Earlier this week, the San Diego Chargers labeled Vincent Jackson with the franchise tag. It will elevate the superstar wide receiver into the next tax bracket as becomes one of the five highest paid players at his position. More importantly, it will prevent Browns fans from continually slobbering over the (unlikely) possibility of signing Jackson. Despite much of the Browns fan base spending the offseason praying for the world to be handed to the Cleveland Browns during free agency, in the end reality always seems to rise up and slap them in the face.
It is time to face facts.
Cleveland isn't a likely landing spot for most, if any, of the league's upcoming top free agents once a collective bargaining deal is finished. Lamar Woodley, Sidney Rice, Santonio Holmes, DeAngelo Williams, Arian Foster, Champ Bailey, Nnamdi Asomugha, Peyton Manning, and Michael Vick can be stricken from the wish list. It's the next lower tier of free agents, and the talent below that, who become interesting once a labor agreement is reached.
Regimes often build a foundation based on familiarity. Familiarity breeds trust. Trust is established through nepotistic roots. Four distinct "family" branches permeate throughout the latest incarnation of the Cleveland Browns.
It starts with the team's final say in personnel matters, general manager Tom Heckert, and his previous stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. President Mike Holmgren still holds sway as evidenced by his actions last year in forcing the hand of Heckert to draft Colt McCoy at quarterback. New head coach and the team's offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, recently left the St. Louis Rams. Finally, Dick Jauron has a long history and deep ties established during his experience as a former head coach, coordinator, and most recently as a positional coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. It's those types of previously built relationships that will be the predominant basis for the Browns approach as they attempt to rebuild, version 5.0.
A big piece of the puzzle is the recent addition of Shurmur as the team's head coach. During his two-year stint as the offensive coordinator for the Rams, he dealt with a top rookie behind center, numerous injuries at wide receiver and a one-dimensional running attack. Despite those issues the Rams still improved by 7.2 points per game, 22.8 total yards per game, 36.3 passing yards per game, and saw a three percent increase in passing accuracy from 2009 to 2010.
Some of the players who helped Shurmur achieve that level of improvement will be part of the free agency pool for next season. Three, in particular, could improve the Browns' woeful receiving corps.
Danny Amendola may not ‘wow' anyone with his combination of size and speed, but the NFL is becoming less of a measurable crazed society. Wes Welker, a former collegiate teammate of Amendola's, became the template for slot receivers dominating a team's passing attack. Amendola isn't on the same level as Welker when it comes to short area quickness, but St. Louis' former target in the slot still finds ways to get open against defenders. He was Sam Bradford's favorite target last year and had 85 receptions. Amendola, 25, can be the same reliable outlet for McCoy. Reliability may be more of a concern for the Browns than explosiveness for a receiving unit that struggled so mightily in 2010.
Two more targets from the Gateway City will be available.
Mark Clayton was having a resurgent season after being traded from Baltimore to St. Louis. He opened the season against Arizona, posting 10 receptions for 119 yards. His final two games, before injury, Clayton averaged five catches for nearly 80 yards. He tore a patella tendon in the first quarter of the Rams' fifth game against Detroit. It was a devastating injury, but he may still be a legitimate option at 28. The third potential addition from the same unit was Clayton's replacement, Laurent Robinson. The 25-year old stepped in as the team's second starter with 29 receptions and 311 yards in the final 10 games of the season.
Other offensive pieces from Shurmur's stay in St. Louis include Daniel Fells, Adam Goldberg and John Greco. Playing tight end, Fells was the Rams' fourth leading receiver with 41 catches. At 27, he can add quality depth and youth to a position that may become even more important in Cleveland, if the team employs more two tight end sets in its new offensive scheme. Goldberg previously drew interest from the team's prior head coach Eric Mangini, who saw him as a player having the potentially to become the team's starting right tackle. He decided to return to St. Louis and started all 16 games in 2010 at right guard. Goldberg does have the versatility to be a right tackle, but age may become a factor when he turns 31 in August. Greco was Goldberg's immediate backup. He would not be a flashy signing, but he would add depth to both guard and tackle. Greco is a resident of Ravenna, who played at Boardman High School, and signing with the Browns would be a homecoming.
While Shurmur's priorities involved the offensive side of the football, he may also have intimate knowledge of some of the Rams defensive personnel entering free agency.
The Rams recently released O.J. Atogwe, whom they thought highly enough to place the franchise tag on a year ago. Now, he is a street free agent and an upgrade to at least one potential safety position. Clifton Ryan started 27 games at defensive tackle in 2008 and 2009, before succumbing to serious migraine issues because of a concussion suffered early in the 2010 season. If proven healthy, Ryan becomes a legitimate option for a starting defensive tackle position. David Vobora is another solid option to provide more young depth to Browns linebacking corps, particularly along the weakside where he has started 16 games the last three seasons. Finally, among available Rams, C.J. Ah You was a large part in the Rams' defensive end rotation a season ago, posting four sacks.
Tom Heckert and Dick Jauron's ties with Philadelphia may help the team's linebacking unit.
