Will free agency help or hurt the Browns?

If the Browns are ever going to achieve success--not to mention sustainable success--they are going to have to retain their young potential free agents

As free agency is about to officially begin on Wednesday, let’s assume the Browns aren’t going to be able to retain their four prominent free agents.

Teams were allowed to begin negotiating with free agents starting at noon Monday, thus some or all of the Browns free agents might already have come to an agreement with another team.

I’ve given the Browns the benefit of the doubt that they might be able to re-sign some, if not all of them, but it looks as though if they are able to get some to return it will be after they hit the open market. We all know when a player hits the open market, the chances he returns to the Browns become less and less unless the player doesn’t get an offer better than what he received from Cleveland in the first place. 

Case in point, who thought Buster Skrine would be gobbled up by the Jets almost immediately in the free agent market last year with a big, big contract?

The OBR’s Lane Adkins reported on Monday that the Browns weren’t close to re-signing any of their top four potential free agents:

On Mitchell Schwartz: “The Browns while having a desire to retain potential FA RT Mitchell Schwartz are not considered a 'likely' destination for the lineman. Schwartz is seeking a contract, the highest paid RT in the game and that number could actually escalate due to the significant interest he is receiving.

The Browns competitive number, which is based on the salaries of starting RTs in the league falls below the threshold the Schwartz camp seeks at this time.”

On Alex Mack: “The Browns remain in the hunt for center Alex Mack. TheOBR has learned, if there is one UFA the team retains, HC Hue Jackson would like that player to be Mack.”

On Travis Benjamin: “While the Browns and agent for potential FA WR Travis Benjamin made headway in negotiations, theOBR has learned the difference, though not significant is not likely to be achieved and both parties are skeptical a signed deal comes to pass.”

On Tashaun Gipson: “As has been the story, the Browns have yet to warm up to offering S Tashaun Gipson and offer comparable to (Devin) McCourty in NE -- 5/47.5/28.”

There is some good news as Adkins said “indications are the Browns and Craig Robertson will come to an agreement.”

Word is leaking out already that Mack and Schwartz are drawing a lot of interest, which lessens their chances of returning to the Browns. 

The OBR’s Andrea Hangst wrote a piece last week assuming the Browns would likely lose their own free agents:

“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.”

I agree that the sky is not falling—it fell a long time ago. 

I respect Andrea’s opinion but disagree a little with her on this point.  Granted the Browns were 3-13 last year, but they do have some talented players and you have to start keeping some of your own players, if you’re ever going to build a team of substance.

The Browns have been telling their fans for years that they wanted to build through the draft but they continually let the assets they do have get away after their first contracts are up. Sure, the constant turnover with regimes hasn’t helped but the Browns have not been very good in keeping their own. By last count, they’ve only retained 10 players who hit their second contract status since the team returned in 1999 according to waitingfornextyear.com. By the way, that list includes a kicker and a long-snapper.

Just look at the last couple years, the Browns chose to let Jabaal Sheard, Jordan Cameron, Skrine and Ahtyba Rubin go in free agency last year. Their replacements were Armonty Bryant, Gary Barnidge, Tramon Williams and Randy Starks, hardly upgrades—if not for a breakout year by Barnidge—which I don’t think the team anticipated or they wouldn’t have tried so hard to re-sign Cameron or go after Charles Clay. The previous year they let T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson go. Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby were the replacements for those two.

Ward, Jackson and Sheard were second-round picks. Most, if not all of the aforementioned players had prominent roles with their new teams. Ward played a big role in helping the Broncos win the Super Bowl. Sheard looked awfully good being used properly, as well.

I know the Browns did win three games and the roster was already loaded (voice of sarcasm) .

Mack, Schwartz, Benjamin and Gipson are about to hit the open market. Mack was a first-round pick, while Schwartz was a high second-round pick. Benjamin was a fourth-round pick, while Gipson was an undrafted free agent. 

It’s hard to know where the fault blames as former GM Ray Farmer allowed Mack to set the terms by putting the transition tag on him. However, Sashi Brown was the chief negotiator of contracts at the time and it’s hard to think he had no input in the decisions to use the transition tag on Mack. It’s also hard to absolve him of any fault of allowing Schwartz, Benjamin and Gipson to get to this point without a contract extension. If Brown had no opinion or say in those matters, it makes you wonder why he is now running the football operation.

Those contracts should’ve been done before last season because once a player gets close to free agency, they usually cannot retain them unless they use the tag designations. 

The Browns have the third-most salary cap room in the NFL behind only Jacksonville and Tennessee. I am not advocating foolish spending, but they have to identify the players to build around and keep them, instead of developing them for other teams. Obviously, it’s not my money, but what are they saving the salary cap space for?

Dwayne Bowe was given a two-year contract for $12.5 million and he produced five catches. I think anyone could make the case that Benjamin was a bit more productive than Bowe with 68 receptions for 966 yards. By the way, he’s one of the top punt returners in the NFL. By the way, I don’t think he’s asking for anything near what Bowe was paid.

Sure, the Browns could end up coming out of this in good shape. You have to wait-and-see who they come out of free agency with. Hue Jackson said he would hope to sign two or three starters. Well they better as it’s likely they’re going to lose four primary starters, at least in free agency. 

Here’s my synopsis of free agency, as far as options, assuming the four free agents leave.

Replacing Benjamin: Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu.

Replacing Gipson: Reggie Nelson or George Iloka.

Replacing Schwartz: Andre Smith, Russell Okung or Donald Penn.

Replacing Mack: Besides Cameron Erving, free agent Stefen Wisniewski or Ben Jones. 

Other free agents that the Browns have the money to go after, but likely won’t are: Malik Jackson, Bruce Irvin, Danny Trevathan, Janoris Jenkins, Tamba Hali Jaye Howard, Lamar Miller or Chris Ivory.

Depending on who they sign will determine if they made the right moves. The Browns could improve themselves from those they let get away, but it’s hard to make the argument you’re improving your team when you continually let building block pieces walk away with nothing in return.


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