INDIANAPOLIS: The Browns are in jeopardy of losing four key players during free agency in two weeks, but coach Hue Jackson insists he’s not panicking.
Three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack can opt out of his contract, and he’s expected to do so by the March 4 deadline. He would become an unrestricted free agent on March 9 along with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and former Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson.
“Would I love to have them all back? Yes, I would,” Jackson said Wednesday during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “But at the same time, I know they have a right to do what’s best for them and their families.
“If that happens, I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘OK, well, we’re going to give the season away.’ What we have to do is go find players to fit in those particular positions.”
Some replacements might already be on the roster.
“There’s still some players on the team that have a chance to ascend,” Jackson added.
Jackson has made his pitch to the aforementioned players since the Browns hired him Jan. 13.
“I’ve had some great conversations with that group, and I feel very comfortable that they want to be a part of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “They are the cornerstones of this football team.”
But Jackson acknowledges the reality of his business. Oftentimes accomplished players want to capitalize on an opportunity to hit the open market by netting a big payday. Agents of players with expiring contracts may begin negotiating with other teams March 7.
“There’s going to be some players that stay,” Jackson said. “There might be some players that leave.
“It will not be disappointing [if they leave] because they have a right to do that. … If they leave, I can’t worry about that. We’ve just got to move forward and put our head down and get better.”
The Browns could prevent one player from hitting the open market by using the franchise or transition tag, and Jackson didn’t rule it out. The deadline to apply the tag is Tuesday.
“We could, but you never know how that’s going to play out,” Jackson said. “There’s six days, and a lot of things can happen in six days.”
Jackson said he’s satisfied with the organization’s attempt to re-sign the players.
“It goes both ways,” he said. “There’s no question that I think the organization has talked to them all. We’ll see where those things go.”
Mack, a 2009 first-round draft pick, is the most accomplished of the foursome. He hasn’t made a final decision on whether he’ll opt out, a source familiar with the situation said, but exercising the power he has in his contract is the logical choice.
“Alex is a tremendous player,” Jackson said. “You guys all know how I feel about Alex Mack. … Love to have him back, but at the same time, he has to make that choice, and he has to want to be back.”
Tired of Johnny talk
After Jackson stood at the podium and reiterated the Browns’ plan to “move on” from troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel by cutting him March 9, the coach was asked in a separate interview with beat writers whether anyone from the organization has talked to Manziel since ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley accused him of beating her Jan. 30.
Not only did Jackson imply the Browns’ attempts to contact Manziel have been unsuccessful, but he also made it clear he’s tired of talking about a player with whom the team will soon sever ties.
“We’ve tried to reach out to Johnny,” Jackson said. “Again, we’ve talked about Johnny enough, haven’t we? I’m being honest. We made a statement [earlier this month about our plans to release him], and I want to stand by that because it’s the best way to be, and that’s where we’re going to leave that.”
Does he fit?
Jackson said the Browns don’t know when they’ll learn about the status of former All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has applied for reinstatement into the NFL after being banished for the entire 2015 season because of recurring violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Would he welcome Gordon back?
“I think I will go through the process of spending time with him, and see if it’s the right fit for us,” Jackson replied. “Obviously, he’s a very talented individual, but at the same time, it’s got to fit right for us as we move forward in this situation.”
Another in trouble
Outside linebacker Armonty Bryant pleaded not guilty to felony drug charges Wednesday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Found to be in possession of Oxycodone and Adderall, he was indicted two weeks ago on two counts of felony drug possession stemming from a Christmas morning traffic stop. His pretrial hearing is set for Tuesday.
“I’ve spoken to him,” Jackson said. “You better believe I have. We’re good. We’ll be fine. I think he has talent, but again, it’s not just about talent.”
Familiar faces welcome
Jackson conceded he values impending free agents who have played in his system.
“If he’s the right fit for it, if it’s the right opportunity for us, yeah, I do,” he said.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu played for Jackson, and they’re scheduled to hit the open market next month.
It would make sense for the Browns to target them. But speaking about free agency in general, Jackson warned the team isn’t inclined to sign a bevy of players.
“We’ll try to supplement our team as much as we can that way,” he said. “But we’ll be very disciplined as we go through that because I think our future is in drafting.”
• Jackson on veteran wide receiver Dwayne Bowe’s future with the team: “We’ll address all that as we move forward. Dwayne Bowe, I know who he is.”
• Jackson said he can’t envision Pro Bowler Gary Barnidge regressing next season, but he’d still like to add a pass-catching tight end to complement him.
• Jackson said the team has hired a new strength and conditioning staff.
• Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome praised Jackson for influencing the career of quarterback Joe Flacco, who was named rookie of the year in 2008 when Jackson was his position coach. “The calmness that Hue brings in his relationship with Joe or just with anybody in the building, I think that was very beneficial in Joe’s ability to go out there and play in his first year,” Newsome said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Hue.”
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 www.facebook.com/abj.sports.