Browns Prepare for Free Agency

The Browns are watching their available opportunities to improve the offensive line dry up. As the team prepares for tomorrow's start to the free agency season, the man in the catbird seat may be, somewhat improbably, recuperating LT Ross Verba (pictured). Here's scouts with a status report of where the team stands as they try to improve their roster...

The Browns have a small problem at left tackle: They don't have one.

The team had hoped to use the free agent market or the draft to land a left tackle, but the premier draft-eligible tackle will surely be gone when the team selects at seventh overall, and the free agents dried up fast when teams placed franchise tags on their players.

Franchised were Seattle's Walter Jones, St. Louis' Orlando Pace and Green Bay's Chad Clifton, effectively taking them off the market.
Clifton had been rumored to be in the Browns' sights, but when the salary cap went up to $80.6 million the Packers had the room they needed to franchise Clifton.

Kansas City's John Tait is a right tackle that was named the team's transition player, so acquiring him might be tough as well.
That leaves Todd Wade of Miami as the best tackle on the board, but he's not considered a premier tackle.

Which means the Browns could turn to the draft, except the stock of Iowa's Robert Gallery is shooting up fast. He probably will be long gone before the Browns pick seventh overall.

Which might leave the Browns with Ross Verba, who is coming back from surgery to repair a badly ruptured biceps tendon.

Verba is due to make more than $4 million in the final year of his contract, a figure the team won't pay. But its leverage in asking for a renegotiation is diminished somewhat by the lack of top tackles on the market or in the draft.


The Browns know that Dennis Northcutt and his agent will contest the team's claim -- and the Management Council's claim -- that Northcutt is tied to the team through 2006 because he did not void the final three years of his deal in time. But they feel they are on solid ground and compare it to a restricted free agent's situation -- if a tender offer was not place by the proper deadline, that player would become a free agent. Why, the team figures, is the reverse not true in this case?

Punter Chris Gardocki -- who also is the only holder placekicker Phil Dawson has had -- appears headed to the open market. The team made Gardocki an offer, but he has yet to sign. If Gardocki signs elsewhere, the team probably will turn to Derrick Frost, whom it signed late last season -- a move that irritated Gardocki and angered some of his teammates.


NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Offensive line -- The Browns have struggled to build a line since 1999, the year it returned to the field. It's time to build one; Tight end -- The lack of a down-the-field threat at this position has hampered the passing game for years; Fullback -- Terry Robiskie wants to use more of a power running game, but to do so he'll need a lead blocking back, something the team has not had since Marc Edwards was allowed to go to free agency in 2000.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (7): PK Brett Conway; P Chris Gardocki; DT Michael Myers; OG Shaun O'Hara; DE Tyrone Rogers; CB Lewis Sanders; OT Barry Stokes.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): WR Andre King; OG Paul Zukauskas.





MEDICAL WATCH: Defensive end Courtney Brown continues to have nothing but bad luck. Brown, who is progressing well from a ruptured biceps tendon, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to clean out damaged cartilage. He now has had surgery on each knee in each of the past two years; Quarterback Kelly Holcomb faces four to six months of rehab after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Holcomb may be ready for the start of training camp, but that's not a certainty; Finally, the rehab of left tackle Ross Verba from a ruptured biceps tendon continues. Coach Butch Davis said seeing how far Verba has come will be one of the keys to the team's offseason.


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