<p>Unless Butch Davis is putting on his best poker face, don't expect the Browns to sign a large group of free agents next month. <p>

Unless Butch Davis is putting on his best poker face, don't expect the Browns to sign a large group of free agents next month.

The Browns signed eight players last year. Davs figures the total will be reduced this year when the Browns embark upon free agency on March 1 about $8 million under the $71 million salary cap.

"I would say there are probably less guys than a year ago because most teams are inclined to re-sign their guys," Davis said. "No one thinks that free agency is the way to build your team forever. You're not going to sign five or six guys every year. You still build through the draft."

The consensus opinion in the NFL is that this might be the weakest free-agent crop in several years. The reason the Houston Texans spent the bulk of their money on big-name players like Tony Boselli in last Monday's expansion draft is that general manager Charlie Casserly considers the free-agent market to be void of talent.

The direction the Browns take in free agency will undoubtedly center on improving a rushing attack that was last in the NFL last season with an average of 84.4 yards a game. It's safe to say that the Browns will sign at least one offensive lineman, if not more.

"Even though we didn't finish the way we wanted to on run defense, to some extent part of that was because in some games we were playing 20 to 25 (defensive) plays more a game than we should have been playing," Davis said. "You should never play 80 to 95 plays of defense."

The plan seems to be to be spread the money among several free agents instead of throwing it all at two big-name players. While Davis thinks the Browns are close to being a playoff team, he admits that there's no quick fix in taking the next step.

"We still need help in a lot of areas," Davis said. "The offensive line is clearly an area that we need to address. The team isn't far enough along to say that we're two players away or we need two players at this position, which is good because in the draft we're going to be able to identify a lot of guys.

THE RICKY WATCH: Davis reaffirmed his interest in New Orleans running back Ricky Williams, who is on the trading block. The Browns and Miami Dolphins are reportedly the teams most interested in Williams.

The dilemma facing the Browns is how much are they willing to give up to acquire Williams, who would be a huge upgrade to the ground attack? Davis isn't willing to take a big hit in draft choices.

"How much do you give up to add someone, because Ricky Williams is a very talented running back, and he's proven it on two different levels?" Davis said. "But if you have to give up three number ones (draft picks) and two number ones this year, he's certainly not as good as (Tampa Bay coach) Jon Gruden."

EASY WORK: Having the advantage of a full ofseason has made life easie for Davis and his staff. Davis was curtailed in what he could do last year at this time because he wasn't hired to replace Chris Palmer until Jan. 30.

"There are so many more things you can do simply by just being here," Davis said. "Last year at the combine we tried to interview 12 to 15 guys a night on tape and interview another 25 to 30 face to face. Today, prior to going to the combine, we have 90 interviews done and on videotape. It's really going to help us from being here a year."

NOT SO FAST: Before anyone think the Browns have given up on re-signing offensive guard Tre Johnson, it might be time to give that another thought. Davis, who seemed ready to part ways with the oft-injured Johnson at the end of last season, is singing a different tune these days.

"I think Tre is possibly healthier today than he was a year ago, coming off knee surgery," Davis said. "In the right situation we would entertain possibly bringing him back."

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