Once the labor negotiations result in a new collective bargining agreement, two phases of free agency will occur.
First, each team must start with an introspective approach of what they have and what they need. The Cleveland Browns got an early jump on this process by cutting six overpaid veterans Feb. 9. But, not every player currently without a contract is dead weight.
The list is long of those lacking a contract with the Browns. That presents a number of tough decisions the team will have to quickly act on once an agreement is reached.
So, which players will the Browns show most interested in signing before they hit the open market? It is time to rank the Browns' top free agents they must re-sign whenever the process is back on track.
1. Matt Roth: It is very simple as to why Roth sits atop the list: Only one potential starting defensive lineman is currently under contract (Ahtyba Rubin). By all indications the Browns are making the transition to a four-man front under new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. As a result, bodies are needed to start the process. Retaining a quality player and professional like Roth is merely the first step as a starting rotation is established and depth is slowly built. For Roth, it would be a return to his roots. Roth was originally drafted as a defensive end from Iowa where he was an All-American as a senior, a two time All-Big Ten selection and posted 30 career quarterback sacks. With his attitude and physical style of play, Roth can provide leadership by example to the rest of the defensive front. He may not have lived up to the status many Browns fans envisioned after his blistering late-2009 performance, but he is a talent that the Browns need to retain.
2. Lawrence Vickers: Misconceptions have arisen as to the viability of a true fullback in the team's move toward a west coast offense under new head coach and de facto offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Two examples must quickly be given. First, Shurmur had a place in his running attack for Mike Karney in St. Louis. The Rams lead blocker may not have been a full-time starter, but Karney's blocking skills were utilized to complement Steven Jackson's power running abilities. It was similar to Vickers assisting Peyton Hillis' efforts last year. Second, in Seattle then-head coach and current Browns' president Mike Holmgren effectively used the one-dimensional Mack Strong in the backfield lead blocking for Shaun Alexander. Vickers is one of - if not THE - best at what he does. Although what he does isn't very pretty, it is very effective. To allow Vickers to market his skills in free agency would be a mistake.
3. Seneca Wallace: One cannot overstate the importance of a legitimate backup quarterback in this league, especially if Colt McCoy is set to take over the reigns and needs all the guidance a veteran backup can provide. Jake Delomme's career is already in question after being overpaid during his first year in Cleveland. A likely contract renegotiation will be needed for Delhomme to stick around another season or two as a mentor. Wallace, on the other hand, can play and at a relatively high level off the bench. His performance in 2010 is a great indication of exactly what Wallace provides in a pinch: 63.4 completion percentage, 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 88.5 quarterback rating. Wallace is one of the best backup options in the league. In addition, Cleveland may still be the best situation for this still-hopeful signal caller. Wallace wants a chance to start. The Browns now have an offense that fits his best attributes, McCoy is not fully entrenched and he has yet to stay healthy for an entire season.
4. Evan Moore: Weapons are at a premium in Cleveland. The quarterbacks are already dealing with a dearth of talent at wide receiver. Moore battled through a knee injury and was still effective as a receiving target. Moreover, he built chemistry with McCoy and Moore led the team in yards per catch. He is a match-up problem for opposing teams because of his length inline, on the wing, or lined in the slot. Plus, as good as starting tight end Ben Watson was last season, he will be 31-years old this season.
5. Marcus Benard: He may have topped the list if not for being a restricted free agent (based on the old system). Benard led the Browns in sacks (7.5) in limited playing time. He still does not have the size to hold the point of attack, but his comfort level may rise after returning to his more natural position of defensive end. At worst, he remains the team's top edge rusher while continuing to participate as a pass rush specialist and he provides more depth along the defensive line.
6. Abe Elam: Elam has had an up and down career during his stop in Cleveland. His 2010 campaign finished on an upswing and his prospects of returning seem much brighter, especially considering the Browns lack of depth at safety. Elam played a large part in the progress of rookie T.J. Ward, who initially struggled to understand the NFL game. Questions will continue regarding whether or not Sheldon Brown will bump to the back line. If so, that leaves a hole at cornerback. The team's most prudent decision may be to re-sign Elam and then try to build safety depth by other means.
7. Eric Wright: Bridges may have been burned between the Browns and Wright's camp. He has always seemed to have a much higher opinion of himself than his on-the-field play warranted. With that said, Wright is still a very solid cornerback to provide depth and even start. He is physically very talented. The addition of Jauron, a secondary specialist, may soften the re-signing blow for Wright, and the Browns would be in a better position if they were able to keep him.
8. D'Qwell Jackson: It has been three seasons since Jackson led the NFL in total tackles, which was a feat often been downplayed by Browns' fans. Yet it was quite an accomplishment when considering those who have achieved the same in recent seasons. Jackson's career has taken a downhill turn since suffering multiple torn pectoral muscles. The linebacker had his issues with the team when they did not extend his contract, but the reason why the Browns refrained from doing so is now obvious. Jackson's options may be limited if he still wants to start somewhere in the league. If healthy, Cleveland's transition to a 4-3 is a better fit for Jackson's skill set. The Browns lack depth at linebacker and Jackson could still be a starter in the right situation.
9. Chris Gocong: There is a history between Gocong and the team's current management. The Eagles drafted Gocong when Tom Heckert worked in their front office. The Eagles then moved Gocong, a defensive end in college, to strong side linebacker. His transition was not entirely smooth despite starting 35 games in the three years prior to arriving in Cleveland. Gocong has never been asked to become the pass rush specialist many envisioned when he entered the league. At Cal-Poly, Gocong set an NCAA record with 23.5 sacks in a single season. He posted 42 quarterback sacks and 61.5 tackles for loss during his collegiate career. Gocong may no longer be an option at middle linebacker, as the team moves away from a 3-4 base defense, but his skills make him valuable for depth at the strong side and potentially as another pass rush specialist.
10. Brian Schaefering: A theme has presented itself. The Browns must focus on bolstering their front seven. It lacks starters and depth. Schaefering is only 27 years old and he may have been miscast in a three-man front. He possessed the quickest first step among his teammates. He has the ability to provide depth as a one and three technique, and he may even be able play some base end in a pinch.
COMING UP: Part two will examine players around the league who would best fit the future plans taking shape in Cleveland.