By now, most rational football fans are aware of the damage the protracted lockout has rendered on the NFL consciousness. From the trivial television offenses of slashing Canton's Hall of Fame game and HBO's Hard Knocks to the nearly monumental and complete derailment of any on-field preparation and team continuity, the lockout has created a somewhat untenable situation – especially for a franchise stuck in eternal transition such as the Browns.
Or, in other words – the lockout didn't do the Browns any favors. Or at least no more than usual given the team's recent history.
Heading into the offseason, the Browns had reverted back to their expansion roots with the installation of another head coach – along with new offensive and defensive systems. The scope of such work needed at least several months to establish. With the likelihood of the lockout lingering into the next few days, at best the Browns would have only a few short weeks to run a training camp that will be anything but exhaustive.
For Pat Shurmur – who is also trying to establish himself as a legitimate head coach during this process – the situation is less than ideal. Beyond installing a new offense, Shurmur will have to make his own imprint on a roster of talent that will constantly evolve over the next several weeks. In terms of continuity, Shurmur can only rely on a handful of core veteran talent and the guidance of Team President Mike Holmgren.
However, before the white flags of apathy are flown over Berea, at least these currently shortchanged Browns have one thing going for them.
Part of the new collective bargaining agreement – at least in its proposed form – calls for the salary cap to increase to 120 million dollars with a league-wide, per-team commitment of 99 percent cash spending towards the cap. Numbers aside, all this means is that the Browns – whose salary cap number was just under 100 million dollars a season ago – have some catching up to do.
And conveniently enough, the Browns roster has rapidly deflated since the exodus of Eric Mangini. During the brief late winter window of player movement, the Browns released four veteran defenders in Eric Barton, David Bowens, Shaun Rogers and Kenyon Coleman along with offensive lineman John St. Clair and tight end Robert Royal. The moves were made as a response to the arrival of both Shurmur and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron – who will be installing a 4-3 defense.
However, during this same phase of the pre-lockout offseason, the Browns only retained three players in linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, quarterback Seneca Wallace and kicker Phil Dawson – who was given the franchise designation. Of course, the lockout halted what inevitably would have been a busy period for the Browns, who basically have needs at perhaps seven or more starting positions.
While April's draft may have alleviated a few of these demands, several more remain. Currently, the Browns are thin at safety, linebacker and across both lines. Other needs include adding depth at running back and wide receiver.
However, in a capitalistic nuance seemingly entwined to the NFL, simply spending money will prove to be a bit difficult. Because of the proposed CBA changes, the Browns will have some competition in trying to both improve their roster along with raising their overall cap number. While other teams may keep these two motives exclusive, a team seemingly bent on becoming a winner like the Browns should not. Although the likelihood of the Browns spending money on their own – i.e., Joe Thomas, Eric Wright and others – is more than possible.
Also, it's worth noting that this year's free agency will develop at warp speed compared to prior years. With a limited window for players to visit prospective teams, most general managers will rely on what is familiar to them. In the Browns' case, GM Tom Heckert will likely rely on his Philadelphia ties, along with referrals from Holmgren, Shurmur and Jauron. As such, the Browns' free agency moves could feature a very Philadelphia/Buffalo/St. Louis and AFC North-centric feel.
Having said all that, here is a quick breakdown of available players.
Assuming that Abe Elam is not resigned, the Browns will likely feature veteran utility man Mike Adams as a starter at free safety. And while Adams is extraordinarily underrated as an extra defensive back and special teams' player, the Browns need to add a more consistent player to pair with hard-hitting 2010 rookie T.J. Ward. Rookie Eric Hagg is interesting, but also carries seventh-round expectations. And unless veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown is shifted from cornerback, the Browns need to explore available safeties.
Unfortunately, the best free agent safety prospects play strong safety. In either a Romeo Crennel or Mangini/Rob Ryan-coached defense, signing Quintin Mikell or Roman Harper could work. However, Dick Jauron's defenses have usually featured more distinct roles at safety – which should suggest that T.J. Ward is a strong safety.
