NFL free agency begins with the start of the new league year in a week’s time, on March 9. And there has been very little to indicate that the Cleveland Browns will successfully re-sign a number of their own higher-priority—or higher-priority-seeming—soon to be free agents. But the sky is not falling; not if the Browns do sign them or do not. Free agency, after all, is not where teams win or lose their seasons nor how their rosters are built for the long term.
Though the concept of “long term” is a foreign one for the Browns, given the high rate of turnover in the coaching and front office staffs that have led to the rosters also constantly changing, the goal is to stop that cycle for good. Though it may seem counterproductive to this goal to let the likes of Travis Benjamin, Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson and Alex Mack test the free agency waters or move on entirely, the Browns need to concern themselves with building their vision from the ground up, with younger players, i.e. the draft.
With over $45 million in salary cap space at present, there’s no doubt the Browns will be in the market to make a few key additions in free agency. They will also, according to our Lane Adkins, also make pushes to bring back a few of their own free agents, including a new deal for Mack, who opted out of his contract as expected on Wednesday. And because the Browns pushed their 2015 remaining cap space to 2016, they’ve had technically no money to spend to give out new deals since they did so. This has afforded the Browns the ability to take all negotiations slowly, or in a way that has at least appeared to be slowly. Urgency exists, to be sure, but with nothing able to be made officially-official until next week, the Browns have wrongly been blamed for inaction. Even if none of these free agents can get satisfactory new deals to remain in Cleveland after the league year starts, that does not mean the Browns did not make every reasonable attempt.
And the key word here is “reasonable.” Just because the Browns have some of the most money in the league at their spending disposal this spring does not mean they need to spend it with no regard to how they do it. Benjamin may have been the Browns’ leading wide receiver in 2015, but that doesn’t make him a No. 1 on a depth chart; if he’s seeking the payday and playing time of a No. 1 wideout and the Browns don’t see it that way, they won’t be paying him that kind of contract. If Mack wants to remain the league’s highest-paid center and the Browns don’t think he’s still worth that money, they won’t extend that kind of offer. Just because the Browns can afford to break the bank to keep these players around does not mean that they must.
Losing these free agents will pose some problems, but not unsolvable ones. Yes, they create holes in the roster, especially considering two of their starting five offensive linemen could be elsewhere in a week or 10 days’ time. There is a plan, there is a backup plan and there is also more than likely a backup plan to the backup plan all in the minds of the Browns’ decision-makers. Trusting this process can be a tough thing to ask thanks to this team’s history over the last 18 years, but that is all that can realistically be done. It takes two to negotiate, and if the Browns don’t want to pay these players what they want or believe they are worth, they aren’t going to do it, even if they can.
No matter who the Browns sign or do not sign next week, the sky will not be falling as a result. These impending free agents have been integral parts of Cleveland’s on-field product, to be sure, but their being there or not in 2016 won’t be the difference between 10 wins and a playoff berth and five wins and nothing. While that also doesn’t mean everything will work out no matter what happens in free agency, it also does not mean the season hinges on keeping these players in the fold.