The first real phase of what many consider to be the most important offseason in Browns' history is about to begin – more or less. The official start of NFL free agency now stands less than a week away, yet the extent of the Browns' involvement is questionable. Considering GM Tom Heckert and Team President Mike Holmgren's mantra of rebuilding through the draft, it would appear the Browns will not be more than minor players in free agency.
And on a lesser note, free agency could signal the modest return of Peyton Hillis to Cleveland.
As a recap, here are five essential areas in which the Browns need an upgrade.
Linebackers and Secondary
If you're scoring at home, this brings us to the final depleted areas of the Browns' roster. At linebacker, the Browns feature experience but lack playmaking ability. While D'Qwell Jackson is the unquestioned leader of the team's defense, too often the Browns fell prey to opposing screen passes and tight end pass plays.
In the secondary, Heckert has delivered two quality young players in Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, but more work remains. The rest of the secondary is a scattered collection of veteran gap filler, such as Sheldon Brown and Mike Adams. While each player is certainly capable, neither is the kind of athlete who can run with the blinding speed of AFC North receivers.
These needs will likely be addressed via the draft. Consider that the Browns have already invested nearly 40 million dollars in guaranteed money by signing Scott Fujita, re-signing D'Qwell Jackson and extending Chris Gocong over the past couple years. It's unlikely that Heckert will throw even more money at the position, which leaves the draft as the only genuine option. In the secondary, Heckert has already added Brown and safety Usama Young. However, it's possible that the disappointing Young could be jettisoned in favor of a younger talent.
As for free agent options, Wesley Woodyard, Manny Lawson, Carlos Rogers and Cortland Finnegan would help to upgrade the Browns' roster but would come at a price. Speaking of which, pairing Finnegan with T.J. Ward would be fascinating. The Browns could finally lead the league in something: personal fouls.
It's nearly futile to forecast the Browns' free agent moves considering the team's overall rebuilding strategy. While Heckert has added a few free agents in each of the past two seasons, it's unlikely that a bigger splash is made. Making matters more uncertain have been the recent contracts given to Stevie Johnson, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch and franchise tags placed on DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace, Wes Welker, Ray Rice and Matt Forte.
Naturally, these developments don't solve many problems for the Browns – who clearly need upgrades at quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end and across the offensive line. Consequently, the remaining prizes are limited to Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Brandon Lloyd, Carl Nicks and Houston's Williams. Finally, the Browns have been rumored to be interested in Matt Flynn – who could prove to be either the next Aaron Rodgers or Kevin Kolb.
In reality, Flynn is probably the only big ticket free agent the Browns will pursue. However, Flynn will likely be chased by the Dolphins, Seahawks and Redskins. After a day or two of escalating offers, the still untested Flynn could demand an extraordinary contract – one that could dwarf those earned by either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. In the end, Flynn would have exactly two more games of NFL experience than either top rookie.
If not Flynn, look for more of the complementary types of players to arrive via free agency. Most likely a wide receiver will be signed, along with some defensive end depth. In these cases, players with organizational ties such as Danny Amendola, Laurent Robinson, Victor Abiamiri or Marcus Benard could be targeted.
And then Cleveland's prodigal son should return.