As the new Browns regime of Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi begin their era of player acquisitions for the Browns, all eyes will be on them to see what they do.
Up until now, there has been nothing but speculation as to what the new brain trust will do in re-shaping the Browns roster. In many regards, the Browns are in a ‘perfect storm' as they enter free agency. The team was left in good shape in terms of the salary cap by former GM Tom Heckert with a reported excess of $45 million heading into free agency. Besides having nearly the most cap space to spend, the free agency market is considered to be one of the strongest groups in many years—particularly at positions of need for the Browns.
Building through the draft is the best way to build a team, but the Browns also have approximately half of their roster made up of up-and-coming players entering just their second- and third-seasons in the NFL. Although, it might be wishful thinking, some think a few key acquisitions at key positions could vault the team from 5-11 to vying for a playoff spot in 2013—or at least respectability.
Since the Browns forfeited their second-round draft choice this year for selecting Josh Gordon in the second-round of the Supplemental Draft last July, it is more important to use free agency and their cap space to find immediate starters.
The following are current Browns who are set to become unrestricted free agents: Phil Dawson, Josh Cribbs, Sheldon Brown, Scott Fujita, Reggie Hodges, Brandon Jackson, Josh Johnson, Kaluka Maiava, Mohamed Massaquoi, Juqua Parker, Alex Smith, Ray Ventrone and Ben Watson.
Six of the players were starters at some point in 2012 and Dawson, Hodges and Cribbs would be considered starters, if specialists were included. Thus far, it doesn't appear many, if any, of the free agents are being considered to be brought back.
With that being said, here are my priorities as I see them for the Browns as they enter free agency. We're ranking them in descending order of importance as we see it.
Cornerback - Currently, the Browns have five cornerbacks under contract including Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, Prince Miller, Johnson Bademosi and Trevin Wade. Skrine is hardly a lock to be the third cornerback, let alone be the starter opposite of Haden. If the Browns can add two cornerbacks it would be helpful in the current era of the pass happy NFL. In many of the early mock drafts, only Alabama's Dee Milliner is rated as a top 10 draft choice (Browns have sixth pick and no second-round choice). It appears to be able to get a starting cornerback, the Browns will need to do so in free agency.
Keenan Lewis of the Steelers would be my first target as he's just 26 and appears to be a player on the rise. He had 23 passes batted down last season. It would also hurt the Steelers. Alternate choices listed with age and former team would be Antoine Cason (27, Chargers), Brent Grimes (30, Falcons), Greg Toler (28, Cardinals) and Derek Cox (26, Jaguars).
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End – Currently, the Browns players under contract at linebacker are D'Qwell Jackson, Chris Gocong, James-Michael Johnson, Jabaal Sheard, Tank Carder, Emmanuel Acho, L.J. Fort, Craig Robertson and Adrian Moten. The key components of the 3-4 defense are the linebackers and the Browns needed to upgrade their linebacker corps before they switched from the 4-3 to the 3-4. It is imperative that they add players who can get after the quarterback to make the defense successful.
Cliff Avril (26) of the Lions and Paul Kruger (27) of the Ravens would be my top two targets as pass rushing candidates. Alternative choices would be Quinten Groves (28, Cardinals)), Victor Butler (25, Cowboys), Shaun Phillips (31, Chargers), Philip Wheeler (28, Raiders), Antwan Barnes (28, Chargers) and Conner Barwin (26, Texans).
Inside Linebacker – Currently, Jackson and Johnson would most likely be the starting inside linebackers.
Dannell Ellerbe of the Ravens would be my top priority to beef up that position. He is the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and that would hurt their AFC North rival.
Tight End – The tight end is a key component in Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner's offense and the Browns have just Jordan Cameron and Brad Smelley under contract. Assuming Watson and Smith will not return, the Browns need to find a starting tight end.
Jared Cook (26, Titans) could be explosive in the Browns offense. He has the size and speed to be a downfield threat like Antonio Gates was under Turner in San Diego. Alternatives would be Dustin Keller (28, Jets), Brandon Myers (27, Raiders), Martellus Bennett (26, Giants) or Fred Davis (27, Redskins).
Wide Receiver – The Browns receiving corps appears to be in much better shape than it was in prior years with the emergence of Gordon in his rookie year. However, the Browns are thin in numbers with just Greg Little, Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper under contract besides Gordon. Jordan Norwood is an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Browns can control his services, if they wish.
The imminent departure of Massaquoi and Cribbs leaves the Browns needing at least a top three receiver. Mike Wallace (27, Steelers) would be at the top of the list, but his price tag might be too high to acquire. Greg Jennings (29, Packers) and Wes Welker (32, Patriots) are big names but might be more suited for the West Coast offense. Alternatives for the Browns could be Danny Amendola (27, Rams) or Akron alum Domenik Hixon (28, Giants).
Safety – The Browns need help in the secondary. T.J. Ward could be a key player in Ray Horton's defense, but the Browns need a free safety that can make plays. Under contract besides Ward are Eric Hagg, Tashaun Gipson and Usama Young. Hagg and Young didn't blow anyone away with their production and Gipson ended up the season playing quite a bit and showing some promise.
Dashon Goldson (49ers) would be my top choice. He would look good along side of Ward and at 28 he is in the prime of his career. Alternatives would be William Moore (28, Falcons) and Glover Quinn (27, Texans).
Guard – The Browns current stable of guards are Shaun Lauvao, John Greco, Jason Pinkston, Dominic Alford, Ryan Miller and Jarrod Shaw. Lauvao and Pinkston were the starters the last two seasons before Pinkston had a life-threatening blood clot in his lung and Greco stepped in. The perception is the Browns could have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with an upgrade at one of the guards spots. However, the Browns have a lot of money tied up in the line with Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz and have pressing needs at other positions.
My top choice for guard would be Andy Levitre (Bills). At 26, he is entering the prime of his career. Alternatives, would be Geoff Schwartz (Vikings, 26) and Louis Vasquez (Chargers, 25).
Fullback – The Browns are expected to utilize a fullback in their offense as has been Chudzinski and Turner's history. The Browns have just Owen Marecic and Smelley under contract. Smith became the starter last year when Marecic failed and he is not a true fullback.
The Browns can add a fullback in free agency or draft one. There are only a couple of free agent possibilities in Jerome Felton (Vikings, 26), Jackie Battle (Chargers, 29) or Jacob Hester (Broncos, 27).
Kicker – As hard as it is to believe the Browns are going to let Dawson walk, most of the free agents available are in their 30's, as well. Nate Kaeding (Dolphins, 31) or Nick Novak (Chargers, 32) are options. When Banner was with the Eagles and he allowed David Akers to become a free agent, the Eagles picked their next kicker, Alex Henery, in the following draft.
Punter - The Browns have Spencer Lanning under contract, but it's assumed the Browns will bring in another punter. Britton Colquitt, 28, of the Broncos would be one of the top available in free agency. They might also draft a punter or more likely bring in an undrafted free agent.
We didn't list quarterback as an option for free agency as we didn't deem any available to be an improvement to the roster. The Browns have Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy and Thaddeus Lewis under contract.
With Matt Moore re-signing with the Dolphins and with Brian Hoyer being tendered as a second-round restricted free agent, the only free agents available are Chase Daniel (Saints, 26) and Derek Anderson (Panthers, 30). Johnson, who was with the Browns to end the season, is a free agent and he was listed as the fifth-best free agent quarterback available by Adam Schefter of ESPN. Enough said.
This could be a very exciting time for Browns fans to see if the Browns can add some key pieces to the puzzle to help the Browns get back on the road to respectability.
If not, there's always the NFL Draft.