It was bound to happen.
After the NFL lockout squeezed free agency into a taut ball of Twitter delirium, the compressed anxiety of Browns fans is beginning to radiate familiar Cleveland tales of woe. At issue is Browns' GM Tom Heckert's apparent disengagement with the league's warp speed free agent process. Despite the Browns finding themselves some 20 million dollars under the 2011 salary cap, only safety Usama Young, running back Brandon Jackson and defensive lineman Jayme Mitchell have been signed to new contracts.
Adding to the growing howls of discontent is the litany of high-profile players who have signed elsewhere in the past few days. Nnamdi Asomugha, Sidney Rice, Jason Babin and Ray Edwards all could have filled specific and very immediate needs in Cleveland. And on a lower tier, the same could be said for players such as Nate Clements, Eric Wright, Paul Posluszny and Roman Harper.
Of course, for those needing a Buckeye fix, a backlash of another kind focused on Vernon Gholston's signing with the Bears.
Yet despite any growing fan frustration with what appears to be a lack of action on Heckert's part in filling out the Browns' 2011 roster, some simple truths need to be realized.
The Anti-Dan Snyder
In most respects, NFL free agency exists for teams to either find star-caliber players or simply complement them. Yet with all the financial entanglements written into the league's CBA – both past and future – it's incredibly rare for a truly transcendent player to actually hit the proverbial open market. Such safeguards as restricted and franchise designations usually prevent such a thing from happening.
Or why it's impossible to build a team through free agency.
The Browns still fall somewhere between the above free agent guidelines. Certainly there is a small core of young talent emerging, but nothing to the level that would warrant a huge free agent investment. However, in 2011 this probably isn't the biggest of issues, considering the weakness of the overall free agent class.
While a few terrific players were initially available, this year's free agent class could be embodied by Minnesota's Ray Edwards. Edwards has been a productive pass-rushing defensive end for the Vikings over the past few seasons and drew free agent attention from multiple teams. On the surface, Edwards would make sense for the Browns, whose sparse defensive end depth has made Brian Sanford a training camp starter.
However, Edwards largely built his free agent profile by playing left end, across from All-Pro Jared Allen and beside Pat and Kevin Williams. In this sense, Edwards alone would not generate the kind of pass rush missing in Cleveland since the Reggie Camp era. Yet, had the Browns' 4-3 defense been further evolved, Edwards could have complemented an already established line.
Considering these limitations – both the Browns' lack of depth and Edwards' own talents – Heckert's inactivity delivers a perfectly understandable meaning. Also, the Falcons – who eventually signed Edwards – feature the kind of player in John Abraham that makes their move a perfect, complementary free agent signing.
Otherwise Known As A Youth Movement
While the current lack of free agent deals may not directly understate his intent, it's fairly obvious that Heckert is building these Browns both through the draft and by tapping into the trade market. So far during Heckert's tenure, pure free agency has been used sparingly – which is a trend that will likely continue over the next few weeks.
Both in terms of cost and productivity, Heckert's strategy should prove to be a wise one. The Browns – who in case you haven't noticed are clearly rebuilding – should let their salary cap grow parallel to the overall improvement of the team.
Or, in other words – Ray Edwards would have been a nice signing in 2013. Just not in 2011.
And in case you missed it, the Browns have signed some 20 undrafted free agents.
In utilizing such strategies, Heckert has also begun crafting one of the league's younger rosters. Clearly, building through the draft produces such a result – along with reducing overall team costs. With the new CBA reigning in rookie contracts, the Browns should eventually find themselves in prime financial shape to add talent while already fielding a roster of players entering their primes.
Speaking of which, in filling needs at free safety, running back and along the defensive line, Heckert paid a slightly above market sum, but landed three players under the age of 30 in Usuma Young, Brandon Jackson and Jayme Mitchell. Brodrick Bunkley was added via trade, making the 27-year old the most senior of the group.
While these names aren't the kind of high-profile stars that draw ESPN mentions, Heckert is doing what he can to complement what he has – which is still very much undecided.
As such, it's best to stick with younger and cheaper.
For A Team That Is Not Quite There Yet
It's truly hard for many fans to realize this – especially during the most optimistic time of the NFL calendar – but the Browns simply aren't in the position to throwing money at free agents. While many signs of life were birthed last season, the utter reality is that the Browns are nowhere close to being a playoff contender.
Financially, it makes no sense for the Browns to commit extra money to a project that is not even halfway complete. Questions at quarterback, wide receiver, along both lines remain and a tricky conversion to new offensive and defensive schemes signals that a much larger transformation has just begun.
In most respects, the 2011 season will be one long evaluation for the principles of the Browns' hopeful resurgence. As evidenced by daily local stories, Colt McCoy has to prove himself as a starting quarterback. Pat Shurmur is an ever greater unknown at head coach – and now faces an immediate uphill challenge in rapidly preparing his team for the regular season.
The talent surrounding McCoy and coached by Shurmur is still questionable, along with the possible benefits of switching to a more pure form of the West Coast offense. Defensively, the Browns are basically playing with half a roster. The exodus of Eric Mangini and the 3-4 scheme, combined with age, injury and miscast talent, has left the defense with a sizeable deficit.
Adding all of these elements together creates only uncertainty. It's quite possible that because of the accelerated offseason, the Browns' rapid transformation takes time to gel. In the event of another slow September and October start, adding the free agent volume of more players and money would prove counterproductive – both to the present and future.
After all, maintaining flexibility in virtually any possible scenario should remain paramount to the Browns' plans. Either another 5-11 finish or perhaps a surprise run to the brink of the playoffs should bring the Browns to the same free agent mindset.
Of course for now, the day-to-day questions will begin to linger. Through just one day of practice, tight end Ben Watson suffered an apparent head injury. Add to Watson's situation prior injuries to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and guard Eric Steinbach and it looks like Heckert will be revisiting his usual roster-building haunts.
Already, restricted free agents including tight end Evan Moore, outside linebacker Marcus Benard and defensive lineman Brian Schaefering have been signed – along with 2010 veteran Billy Yates. Heckert made yet another trade to land St. Louis guard John Greco.
Naturally, many fans will remain anxious – at least until the Browns field a full roster.
Or until all the money is spent.