The mythology of NFL free agency suggests that changing a team's fortune is as simple as signing a few high profile players. Unfortunately in reality, seldom is this situation apparent. Or in the most absolute terms, the reality of landing championship talent like Reggie White and Drew Brees is a fleeting vision – one that is more easily replaced by a fruitless – and insanely expensive – pursuit of marginal players such as Ray Edwards and Matt Hasselbeck.
Too often, NFL free agency has served as both an inept substitute for poor drafting and an indicator of a team's overall progress. In this respect, think of free agency as a barometer for an NFL team's stability. Teams who draft well within the framework of a self-reliant system use free agency to fill in small roster cracks – while other teams attempt to use the process as a means of implementing wholesale change.
Naturally, only one process works. Besides the inflated costs associated in the free agent process, NFL teams are chasing unfamiliar veteran talent who may have already reached the peak of their careers. Both in terms of financial incentive and overall desire, signing a huge free agent contract often represent the pinnacle of a player's career – rather than the beginning of some mythical new era.
In Cleveland, Team President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert have committed to rebuilding the Browns via the draft – a claim that has largely been supported over the past couple seasons. Despite having a sizeable surplus of salary cap room, the Browns have remained minor players in the free agency process. The rationale behind this strategy appears genuine, but could also point towards the realization that the Browns will eventually feature a roster worthy of being complemented by a few prime free agents.
Perhaps 2012 could be the start of this process.
2012 Free Agency Outlook – Quarterback
What a difference a year makes – or fourteen, depending on your perspective.
Almost a year ago, all members of the Browns' current triumvirate of power – including Head Coach Pat Shurmur – sang the praises of Colt McCoy as the team's established starter. After some tumultuous years headlined by an ultimately meaningless competition between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, such a move was viewed as a refreshing change. Of course, then the 2011 season unfolded and the Browns again find themselves in the familiar territory of having no idea who will play quarterback in 2012.
It's quite possible that the current Browns' management will reach into the draft to land the next proverbial quarterback of the future. If McCoy was simply a project third-rounder, then an investment similar to 2007's selection of Brady Quinn or 1999's drafting of Tim Couch could occur. Boasting two tantalizing first-round selections, it's possible that some sort of mega-deal could arise – landing the Browns the likes of Robert Griffin III or another top prospect.
However, if Holmgren and Heckert again choose the conservative route, the Browns would rest easy until late April, keep their picks and plug any of a multitude of roster holes. Such a scenario would require the Browns signing a free agent quarterback – a risky proposition that centers on the scant evidence of stardom shown by Green Bay's Matt Flynn.
But before we get to Flynn, let's review the players who remain free agents by designation only.
NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
While it's a nice Madden-esque dream to think Brees could lift Cleveland to NFL respectability after performing the same Herculean feat in New Orleans, the Saints will soon lock up the face of their franchise to a long-term deal. As for Smith, it's hard to suggest that he would even be an improvement over McCoy – given his stunted abilities as an NFL quarterback. Smith's market seems limited to the 49ers, which makes perfect sense for both sides – and for no other team in the league.
FOR THE RIGHT PRICE
Soon enough, Browns Nation will be inundated with chatter regarding Flynn – a former 7th round draft pick in 2008 – who has made a name for himself filling in for All-World QB Aaron Rodgers. That is unless Flynn follows his former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to Miami, where Philbin takes over as Head Coach.
As for what Flynn could bring to the Browns, the former LSU product has a decent build, passable arm strength and athletic ability – but more importantly seems to feature the kind of cool demeanor that separates NFL quarterbacks. Flynn appears to be a decisive passer and has displayed solid accuracy – particularly on shorter and intermediate routes – both of which are exclusive staples of Shurmur's offense.
Perhaps the only physical knock on Flynn is the long windup that precedes his throws. Flynn tends to wrap the energy of his entire body into passes – which creates extra power, but sacrifices precious time in a collapsing pocket. Playing behind a still shaky Browns' line, Flynn could quickly find himself in serious trouble.
Of course, Flynn remains a mystery simply due to his lack of experience. A veteran of two NFL starts, Flynn can barely be measured against other NFL talent, let alone be considered for a contract that could top 40 million dollars. It's more than possible that Flynn was simply a beneficiary of the Packers' expert play calling and offensive talent.
During my more formidable sports writing days, I suggested that the then Eric Mangini-led Browns take a late-round flyer on Hoyer – an occasional starter at Michigan State. While Hoyer's physical skills were never overly impressive, the current New England Patriots' backup quarterback showed the kind of smarts and toughness required of an NFL backup.
Now, some few years later, Hoyer is primed to emerge as the next Matt Cassell – at least for some front office both keen on emulating Bill Belichick and forgetful of Cassell's post-New England career.In the Browns' specific case, at least one of the above factors will come into play.
Assuming that Flynn is South Beach-bound, the Browns' best choices to bolster the quarterback position come down to the well-traveled Orton and still young Henne. Assuming that the current front office is not bent on adding a quarterback who features exclusive West Coast experience, both of these veterans could serve as a substitute for Flynn.
Henne is still intriguing, mainly due to his age (26) and experience (31 starts). Henne is a physically strong quarterback and possesses a decent arm. However, struggles with downfield accuracy and bouts with late-game interceptions have impeded Henne's progress. Henne's 2011 season never got untracked, thanks to a switch to a Brian Daboll-led offense and an eventual shoulder injury.
Orton is a classic free agent quarterback – one who has served each of his three teams admirably, but has never excelled at a high NFL level. However, to Orton's credit, he has never been surrounded by premiere talent. In Chicago, Orton led a run-first attack before arriving in Denver to run Josh McDaniels' spread schemes. Orton's strengths are his ability to read defenses and make accurate throws, while weaknesses are found in his quirky throwing motion and general lack of athletic ability.
In a perfect football world, Jason Campbell could be signed relatively cheap and inserted into a Browns' offense predicated on short passing. However, Campbell – much like McCoy and even Seneca Wallace – is not an incredibly accurate passer. Throw in the idea that Campbell would have to learn yet another NFL offense and the odds of him coming to Cleveland grow more unlikely.
Similarly, the likes of Dixon and Johnson would prove to be a challenge for Shurmur. Both Dixon and Johnson are tremendous athletes, yet are not the kind of polished passers that the West Coast offense ideally demands.
Which brings us back to RG3 and the fallacy of finding a quarterback in free agency.
Flynn is certainly intriguing, but at the moment he appears tied to his former offensive coordinator – and with good reason. In coming to Cleveland, Flynn would have to learn an entire new system – one that has its roots in Green Bay, but is vastly different in terms of actual production. While Flynn would appear to be a vast upgrade over either McCoy or Wallace, such a signing would still carry a significant risk. There is little evidence to suggest that Flynn could instantly solidify the QB spot in Cleveland – especially considering the limited offensive talent available.
But then again, it's worth closing with a reminder that Flynn is still a former 7th round draft pick. With the upcoming draft focused on Griffin and Andrew Luck, it's possible that the next Matt Flynn – assuming such a label is valid – is waiting to be unearthed in April.