Jauron's Buffalo connections could hint that Donte Whitner is Cleveland-bound. However, Whitner practically dominates in a free agent class that is very weak in free safety options. Both the demand and price for Whitner could dramatically rise based on such a short supply. And although the Browns will likely need to spend money, it's worth asking whether Whitner possesses the coverage skills to justify what will be a big free agent deal. Beyond Whitner, Eric Weddle, Tanard Jackson, Danieal Manning and Gerald Alexander offer short-term possibilities.
If the season began today, Jauron's Cleveland defense would feature Scott Fujita and D'Qwell Jackson at outside linebacker, with Chris Gocong inside. Kaluka Maiava lingers as mostly forgotten depth, along with restricted free agent and special teams ace Blake Costanzo. Considering how huge a gamble the Browns are making in projecting healthy seasons from Jackson and Fujita – and based on the lack of attention paid to linebacker in April's draft – it's obvious that this position was long ago declared a free agent priority.
Or so I would hope. Otherwise, the fate of the 2011 defense rests in Fujita's tired legs and Jackson's previously shredded pectoral muscles.
There is a glut of free agent linebackers available; although none could be considered game-changers. Two former Carolina linebackers, James Anderson and Thomas Davis, are talented and experienced in the 4-3. Anderson is skilled in both run defense and pass rushing, but could be an early priority for the Panthers – who are one of the teams that need to spend money. Davis could come cheaper, but is coming off consecutive ACL injuries.
Other players closer to the Browns' interests – or more specifically on Heckert's radar – are former Eagles' Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither and Ernie Sims. Sims and Bradley are a bit undersized, but could provide the depth that is so badly needed. Buffalo's Keith Ellison or Paul Posluszny could be targets thanks to their Jauron ties, while AFC North talent such as Baltimore's Tavares Gooden and Pittsburgh's Greg Warren are cheaper options.
On the Browns' rebuilding panic scale, the lack of defensive ends – as the team was converting to a 4-3 – ranks just below the non-existent depth at linebacker. As of now, the Browns feature rookie end Jabaal Sheard and 2010 mystery man Jayme Mitchell as starting options – at least assuming the Browns re-sign Mitchell or Marcus Benard – who could be converted to a down pass rusher. In any case, most of Mangini's 3-4 castoffs either project to defensive tackle depth or will not survive the scheme transition.
Fortunately for the Browns, the franchise picked a good year to once again change gears – at least in the sense that a few quality free agent defensive ends are available. The short list is highlighted by Minnesota's Ray Edwards, Carolina's Charles Johnson and Tennessee's Jason Babin. However, a bidding war should erupt for both Edwards and Johnson, with the Browns' 2011 draft trading partner, Atlanta, leading the way.
If the Browns are not successful in landing either Edwards or Johnson, then Babin – pretty much a one-year wonder in 2010 – could be a target. If not, the likes of former Eagle Victor Abiamiri, Tennessee's Dave Ball or the Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka could be possibilities. Also, some interesting trade rumors have popped up in the past few days regarding Kiwanuka's teammate and NFC East talent Osi Umenyiora.
Since the arrival of Joe Thomas in 2007, the Browns' offensive line has been never been more than two-thirds settled. While Thomas is one of the league's best left tackles and Alex Mack has emerged as a top center, the Browns have continually had gaps at right guard and right tackle. Throw in Eric Steinbach's advancing age and a case for the Browns' management to focus on rebuilding the offensive line could be made.
Of course, under Heckert and Holmgren's guidance, the Browns have both spent money and draft picks on the line – a virtual first for the team during the expansion age. However, 2010 free agent Tony Pashos has never fully recovered from a 2008 injury, while young talent Shaun Lauvao and Jason Pinkston are unproven.
Because of these investments, it's likely that the Browns will again turn to patchwork measures – meaning that occasional 2010 starters Floyd Womack and Billy Yates could be targets. While Womack is serviceable in small doses, Yates proved to be surprisingly effective during his few 2010 starts and would make a valuable 2011 pickup. However, if the Browns want to make a bulky splash in free agency, Atlanta's Tyson Clabo would fill the hole at right tackle that has loomed for over a decade.
