The Cleveland Browns’ new head coach, Hue Jackson, arrived in town after four years working with the Cincinnati Bengals. Given his ties to his old team, how well he knows the players and the predilection for a new staff to seek out the familiar, the Bengals’ impending crop of free agents could provide the Browns with a few veteran additions once the league year begins in March.
The Bengals have 14 players who will be unrestricted free agents next month barring new deals being reached before then. Now, the Browns won’t be pursuing all 14, nor are the Bengals expected to let each of these players walk away or even test the free agency market. But there are a few strategic signings the Browns can make from these soon-to-be-former-Bengals, starting at wide receiver.
Two key members of the Bengals’ receiving corps are pending free agents: Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. And of the two, Jones is the most likely to get a new deal in Cincinnati. In 2015, Jones played 905 snaps to Sanu’s 650, with Jones catching 103 passes for 816 yards and four scores. Sanu, meanwhile, caught 50 passes for 394 yards, and had 10 rushes for 71 yards and a touchdown. While Jones is more valuable to the Bengals, that doesn’t make Sanu chopped liver and, in Cleveland, he could be a star.
Jackson loved to use trick plays and creative formations as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator and often employed Sanu to run or be featured in many of them. The former high school quarterback has thrown passes in NFL games and run end-arounds in addition to the typical route-running, blocking and catching of a traditional receiver. This is a wrinkle that Jackson will likely continue to work with in Cleveland and bringing aboard a familiar hand like Sanu would make doing so easier. It also helps that Sanu is 6’2” and the rest of the Browns’ receiving corps is much shorter; even if Josh Gordon is reinstated, giving the Browns a tall receiving weapon, two tall, fast field-stretchers is always preferable to one.
But what to pay Sanu? Believe it or not, the ill-advised deal former general manager Ray Farmer gave to veteran Dwayne Bowe is a good place to start. Bowe, as we know all too well, was signed to a two-year, $12.5 million deal with $9 million guaranteed—a bad idea, for many reasons. But for the 26-year old Sanu, a similar contract, with a few alterations, makes sense. Keep the guaranteed money at $9 million, but make it a three-year contract instead, with a max value of $15.5 million. It’s a deal that recognizes Sanu’s specific value and does not overpay.
Members of the Bengals’ secondary could also be options for the Browns in free agency, including cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones, and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Of the four, Iloka seems most likely to get a deal from the Bengals. Nelson and Jones, meanwhile, are 32 years old and Hall, 31. One of the three would only come aboard as a veteran presence who knows Jackson’s style and could help ease the transition between the former regime and the new one, from a locker room perspective. Signing any of the three, though, would involve low-money contracts with a maximum of two years in length and the built-in opportunity to move on after one year with little dead cap costs. These are older players and would not serve as starters, no matter the fates of Tashaun Gipson (currently set to be an unrestricted free agent) or Tramon Williams ($3.8 million in dead money if he’s for some reason released).
In the front seven, a pair of linebackers and a defensive end could be on the market. The former two, Vincent Rey and Wallace Gilberry, could stay put, given that Rey was the Bengals’ leading tackler in 2015 and Gilberry penciled in as the likely starting replacement for Vontaze Burfict during his three-game suspension to start the year. But the two are versatile players—Rey can play strong or weak side linebacker as well as in the middle, and Gilberry at both weak and strong—and can most importantly stop the run. At defensive end, Emmanuel Lamur would also make sense. Though the trio come from a 4-3 base, expect Cleveland’s defense to be flexible and multiple (as well as work out of the nickel 70 percent of the time) as the majority of teams are at this point. It would thus not be a difficult transition for these players to arrive in Cleveland and contribute. And the deals would doubtlessly be modest, with cap hits no higher than maybe $4 million per year—especially with Rey already 28 years old and Gilberry, 31.
While the elder defensive statesmen may be free agency long shots, one on offense could be a very strong option for the Browns this offseason: offensive tackle Andre Smith. The writing was on the wall when the Bengals took two offensive tackles with their first two picks in the 2015 draft and Smith looks to be the odd tackle out for 2016. And, at the same time, the Browns’ current right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz is also headed for free agency. Though the ideal situation would be a new contract for the ever-improving Schwartz, the open market may prove to be too tempting. And even if the Browns do give Schwartz a lucrative offer, so could other teams, which could result in Schwartz playing in another city in 2016.
Bringing in Smith on a two- or three-year deal while the Browns find and groom a younger player to eventually start would not be a bad move. Smith started all 16 games for the Bengals in 2015 (and has served as the full-time starter since 2011) and gave up only three sacks on the season, including playoffs, according to Pro Football Focus, and 26 sacks in his career. Though not a long-term answer at right tackle, Smith could still step in and play at a high level in place of Schwartz and likely for a lower salary cap hit as well. Smith also understands Jackson’s blocking principles and could serve in a leadership role in tandem with Joe Thomas and as a teacher.
Jackson’s arrival in Cleveland doesn’t mean he will be populating the Browns’ roster with numerous former Bengals. But it’s unlikely that the Browns will be mere spectators when free agency begins next month. And with Jackson deeply familiar with the Bengals players set to hit free agency, it would not be surprising if at least one of his former players joins him in his new home. It will help ease scheme transition among the players, and new head coaches often like to bring in one or two of “their” guys from a previous stop. So do not be surprised if a former Bengals player dons a new shade of orange in the spring.