Wait, Don't Go Root for Buffalo

Bills' big-time free agent signing is actually a good sign for Browns.

Much has been made, debated and tweeted on the Cleveland Browns' passive approach to free agency. To many, it seems as if the Browns are just sitting back and not aggressively doing anything and everything they can to improve a team that has won an average of 4.5 games the last four seasons.

Driving the frustration is that this is the National Football League. Unlike the Cleveland's professional basketball and baseball teams, the small markets in pro football can compete with the large ones in and year out.

It is tempting to have the Browns sign these hot free agents. Former general manager Phil Savage succumbed to that temptation. Current general manager Tom Heckert has not.

The latter, rather than the former, is going about it the right way.

"We're not going to go crazy in free agency," Heckert said earlier this year. "We're not going to do it.

"Personally, I don't think there is a Reggie White in free agency."

Browns president Mike Holmgren's first foray into head coaching in the NFL was at small market Green Bay around the same time the beginning of free agency as we know of it today.

Holmgren helped broker the White signing with the Packers in 1993, which was essentially the first free agency period. A year before, White was among those named in the lawsuit that said the NFL's Plan B free agency violated antitrust laws. White was the biggest free agent name that season and the Packers snagged him for four years at $17 million. White became the highest paid defensive player.

The Packers would win the Super Bowl a few seasons later and White was a lynchpin in their defense.

Almost two decades later, another defensive end joined the free agent market in Houston's Mario Williams. On March 15, Williams agreed to sign with the Buffalo Bills for six years, up to $100 with $50 million guaranteed.

The Browns were nowhere close to in play for Williams.

One would think with Holmgren's success signing that big-named free agent defensive end in 1993, he could repeat the success here in Cleveland.

Doesn't work that way.

For starters, Williams is no Reggie White. In White's first 72 games, he had 95 sacks. In Williams' first 82 games, he has 53 sacks. Also, Williams is coming off a torn pectoral muscle. Ask D'Qwell Jackson, that injury is no joke.

More importantly, the Browns are not using free agency like a newly married couple views a trip to Ikea. A few upgraded purchases here or there will not make the house a home. The Browns are taking time to establish a plan where everyone is on the same page. Next up is to begin creating depth through the draft.

This also does not mean that the Browns will never sign a big-named free agent, but timing is key. And when the time arrives, the Williams-to-Buffalo signing is a, well, good sign.

Free agent wide receiver Mario Manningham, a Warren, Ohio native, talked to Cleveland.com two days before Williams signed with Buffalo.

"[A] lot of players, (Cleveland) wouldn't be their top choices," Manningham said. "Because everybody says how cold it is in Cleveland."

Then, a controversial report by The Bleacher Report about a week later cited three agents, all with top 10 picks, who said their client doesn't want to play for the Browns.

Eighteen wins in four seasons will lead to negative connotations. About a year ago this time, the Buffalo Bills were thought of as a hapless franchise. You think Cleveland is bad? Visit Buffalo. Moreover, the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. The Browns haven't been to the playoffs since 2003. Buffalo hasn't won more than nine games in a season since 2004. The Browns won 10 games in 2007.

What a difference a year makes.

The Bills started 4-1 last season before that losing set in and they finished 6-10. What Buffalo has been able to do is find players to help the team win on the field like Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson. They settled on a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick. They added some talent with high draft picks in running back C.J. Spiller and defensive tackle Marcell Darius.

Last season's seven game losing streak notwithstanding, they appear to be a team on the rise.

Did the Bills overpay for Williams? Perhaps. But they could. They are in a position to add some key players to get them over that hum. That is worth the price.

The Browns are taking a similar path, but have yet to even see the top of that hump. Winning helps and that will come as the Browns' brass builds this team through the draft.

Sure, Cleveland had money to spend in free agency, but it is foolish to do so now. In addition, so many factors come into play when it comes to free agency. Again, just because a team seeks out a player does not mean they'll sign that player. Does it matter the Browns are located in Cleveland? To most free agents, no. Same goes for those signing and wanting to play in Buffalo.

If you win or show signs of winning, the players will want to play in that city. For now, the Browns are building depth and collecting talent through the draft. It takes time. It isn't the instant gratification that is a free agent signing.

Typically, it is worth the wait.

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