The Browns’ new regime of General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine must be cautious because it’s entering dangerous territory.
That’s exactly what NFL free agency is — dangerous. Sure, treasures can be found, but many more bad deals will be made in coming days than good ones.
Teams are permitted to begin negotiating with agents today, even though contracts cannot be executed until free agency officially starts at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The Browns entered the weekend armed with $49.9 million in salary-cap space, according to NFL Network, so they certainly have enough financial flexibility to address some needs before the draft May 8-10. But Farmer and Pettine should use a buyer-beware approach in free agency if they want to avoid getting burned.
ESPN analyst and former NFL GM Bill Polian nailed the primary pitfalls of free agency during a conference call this week.
• The homework typically isn’t as thorough: “You don’t know the player as well as you know a player who’s coming out in the draft and certainly not as well as you know a player who is your player.”
• The prices are all out of whack: “The best players are signed. So these are essentially ‘B’ players whose agents are looking for ‘A’ money.”
• Previous production might be a byproduct of a specific role or system: “When the player changes teams and changes systems and changes locale, he’s going to have an adjustment period. Football is not a seamless transition.”
So keep those warnings in mind when considering the Browns’ needs.
The positions listed below are not ranked in order of importance to the Browns. Instead, they’re ranked from what appears most likely to be addressed in free agency to what appears least likely to be addressed in free agency.
Under contract for 2014: Josh Aubrey, 22; Johnson Bademosi, 23; Tashaun Gipson, 23; Jordan Poyer, 22; and Jamoris Slaughter, 24.
Soon-to-be free agent: Pro Bowl strong safety T.J. Ward, 27.
Analysis: If the Browns don’t re-sign Ward, they must find a new starter opposite Gipson. Instead of using a traditional strong safety and a traditional free safety, Pettine wants his safeties to be interchangeable. Buffalo Bills three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, 27, is better in coverage than Ward and more versatile. He also spent this past season with Pettine, who was the Bills’ defensive coordinator for a year, so he could be a prime target of the Browns. Antoine Bethea (29, Indianapolis Colts), Chris Clemons (28, Miami Dolphins), Louis Delmas (26, Detroit Lions), Malcolm Jenkins (26, New Orleans Saints) and Donte Whitner (28, San Francisco 49ers) are among the other options.
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; and Buster Skrine, 24.
Analysis: In an ideal scenario, the Browns would sign someone to replace Skrine in the starting lineup opposite Haden. That would allow them to move Skrine to a nickel role in which he could excel covering slot receivers. Sam Shields (26, Green Bay Packers) has been linked to the Browns. Vontae Davis (25, Colts), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (27, Denver Broncos), Aqib Talib (28, New England Patriots) and Alterraun Verner (25, Tennessee Titans) are other starters to consider. But even if a new No. 2 corner isn’t in the cards, the Browns must secure a No. 3 because McFadden couldn’t hold his own last season as a rookie.
Under contract for 2014: Tackles — Reid Fragel, 23; Chris Faulk, 24; Mitchell Schwartz, 24; Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, 29; and Martin Wallace, 23. Guards — Garrett Gilkey, 23; John Greco, 28; Jason Pinkston, 26; and Jeremiah Warren, 26.
Soon-to-be free agents: Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, 28; starting right guard Shawn Lauvao, 26; backup tackle/guard Oniel Cousins, 29.
Analysis: Mack wants to listen to offers from other teams, but the Browns have the power to match any offer because they placed a transition tag on him. Assuming Mack ultimately signs the tag, which would lock him into a one-year, $10.039 million contract, the Browns still must find a starting guard to replace Lauvao, and they might also look for an upgrade over Schwartz at right tackle. Guards to watch include Jon Asamoah (25, Kansas City Chiefs), Zane Beadles (27, Broncos), Chad Rinehart (28, San Diego Chargers), Rodger Saffold (25, St. Louis Rams), Geoff Schwartz (27, Chiefs) and Travelle Wharton (32, Carolina Panthers). The crop of tackles includes Branden Albert (29, Chiefs), Anthony Collins (28, Cincinnati Bengals), Austin Howard (26, New York Jets), Eugene Monroe (26, Baltimore Ravens), Michael Oher (27, Ravens), Zach Strief (30, Saints) and Jared Veldheer (26, Oakland Raiders). New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants athletic big men who can move down the line swiftly and who reach the second level of defenders in his zone-blocking scheme.
