Here we are.
On the brink of arguably the most important off-season in recent Browns history. Free agency begins on March 13 and the NFL Draft on April 26. The next 60-days will shape the Browns future. Here are some possibilities how the Browns can turn the offense around in one off-season.
The Browns need to define who is their starting quarterback and running back. They also need a top end wide receiver and right tackle. Those three or four moves addressing the offense can help take the Browns from the bottom of the NFL to at no worse the middle of the league in that department in 2012.
Obviously, there are some big decisions that have to be made and it's almost impossible to know what will transpire in contract negotiations with the Browns own free agents and other team's as well. Many times marquee unrestricted free agents never hit the market as they are franchised before that happens. However, we'll try to take a look into the crystal ball.
We'll start with quarterback. I'm going to present this as the movie that has three endings:
Ending One: The Browns trade up and get Robert Griffin III. Speculation at this time is in order for the Browns to get Griffin they would have to trade up with the Rams to get him at the second slot, which means they would most likely have to give up at least the fourth- and 22nd-pick. The down side is they will get at least one less impact player in the draft. The upside is they will potentially land the difference making quarterback they've longed for. After Griffin's performance at the combine, it has been speculated that it might take more than the two first-round picks to move up.
It's not known how far the Browns are going to be willing to go to obtain Griffin, but if they mortgage the draft for him, they will have to add the other weapons on offense through free agency or trades.
At this time, I don't see the Browns giving up more than the 4- and 22nd pick to move up to get Griffin if they decide to go after him, but more likely would only take him if he is available at four. Tom Heckert covets the draft picks and said the reason he made the trade with Atlanta last year was to allow the Browns to be in the position to have more picks and grab more impact players at the top of the draft.
Ending Two: The Browns sign unrestricted free agent Matt Flynn or Kyle Orton. The good side to signing a free agent is that it doesn't cost anything but money. If they added a quarterback through free agency, they would be getting a veteran who would be able to step into the lineup immediately, while being able to retain their high draft choices and add potentially two or three starters.
With the new CBA rookie quarterbacks are much more affordable than unrestricted free agents. A Griffin or Ryan Tannehill are projected to cost about half as much as Flynn would.
Ending Three: The Browns could draft Tannehill or another quarterback in lower rounds of the draft and stay with McCoy as the 2012 starter. The Browns should be able to get three players that can make significant impacts. The previous two seasons the Browns were able to get Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard with their top two picks in the first two rounds. It is fair to say with two first round picks and a high second, the Browns should be able to add three more impact players. If the Browns go this route, the question will be answered as to whether McCoy can be successful with a full arsenal of weapons.
If he and Seneca Wallace can't be successful with weapons, there will be no question what the Browns will do next in 2013.
The best option for the Browns would be to re-sign Peyton Hillis. The Browns have many holes that need to be addressed and why create another crater by letting Hillis walk. It is still unknown what Hillis is asking for but the Browns always have the option of using the franchise tag on him for at least one season. With the signing of D'Qwell Jackson, the Browns now could use the tag on Hillis.
However, that would be quite expensive, in the neighborhood of $7.7 million. If they cannot come to a multi-year agreement with him, a more likely option would be to offer him a one to three year contract laden with incentives and see if he can return to his form of 2010.
There were some reports that Hillis and the Browns were getting close to an agreement, but then news came that Hillis parted ways with his third agent in the past year and that doesn't sound good. If Hillis wants to return to the Browns like he said he did, regardless of his agent, he makes the call and can simply tell the agent to get it done like Jackson did.
If Hillis doesn't return, the Browns will be left with injury-prone Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson, who's coming off a turf toe injury. The Browns would need to sign an unrestricted free agent like Michael Bush, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch or draft one in the upper end of the draft like Trent Richardson.
Pat Shurmur seemed to sound like the Browns might target a veteran free agent wide receiver in free agency just before the combine.
"I think it's important if you can add leadership and experience to your team, but he's also got to be a guy that can play," Shurmur said last week. "Anybody that's proven who can do it in this league, that helps."
Several of the candidates could be franchised or signed, but they can solve the wide receiver problem with a big splash at receiver.
If the Browns can sign a receiver better than any currently on the roster, Greg Little would be a good second receiver and the rest of the current receivers will be much better pushed back a spot.
The Browns could also go out and sign unrestricted free agent right tackle Demetrius Bell or Jared Gaither. Another option would be to use their second first-round pick or second-round pick to take Mike Adams, Bobby Massie or Brandon Mosley.
BOTTOM LINE:As of this date, here is one writer's best guess (or maybe wishful thinking) as to what the Browns will do to fix the offense. In free agency, the Browns will re-sign Hillis, and sign someone like Johnson as an unrestricted free agent. They will sign either Bell or Gaither to play right tackle. If that fails, they will draft a starting right tackle.
That leaves the quarterback position to address. Based on Mike Holmgren's interest in moving up to draft Sam Bradford two years ago, I believe the Browns will try to put themselves in position to draft Griffin. If they sign the players mentioned above in free agency, they would still have their top three picks intact to deal, if necessary with the Rams.
However, if the bidding gets to the point where the Browns would have to give up three first-round picks just to move up two spots, I don't believe they will do it.
For Browns fans that are hoping for Griffin, start hoping that Peyton Manning passes his physical and, if released by the Colts, he signs with the Redskins or Dolphins and that Flynn goes to the team that Manning doesn't. Those two teams appear to be the biggest threats to go up and get Griffin ahead of the Browns. There are other teams looking for a quarterback, but the Browns are in the best position to make the move, even bidding against the Redskins and Dolphins.