While it was necessary for the Cleveland Browns to make changes at coaching and in the front office following the team’s dreadful 2015 and the infighting that helped drag the entire team down, the moves away from Mike Pettine, Ray Farmer and company to Hue Jackson, Paul DePodesta, Sashi Brown and a to-be-determined head of personnel means the futures of the Browns’ 2016 crop of free agent players has become far more murky.
In the days following the hires—and doubtlessly continuing through the weeks to come—the new regime has begun its process of evaluating the roster, which includes not just the veterans who remain under contract but also the pending free agents to determine who fits and who doesn’t. And given that so many of these free agents’ chances to remain in Cleveland also depend on the fates of other players, contracts that seemed a given to be offered now simply aren’t.
Take for example receiver and returner Travis Benjamin. 2015 was Benjamin’s best season as a pro, with 68 passes caught on 125 targets for 966 yards, 301 yards after the catch and five touchdowns along with 28 punts returned for a combined 324 yards and a score. But many of Benjamin’s best weeks were connected to Johnny Manziel serving as quarterback. Manziel is not expected to remain on the Browns' roster in 2016, though, and the Browns are not lacking in smaller, speedier receivers like Benjamin, which could cause him to be an odd man out just months after he seemed like an integral part of Cleveland's offense and special teams.
Where a month ago, Benjamin seemed like a no-brainer re-signing, now it’s a matter of how the new regime views his talents in relation to the Browns’ needs and how much, financially, those talents are worth. As DePodesta said earlier in January, “The mindset is about how do we use information to make better decisions at the end of the day. We're trying to figure out what the opponent does on third and short or when we're trying to create a game plan that has a mismatch in the secondary, that's all utilizing information to try and create some sort of advantage by making a better decision.” On one hand, Benjamin can provide that mismatch. On the other, the ideal mismatch DePodesta et al., are envisioning is unknown. Does Benjamin fit that mold?
Conversely, safety Tashaun Gipson could be in a much safer position with the coaching and front office shifts. Gipson, who tweeted and then deleted his delight at Ray Horton again serving as the Browns’ defensive coordinator had some of his best professional seasons under Horton. And because he did have a down year in 2015, his price tag has decreased significantly, with Gipson no longer in line for one of the league’s top paydays at his position. Where Gipson might have been viewed as disposable for the past staff, he’s now seemingly more valuable under a coordinator who knows how to maximize his potential and wants him.
There’s also the case of Mitchell Schwartz. The 2012 second-round pick is now on the verge of his fourth coaching staff in Cleveland, but he’s also an unrestricted free agent who is both coming off of the best season of his career and only continues to improve. ESPN’s Tony Grossi reported that “initial negotiations for a new deal reportedly did not go well,” and given Schwartz’s talent and how coveted his position is around the league, the Browns being in position to afford to offer a lucrative deal may not be enough. Schwartz has played only four seasons and has seen more coaching and front office changes than many players do in decade-long careers. If another team offers him a similar contract as the Browns and that team also boasts stability at the top and the potential to be a playoff contender, it doesn’t matter how the new front office views him—he could still be gone.
The bottom line is that it was far easier to determine the priority level of the Browns’ impending free agents under the previous regime than the new one. Not only are the preferences different, but the methodologies by which they will be making their evaluations is also a whole new world. We had some idea where Gipson, Benjamin, Johnson Bademosi, Jamie Meder and even Terrelle Pryor stood in the eyes of the Pettine-Farmer universe; now, their futures are being determined by people who may have a drastically different idea of how this roster should be shaped.
This isn’t a bad or a good thing—it’s just worth noting that players with appreciable value to the previous staff and to the 2015 season may not have that same value with new faces making decisions. The regime change in Cleveland means that free agents once thought to be destined to receive new contracts may no longer be in the plans for 2016 and beyond. It’s not just that roster evaluations are taking place under new sets of eyes, but also how these players are being evaluated that will determine the free agents who stay and those who go.