Under contract for 2014: Tank Carder, 25; Darius Eubanks, 22; and Craig Robertson, 26.
Analysis: There will definitely be one new starter here and probably two. Cutting defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson, 30, last week created an obvious void. Robertson was the other starter last season, and the Browns brought him back as an exclusive-rights free agent. Robertson, though, proved to be a major liability in coverage and could be forced into a backup role. So it would make sense if the Browns looked for one starter in free agency and another in the draft. Arthur Moats, 25, spent this past season with Pettine in Buffalo, so he would be a logical free-agent target. Pat Angerer (27, Colts), Jon Beason (29, New York Giants), Desmond Bishop (29, Minnesota Vikings), Karlos Dansby (32, Arizona Cardinals), Erin Henderson (27, Vikings), Perry Riley (25, Washington Redskins), Darryl Sharpton (26, Houston Texans), Daryl Smith (31, Ravens) and Brandon Spikes (26, Patriots) are among the others set to be available. Keep this in mind: Pettine prefers speed rather than size at this position.
Under contract for 2014: Travis Benjamin, 24; Josh Cooper, 25; Pro Bowler Josh Gordon, 22; Tori Gurley, 26; Charles Johnson, 25; Greg Little, 24; and Conner Vernon, 23.
Analysis: Gordon is an All Pro, though no one else in this group poses a consistent threat. Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron is certainly another formidable target, but the Browns still need a No. 2 receiver and a slot receiver. One could come from free agency and another from a draft class deep at this position. Players to watch on the open market include Eric Decker (26, Broncos), Golden Tate (25, Seattle Seahawks), James Jones (29, Packers), Julian Edelman (27, Patriots), Emmanuel Sanders (26, Pittsburgh Steelers), Ted Ginn (28, Panthers), Hakeem Nicks (26, Giants) and Dexter McCluster (25, Chiefs).
Under contract for 2014: Edwin Baker, 22; Jamaine Cook, 22; Dion Lewis, 23; Chris Ogbonnaya, 27; and Fozzy Whittaker, 25.
Soon-to-be free agent: Willis McGahee, 32.
Analysis: Securing a proven starter at this position should be one of the top priorities because if the Browns add a bona fide featured back to the mix with Baker, Lewis and Ogbonnaya, they would suddenly have a legitimate stable. Knowshon Moreno (26, Broncos) and Ben Tate (25, Texans) fit the description, and they have been linked to Cleveland. The Browns, though, might rather look for a bargain back in the draft who fits Shanahan’s scheme best. Under Shanahan’s guidance, sixth-round pick Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 and 1,275 yards the past two seasons with the Redskins.
Under contract for 2014: Jason Campbell, 32; Brian Hoyer, 28; Alex Tanney, 26; and Brandon Weeden, 30.
Analysis: Hoyer is the only QB on the roster with a realistic shot to become the starter heading into next season, and he’s trying to bounce back after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in October. Even if Hoyer’s knee holds up and he wins the job, the Browns need a long-term solution. With two first-round draft picks (Nos. 4 and 26 overall), they could stop the bleeding at the most important position if they make the right choice. Still, using free agency to secure a veteran capable of aiding the transition to Shanahan’s system can’t be ruled out. The Texans are expected to part ways with Matt Schaub, 32, who’s scheduled to make $11 million next season. Schaub had two of his best seasons when Shanahan was the Texans’ offensive coordinator from 2008-09. Rex Grossman, 33, spent the past five seasons with Shanahan (one with the Texans and the last four with the Redskins). He’ll be a free agent.
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.