Passan: Silly Season Sputters, Save Steinbach

Rich looks at the free agent season so far, and, well, he likes that new left guard, and, um....

When the flag dropped on the National Football League's free-agent period last Friday morning at midnight, optimism filled the air for Browns fans. And rightly so. 

After all, the club had nearly $30 million in loose cash lying around to be used for the express purpose of strengthening a weak team. The fact there were some high-profile standouts available heightened the expectations of the fans. 

In the days and weeks leading up to the flesh-peddling frenzy, they could smell the delicious aroma of Nate Clements at cornerback and Eric Steinbach at guard. They envisioned Adalius Thomas making play after play at outside linebacker. 

They figured Phil Savage was a lock (mortal or otherwise) to outbid other teams, especially those in the AFC North, for the services of these outstanding players.  

Clements was a Cleveland native, an All-Ohio choice at Shaker Heights High School who stayed close to home and became an All-America cornerback at Ohio State. He was a standout with the Buffalo Bills, bided his time and wangled his way to free agency. 

What better scenario for the best free agent in this year's class than to come home. To follow LeCharles Bentley, Joe Jurevicius and Dave Zastudil, who all did it last season. Why not Clements this season? Made sense. 

And Savage knew all about Thomas. Pushed the Ravens to draft him in 2000. Certainly Thomas would like to rejoin Savage in Cleveland. Right? 

Steinbach, who should have been drafted by the Browns instead of Jeff Faine in 2003, was going to be the hardest sell. 

Maybe Savage thought so, too, which might have led to the frustration he and Browns fans alike felt when Clements wound up preferring San Francisco's cable cars and Rice-a-Roni to Cleveland's winters. And Thomas landed in New England. 

As it turns out, Steinbach was the easiest sell. 

So what went wrong? 

The free-agent landscape changed dramatically when the salary cap was raised to its current $109 million. That allowed teams such as the San Francisco 49ers to overspend on free agents.  

The 49ers, who had nearly $40 million with which to shower their free agents, took the straitjacket route and lavished Clements with an $80 million contract. No way could the Browns compete with that kind of insanity. 

It was reported that no matter how high the Browns would have gone on Clements, the 49ers would have outbid them. So much for hometown discount. 

Unlike last season, when Savage exploded on the free-agent scene with a fistful of autographs, this season has been more arduous. At this time last season, Savage had already signed free agents Ted Washington, Willie McGinest, Bentley, Zastudil, Jurevicius and Kevin Shaffer.  

With only Steinbach, outside linebacker Antwan Peek and cornerback Kenny Wright on board thus far, it's difficult to get excited about what Savage has done. Only Steinbach, who will be the Browns' best guard since their return in 1999, qualifies as a significant signing. That's if they intend to play him at his natural left guard position.  

Moving him anywhere else on the line would be a mistake, although he said he would play anywhere the club asked. With Shaffer and Ryan Tucker, reportedly recovered from his illness of last season, at the tackles and center Hank Fraley resigned, it makes no sense to move Steinbach. 

Peek, on the other hand, is a second-tier player and marginal at best. Granted his effectiveness was reduced last season when the Houston Texans went back to a 4-3 scheme and, for all practical purposes, wiped out his role as a 3-4 hybrid outside backer/defensive end. But even as a 3-4 linebacker, Peek didn't overly impress anyone.  

Who is he going to replace? McGinest? Not if the big guy is healthy and wants to play. Wimbley? Not a chance. Right now, Peek is linebacker insurance and probably a special teamer. 

At 6-3, 250 pounds, he has nice size. But I'd have preferred another 6-3, 250-pounder by the name of Joey Porter, who would have brought something the Browns desperately need on defense: Attitude. A winning attitude. Someone who understands the importance of beating a division rival and could relegate McGinest to being a role player.  

Imagine Wimbley and Porter attacking the quarterback from opposite sides of the formation. Talk about putting pressure on an offense. Too bad that's not going to happen with Porter saying yes to the Miami Dolphins for five years and $32 million with $20 million guaranteed. The Browns couldn't afford that? 

And why didn't they go after inside linebacker London Fletcher-Baker of the Bills instead of letting him sign with the Washington Redskins for about $25 million over five years? All the former John Carroll University and Cleveland Central Catholic High School standout does is lead his teams in tackles every season. It seems as though the ball seeks him. I would much rather have seen him playing next to Andra Davis and move Leon Williams outside instead of Peek. 

And the Wright signing simply baffles. Why would the Browns throw any money at a nine-year journeyman who has played for four teams in that span? Cleveland is just another stop, another sticker on the suitcase. 

I loved how Spinmeister Phil justified this signing. "The addition of Kenny Wright . . . will add experience and depth to our corner position," he said in a statement. "We feel he'll bring a veteran presence to that group as well."

It's what Savage didn't say that carries more weight than the above statement. Nowhere did he mention anything about how good Wright is. Or what specific qualities he can bring to the team. 

Of course he'll add experience (nine seasons) and depth (just another cornerback as Savage throws as much stuff against that wall as he can and hopes some of it sticks) to the roster. Of course, he'll bring a veteran (nine seasons, pardon the repetition) presence to that group. 

Wright is this season's Ralph Brown, only bigger. He'll be the new whipping boy as fans bitch and moan about why the Browns can't cover the pass.  

There's a reason Wright has been banging around the NFL for nine seasons. He's not good. And that's being kind. The likelihood the light will go on in Cleveland for the third-tier player (again, being kind) is as likely as the Browns winning the AFC North this year. 

Some believe defensive coordinator Todd Grantham lobbied for Peek and Wright, whom he knew while coaching in Houston. Are the Browns becoming the Houston Texans east? 

Savage still has a lot more work to accomplish before he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. He still needs to build a defensive line. He has to upgrade at nose tackle and both defensive ends, especially since it appears old age (NFL style) has caught up with Orpheus Roye and Washington. 

As of now, he isn't even close to equaling last season's free-agent accomplishments. 

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