However, a more modest version of Clabo could be found with Baltimore's Marshal Yando. Yando manhandled the Browns twice last season and is versatile enough to play guard along with tackle. After Clabo and Yanda, there is a significant decline in available talent. Pittsburgh's Willie Colon is returning after a 2010 injury, while Denver's Ryan Harris could be an interesting option. Former St. Louis tackle Adam Goldberg could be some one-year gap filler, along with veteran Eagle Reggie Wells.
The Browns' 2011 running back situation shouldn't be compared to the mess at linebacker, but is dangerously closer than most people probably think. Although Peyton Hillis at times appears to be superhuman, it's unlikely that his bruising style will enable a fully healthy season. At times, Hillis will need to be relieved by other backs in order to preserve his body. Yet, Hillis' primary backup is Montario Hardesty, who is literally another blown knee from football oblivion.
While Hillis' injury concerns are more projected at this point in his career, it's telling how much the Browns' offensive production dropped late in 2010. With Hillis ailing, the Browns' offense lost direction – much in the way that the 2011 season could follow suit. With these factors in mind – along with the idea that both Hillis and Hardesty have similar running styles – finding a free agent running back should be an ideal goal for the Browns.
There are some big name free agent backs available, including Carolina's D'Angelo Williams, Miami's Ronnie Brown and the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw. However, all three of these backs – and many more – will command extraordinary free agent money. In the Browns' case, a lower-profile NFC West player such as Arizona's Tim Hightower or former Ram Kenneth Darby could make sense. Of course, so would former Brown and Eagle Jerome Harrison. However, such a move will likely be determined based on Hardesty's health and the prospects of which free agent back could play special teams.
Wide receiver is the most scandalous of free agent talk; yet for the Browns this position could prove to be of the least importance over the next couple weeks. Currently, the Browns feature two mini-waves of young receiver talent, in 2009's Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, along with 2010 and 2011 rookies Carlton Mitchell and Greg Little. Despite the slight range of experience among all four players, still not much is known about any.
Massaquoi and Robiskie are getting a second chance as they should find more success in Shurmur's receiver-friendly offense as compared to Brian Daboll's physically challenging scheme. Mitchell and Little are unknown talents, but feature the kind of size and speed that are intriguing – especially to a new offensive minded head coach. In this sense, it's worth asking whether Shurmur and Heckert decide to make a move to grab a top-flight wide receiver – or try to forge an identity with the available talent.
Given the inherently high-profile image of the position, there are some star-caliber wideouts available, including San Diego's Vincent Jackson, Minnesota's Sidney Rice and the Jets' Santonio Holmes. Of course, with such name recognition, all three players will command huge free agent deals. On a slightly more moderate salary level, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones and Steve Breaston could be options. Or, from a Shurmur perspective, Ben Obomanu and Laurent Robinson could become the reliable targets needed to pull off a quick transition to a West Coast attack.
Despite what appear to be glaring holes in the team's roster, the Browns are probably about 3-5 players away from solidifying all starting positions – at least in preparation for the start of the 2011 season. Obviously, free safety, linebacker, offensive and defensive line depth are major needs. However, the extent to which the Browns become major free agent players will likely rely on how much the team needs to spend to satisfy salary cap demands.
Assuming that the Browns need to lay out upwards of 20 million dollars to reach required cap space, it's possible that two big name free agents could put the team halfway towards its goal. Such a scenario could see an expensive pass rusher or wide receiver landing a 5-9 million dollar annual deal. Or a more conservative approach would net three to four serviceable veterans at 3-5 million dollars per year.
Yet, in an also realistic vision, the Browns could be operating from a near-default mode in terms of overall expectations. Because of the steep incline that has already been placed in front of the Browns, free agency could be viewed as a temporary means to an end, rather than a construct of roster building. In this sense, free agency would deliver the Browns a variety of what could be viewed as "leftover" players – or those who were untouched by the first wave of movement.
As of now, the only certainties are intrigue regarding veteran talent and volume in terms of undrafted free agents. In terms of actual financial value, the extraordinarily high number of undrafted free agents could go a long way towards solving the Browns' immediate roster depth needs. Over the next few weeks, there will be a flood of activity involving players without the type of name recognition associated with the soon to be wealthy names previously mentioned.
And while the names will circulate and leap from roster to roster, one thing is abundantly clear throughout the coming process.
Money will be spent.