Three potential starters from the Eagles are available. Mike ‘backer, and defensive leader, Stewart Bradley is enticing. Bradley also has an injury history after missing all of 2009 with a torn ACL, then dislocating his elbow late in the 2010 campaign. Prior to these issues, he was regarded as one of the game's up-and-coming linebackers. He is a big strong interior force against the run, but also a cerebral player who is able to be a defense's field general. A source close to the team stated he would be surprised if the Eagles allowed Bradley to hit the market. The same source was not as high on the potential of either Ernie Sims or Omar Gaither. Sims was a former top 10 selection by the Detroit Lions. He is athletically talented, but he appeared slow reacting during his first year in the Eagles' system and was swallowed by blockers because of a lack of size. The weakside ‘backer did start 15 of the team's 16 regular season games. Gaither was described as a good locker room presence, but better as a back-up performer despite starting 26 games in five seasons. Each is 27-years old or younger and could help the Browns, particularly with depth being an issue at linebacker.
One additional linebacker with ties to Jauron is Buffalo's Paul Posluszny. The Penn State product was a second round selection and played his rookie season with Jauron the head coach. Mangini raved about Posluszny after last season's meeting with Buffalo. He was not far off in his praise of this ever-present tackling machine finished third in the NFL with 151 total tackles. A change in scenery may also play a role, as Posluszny is not an ideal 3-4 linebacker, the system Buffalo currently employs. A move to a team having him play behind a four-man front is ideal.
Meanwhile, Heckert could continue to harken back to his Philadelphia connections. Two defensive ends should draw interest.
Heckert headed a pro-personnel department that saw something in the nomadic Jason Babin. Babin was a first round selection by the Houston Texans in 2004. After one season with the Eagles, he finally realized his potential and made his first Pro Bowl posting 12.5 sacks for the Tennessee Titans this past season. That number more than doubled his previous season high. Cleveland craves pass rush ability. At present, there is not a single clear-cut starter on the roster at the defensive end position. Babin could potentially fill the bill, IF the team's concerted effort to get younger is overlooked for this soon-to-be 31-year old.
Victor Abiamiri was a second round pick by the Eagles in 2007. Despite his immense physical ability, the Notre Dame product has yet to put it all together. In 2008 and 2009, he was a cog in the team's defensive line rotation. He managed four quarterback sacks during that two-year period. Then, in 2010 he found himself on the P.U.P. list after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. He would not be asked to come in and start, but may get a look as depth.
Finally, the presence and previous experience of Holmgren may affect the team's line of thinking. As the former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, his experience with five players may have an influence the team's decision making regarding whether to make an attempt to acquire their services.
Brandon Mebane is one of the better, yet unheralded, defensive tackles in the league. The interior defender was a third round pick of Holmgren's in 2007. He is only 26 years old. His first step is one of the quickest among his contemporaries. He can play as a one-technique or three-technique. He lacks ideal height, but his leverage only adds to his initial burst - a burst that was partially slowed by a calf injury last season. Mebane's talent, combined with Cleveland's critical need for young talented players along the defensive line, may make him a priority target for the Browns.
Two former first rounders picked by Seattle under Holmgren are also part of the free agency landscape. Chris Chester struggled on the pivot as a young player who was asked to make many of the line calls. He has bounced back and forth from center to guard throughout his career. He has the size and ability to compete for a starting guard position in Cleveland. Kelly Jennings was a cornerback prospect from the University of Miami. He has never started a full season in Seattle, but he has plenty of starting experience (44 games).
Sean Locklear was a favorite of Holmgren's while he played under the thumb of the Walrus. Despite playing most of his collegiate career at guard, Locklear worked his way into the starting right tackle position in 2005 and started the majority of the team's game at that position. He also presents the versatility of playing left tackle in a pinch, which he did in 2010. Locklear is another player who had nagging injury issues during his career. He turns 30 years old in May.
Wide receiver Ben Obamanu may be considered because he knows the west coast offense and played well at the end of the season.
Additional players who should also draw interest, but who are not as familiar to the decision makers within the walls of Berea include: James Jones (WR, Green Bay), Lance Moore (WR, New Orleans), Malcolm Floyd (WR, San Diego), Steve Smith (WR, NY Giants), Mathias Kiwanuka (DE, NY Giants), Rocky McIntosh (LB, Washington), Tavares Gooden (LB, Baltimore), Clint Session (LB, Indianapolis), and Stephen Nicholas (LB, Atlanta).
One name to keep an eye on, who is already a fan favorite in Ohio, is Green Bay's A.J. Hawk. Hawk has been somewhat of a disappointment during his career for the Packers after being selected fifth overall. He is not an ideal fit in the team's current 3-4 base defense. Much like the aforementioned Posluszny, a move behind a four-man front should prove beneficial. Plus, he is owed $10 million this upcoming season, which is a combination that does not appear to favor Hawk staying with the Super Bowl champions next year.
This list of names may not excite many fans, but these are exactly the types of names coaches and franchises build around as they look to press towards the future.