35 with an option to trade up from either spot if necessary. But anything is possible. They could pick any of the projected first-round quarterbacks — Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Fresno State’s Derek Carr — at No. 4. They could also wait in hopes of landing Carr or Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo later. Last month at the NFL owners meeting, coach Mike Pettine said it’s possible they could draft two quarterbacks, and Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage and Ball State’s Keith Wenning are among the projected late-round prospects they’re known to have worked out. As for acquiring a veteran free agent, Rex Grossman, 33, is still available, and his familiarity with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system would make him a logical pickup as a third-stringer and mentor.
Under contract for 2014: Tackles — Reid Fragel, 23; Chris Faulk, 24; McQuistan, 30; Mitchell Schwartz, 24; Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, 29; and Martin Wallace, 23. Guards — Garrett Gilkey, 23; John Greco, 29; McQuistan; Jason Pinkston, 26; and Jeremiah Warren, 26.
Projected plan of attack: The top priority is getting Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, 28, under contract, but the Browns might be in for a fight. Mack has made it clear that he’s not in a rush to sign the transition tag the Browns placed on him last month, and he visited the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday. If the Jaguars sign Mack to an offer sheet, the Browns would have five days to match it. The Browns are in the driver’s seat because they have more cap space than the Jaguars by about $5 million. However, the threat is real. Even if Mack comes back, the Browns will still likely draft a tackle or guard capable of starting as a rookie — meaning he’ll probably be picked in the first three rounds. McQuistan gives them flexibility because he has 20 starts at guard and 20 starts at tackle on his resume. If they draft an upgrade over Schwartz at right tackle, McQuistan could start at guard. If they draft a guard to pair with Greco, the starting left guard last season, McQuistan could compete with Schwartz for the starting tackle job opposite Thomas. Pettine said Schwartz could be asked to move to guard depending on the outcome of the draft. If Mack sneaks out of Cleveland, center would likely shoot to the top of the list of needs, even though Greco can play the position in a pinch.
Under contract for 2014: Travis Benjamin, 24; Josh Cooper, 25; Pro Bowler Josh Gordon, 22; Tori Gurley, 26; Hawkins, 28; Charles Johnson, 25; Greg Little, 24; and Conner Vernon, 23.
Projected plan of attack: Hawkins will fill the hole in the slot, but the need for a No. 2 receiver to start opposite Gordon must be satisfied. Clemson’s Sammy Watkins would be the only receiver worthy of being picked at No. 4, though the class is extremely deep. Like offensive line, if the Browns don’t address the receiver position in the first three rounds, it’ll be a surprise. In the meantime, they’re looking for depth in the form of a veteran. Free-agent Nate Burleson, 32, visited the Browns on Saturday, a team spokesman said.
Under contract for 2014: Edwin Baker, 22; Jamaine Cook, 22; Dion Lewis, 23; Chris Ogbonnaya, 27; Tate, 25; and Fozzy Whittaker, 25.
Projected plan of attack: Tate has dealt with injuries throughout his career, but Pettine said the franchise could “absolutely” count on him as its featured back. Still, the Browns probably aren’t done adding to their stable. Pettine believes the running back class is deep, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns picked one. He also warned the team wouldn’t “reach for one,” which suggests the position will be targeted in the middle to late rounds.
Under contract for 2014: None, pending experimentation.
Projected plan of attack: The previous coaching staff used Ogbonnaya as a fullback at times last season and experimented with others at the position, but there isn’t a pure fullback on the roster. So Shanahan will likely try to mold someone. Darrel Young signed with the Washington Redskins in 2009 as an undrafted linebacker from Villanova. When Shanahan became the Redskins’ offensive coordinator the following year, Young switched to fullback. He worked behind veteran Mike Sellers in 2010 and took over as the starter in 2011. Pettine suggested the Browns could try to duplicate the fullback experiment Shanahan conducted in Washington. “It’s a position that’s sometimes hard to find now, especially coming out of college football,” Pettine said. “There aren’t a lot of college fullbacks. Sometimes you’ll have to convert guys whether you find a linebacker, whether it’s maybe a little bit of a shorter tight end that has traditionally worked out of two-back sets.”
Under contract for 2014: Gary Barnidge, 28; Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, 25; Dray, 27; MarQueis Gray, 24; Keavon Milton, 23; and Andre Smith, 25.
Projected plan of attack: Should be settled here.
Under contract for 2014: Royce Adams, 25; Pro Bowler Joe Haden, 24; T.J. Heath, 26; Brandon Hughes, 27; Leon McFadden, 23; Julian Posey, 25; Trufant, 31; and Buster Skrine, 24.
Projected plan of attack: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Browns’ haul in free agency is that it did not include a starting-caliber cornerback. So the search for a No. 2 cornerback will likely continue in the first three rounds of the draft. Pettine said Skrine has proved he can start opposite Haden, but Pettine also believes Skrine “has the skill set to be an outstanding slot.” Furthermore, Pettine said he doesn’t want Skrine to pull double duty as a corner on the outside and a slot corner in the nickel package like he did last season. Trufant can start in the slot if necessary, Pettine said, but finding an upgrade at the No. 2 cornerback spot and bumping Skrine exclusively into the slot role seems to be the preference. “If the opportunity presents itself for us to grab a corner, then I’ll more than likely be on the table for it,” Pettine said.
Under contract for 2014: Inside — Tank Carder, 25; Karlos Dansby, 32; Darius Eubanks, 22; Brandon Magee, 23; and Craig Robertson, 26. Outside — Quentin Groves, 29; Paul Kruger, 28; Eric Martin, 22; Barkevious Mingo, 23; and Jabaal Sheard, 24; and Justin Staples, 24.
Projected plan of attack: The Browns seem poised to go bargain hunting for an inside linebacker in the middle rounds of the draft. Pettine said he doesn’t believe finding an upgrade over Robertson who could start opposite Dansby is “a glaring need.” But Pettine also said, “I think this is a good linebacker draft, and that’s why we feel so good that if that opportunity presents itself, that we’ll be able to do that.” As for outside linebacker, the Browns appear to be set despite disappointing production from Kruger and Mingo last season. However, if South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney or Buffalo’s Khalil Mack are available at No. 4 and the Browns aren’t in love with a quarterback there, the draft’s top-rated defenders can’t be ruled out as possibilities.
Under contract for 2014: Ends — Desmond Bryant, 28; John Hughes, 25; Armonty Bryant, 23; Cam Henderson, 23; Ahtyba Rubin, 27; Brian Sanford, 26; and Billy Winn, 24. Nose tackles — Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, 25; and Phil Taylor, 25.
Projected plan of attack: The depth is strong here, but the pursuit of defensive end Alex Carrington proves Pettine wants more of it. Carrington signed with the St. Louis Rams last month after visiting the Browns and Pettine, who coached him last season with the Buffalo Bills. So don’t be shocked if the Browns draft a D-lineman at some point.
Under contract for 2014: Strong — Josh Aubrey, 22; Jordan Poyer, 22; and Whitner, 28. Free — Johnson Bademosi, 23; Tashaun Gipson, 23; and Jamoris Slaughter, 24.
Projected plan of attack: The Browns should be OK with Gipson as the starter opposite two-time Pro Bowler Whitner and promising youngsters providing depth.
Under contract for 2014: Kickers — Billy Cundiff, 34; and Brandon Bogotay, 24. Punter — Spencer Lanning, 25. Long snapper — Christian Yount, 25.
Projected plan of attack: Good to go.
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.