BEREA, Ohio--As the Browns cleaned their lockers out on Monday, there was thoughts concerning whether two of the team's top pending free agents would be back next season.
Jimmy Haslam said keeping their free agents was a priority and at the top of the list are linebacker Jamie Collins and wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.
“There’s really three keys going forward," Haslam said Sunday. "It’s not that complicated. No. 1, we gotta re-sign our key players. No. 2, we’ve got to be appropriately aggressive in free agency. And No. 3, we’ve gotta have a great draft.”
The Browns have continually had to replace players in the prime of their careers because they weren't able to identify or re-sign them as they neared free agency. Joe Thomas said that has been the biggest problem he's seen since he's been with the Browns.
"Yeah, one of our biggest mistakes that we've made since I've been here is not identifying talent early on in their career, after you've drafted them, and re-signing them before they get to free agency and a big problem, and a big reason that happened is because of the constant change in coaches and management,"Thomas said. "Once you get in here, if you’re a first year general manager and a first year coach, the first thing you do is not going to be re-signing young guys, because you want to learn who they are, you want to learn more about them, you want to see how they fit in your offense and into your team before you re-sign them and pretty soon, if you keep changing coaches every year, all of a sudden those guys that you should have identified early on after you drafted them, now they're free agents and they don't want to stick around.
"I mean, we saw it with several guys just this past offseason," he said. "Now, having that stability at coach, at GM, president, whatever you want to call that position, that's so important because now they can draft guys, identify who their draft picks are that were hits and the re-sign them before they get to free agency, because in the NFL, once a guy gets to free agency, he could go anywhere, because all it takes is one team to really fall in love with somebody and throw a big number at them and then they're gone. Now all that effort and energy that you've put into developing a young man into a great NFL player is gone and that draft capital you spent on him is a waste."
Pryor finished his first full season as a wide receiver with 1,007 yards on 77 receptions with four touchdowns. He was signed to just a one-year contract, primarily because he was an unknown at wide receiver. He caught just one pass in 2015. Pryor said his agents weren't going to talk contract with the Browns until the season is over. He was asked how soon the talks would begin.
"I’m sure, I’m pretty sure they told Sashi (Brown) right after the season, so I guess I’m sure they’ll be talking somewhat and figure that stuff out," he said. "Like I said, I really don’t know how that stuff works, I’ve never been in the position to go free agency, so it’s new to me. I just want to make sure I’m trusting the people that do the job for me. Whatever they’re telling me, and they’re telling me they wanted to wait till after the season, which was best for me. I’ll continue to figure out, I guess, just from talking to them to see where we’re going. Like I said before, it’s a business, I’m sure they’re going to get something done."
Pryor reiterated the fact that he would like to continue to play for Hue Jackson and the Browns. He was asked if his agents, Drew and Jason Rosenhaus, would get a deal done if he told them to work out a contract with the Browns.
"Absolutely," Pryor said. "I told them and we’ve had a lot of conversations. At the end of the day, as you guys know, football is a business. And it’s got to make sense for myself and I don’t know the lyrics, I don’t know how those words and stuff is going to put on paper and stuff like that. I’d love to play for coach Hue, I loved playing with him this year, no matter what.
"Despite the 1-15 record, I’m not worried about that," he said. "For me, it’s progress, we need to make progress and I believe that coach, you should’ve heard him in the team meeting room today, he’s fiery and very upset but he was also telling us that you guys gave me your all. He took all the blame, didn’t put it on any of us. We just want to make progress. We all want to win. I think that’s important.
Pryor was asked what his thoughts were hearing Haslam talking about re-signing the team's free agents.
"Our owner’s sharp," Pryor said. "He’s a very sharp guy. I heard Joe (Thomas) say it as well, we lost a lot of key components coming into the year, from an offensive line standpoint, even Travis Benjamin, guys like that. Joe’s been here awhile, so I can’t really talk how he talks because he has that … but I do firmly believe you’ve got to keep your guys and you’ve just got to keep on progressing. And I think they’re going to do a great job. I believe in coach Hue, I love the guy, it was a treat to play for him, it was a privilege to play for coach Hue and coach Al (Saunders), learning from him, coach Pep (Hamilton). It was a privilege."
Collins came over in a trade mid-season on Oct. 31, partly because he was in the last year of his contract and the Patriots weren't planning on paying him the money he was expected to make. The Browns have been optimistic since the trade of retaining him and he was straight up in his being open to staying with the Browns.
It has been assumed that Collins wouldn't want to return to the 1-15 Browns, but Collins said he has “zero complaints” about his time with the Browns and is open to returning next season despite the record.
There is a caveat thought--the saying that 'money talks'.
“If the money is right, then I could stay here,” Collins said Friday. “Obviously I’m not going to turn it down.”
Collins finished the season against the Steelers with 10 tackles and had 69 tackles for the Browns in eight games, including two sacks. Overall, with the Patriots and Browns combined, Collins had 102 tackles in 14 games with three sacks, two interceptions, three passes broken up and two forced fumbles. Despite only playing for half the season, Collins finished third on the Browns in tackles behind Christian Kirksey (143) and Demario Davis (99).
Collins and Pryor are scheduled to become free agents in March. Currently, the Browns have the most salary cap space in the NFL -- $49 million right now and expected to rise significantly when the cap grows in 2017 -- and would like to re-sign both players.
Collins and Pryor are two of the team’s best players and its top impending unrestricted free agents. Collins said he’s become “real close” with his new teammates and likes how coordinator Ray Horton’s used him as an outside linebacker in the base defense and inside in sub packages.
Collins, 27, said money will be a factor in picking a team but not his top priority.
“Everybody, the people that have been here, my family, me, I could go on and on about this,” Collins said. “I have no doubt about me staying here if that was the case. I would like to be here. But it’s not just me wanting to be here.”
The Browns gave the Patriots what’s expected to be a compensatory third-round pick in 2017, but would receive some form of compensatory pick if he were to leave.
Jackson has made it opening known that retaining Collins is a priority.
“He has been really good,”Jackson said. “He is a dependable player. He is accountable. We have asked a lot of him. We have played him in a couple different spots. He has taken all of that on and hasn’t blinked.
“That is a tribute to him," he said. "He came in here, fit in with his teammates and started playing. I have a lot of respect for him. Hopefully we can keep him around here.”
If the Browns are unable to come to terms with one or both of the players, they have the option of using the franchise tag or transition tag on either one. Players that are franchise tagged are to be paid for one year the average of the top five players at their position.