On Tuesday afternoon, the 2015 NFL free agency period officially opens. Since Saturday, teams have been able to begin talking to free-agents-to-be, however without agreeing to terms or explicitly discussing potential numbers. Nonetheless, expect to see a slew of big signings in the 15 minutes after free agency officially opens. It will be unlikely that any of these quick signings are by the Browns, as General Manager Ray Farmer tends to be a bit slower and more deliberate with his signings, although I guess you never really know. Do expect to see the Browns sign a few players over the next week though. If last year was any indication, a lot of these signings will be veteran players who can serve as role players and mentors and who will be on the somewhat cheaper side, although with just short of $50 million in cap space, the Browns could surprise everyone and make a big splash with a monster signing. Again, you never really know, definitely with a young GM at the helm. Anyway, here is who to keep an eye on this free agency period when discussing the Browns:
Browns’ Free-Agents-To-Be That Need To Be Re-signed:
Before we look at new players who the Browns could potentially sign, we need to take a quick look at players that the Browns need to keep in Cleveland. These are all guys who the Browns could let walk, but really shouldn’t:
Skrine reportedly wants to test the open waters, which seems to be a good decision. The Browns, however, need to keep him around. They will have to pay more for him than they otherwise would’ve, but I think he is easily worth the $8 million or so a year that they will have to dish out. Skrine has started the past two seasons and has been quite solid across from Joe Haden. As a bonus, he is an extremely talented nickelback, so if Justin Gilbert ever decides to start playing actual football, he can easily slide inside. Additionally, replacing him would end up costing just about as much as resigning him if the Browns want to sign a player close to his caliber. I expect him to be resigned, with a deal to the tune of 4 years and $30 million.
I like Kitchen a lot. He played well last year when everyone else on the line went down with injuries. He wouldn’t cost that much to retain. And he is an Ohio native who would most likely enjoy remaining close to home. Plus he is the owner of what was voted the best sack dance in the NFL. Offer him a nice little 2 year, $1.5 million deal, and let him stick around.
He is one of the top safeties in the league, has an absurd affinity for creating turnovers, and is only 24. There is no doubt in my mind that he will remain among the top players at his position for at least the next five years, and as such, the Browns need to sign him to a long term deal as soon as possible. It would be cheaper to do this now, and they could probably keep him around for as little as $4 million a year, which in a couple of years will look like a steal.
Although he made a couple of really stupid mistakes during games last year, he still is one of the best special teams players in the NFL, and would be simple to retain.
He played well last year. He will play well this year. And he will serve as a good backup when Christian Kirksey is fully ready to start. He should remain on the team next year.
TE Andre Smith
Depth is always appreciated. There is no need to show him the door.
WR Miles Austin
He played well last year until his kidney decided to misbehave. He obviously is not a long term option, but he is a serviceable role player and can serve as a mentor for whichever receiver the Browns draft this year.
Now that we have handled that, and maintaining the assumption that all of those players are resigned, the Browns have a few areas of need that they can address in free agency…
This is clearly a monster need for the Browns, especially with Josh Gordon suspended once again. Currently, the Browns have Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Travis Benjamin as the only experienced receivers on the roster. They will also should have Austin. It is safe to assume that the Browns will probably spend at least one pick in the Draft on a receiver, leaving them with five players who can have impact at the position. They will, however, still be looking to sign another one in free agency. The question is merely “who?”
Randall Cobb (Packers)
Cobb is clearly the best receiver on the market, but it would be stupid to bring him too Cleveland. At 5’10” and 192 lbs, Cobb is another slot-type receiver, of which the Browns already have two in Hawkins and Gabriel. Although Cobb, being the best slot receiver in the NFL at the moment, would clearly be an upgrade, he would not be a practical or smart use of what would amount to a lot of money.
Torrey Smith (Ravens)
Pair him with a talented first round pick and Hawkins and Gabriel inside, and the Browns suddenly have a rather potent group of wideouts. Smith would essentially be a more versatile and effective version of Benjamin. Speedy as all hell (4.43 in the 40), Smith is a receiver who specializes in the deep ball and would be able to stretch out defenses so that Hawkins and Gabriel could work underneath. Personally, I think he would be a great player to bring in, although he will be on the slightly costlier side. It would be cool to use an old Ravens player against them though. There is nothing worse than seeing a player you let go of completely wreck you twice a year.
Michael Crabtree (49ers)
Crabtree is an option, but not a great one. He’s been largely ineffective since tearing his achilles in 2013, and even before that he was pretty consistently disappointing. He may come on the cheaper side though.
Cecil Shorts (Jaguars)
The Cleveland-area native is ready for a change in scenery from Jacksonville, and may be drawn to come home. The Browns have shown heightened interest in him, and might even be willing to fork over a few extra dollars to bring him onboard. The only hurdle is that Shorts has said he is tired of losing and that he just wants to win. Cleveland isn’t usually viewed as a team that wins a lot, but there is the chance that the blind faith that Clevelanders and Browns fans learn could make him turn a blind eye to the fact that the Browns aren’t sure-fire winners. I think that this is the receiver the Browns are most likely to sign. Even more so if they decide to not bring Austin back.
Hakeem Nicks (Colts)
Nicks was clearly talented at some point, and someone is going to sign him hoping that they can find that talent again. But it shouldn’t be the Browns. The Browns need to take safer steps that clearly move them forward, and signing a player who sat behind an aging and less effective Reggie Wayne for the past year doesn’t fit into that category of decisions.
Brian Hartline (Dolphins)
Only a year removed from consecutive 1000-yd campaigns, Hartline could be a nice option for the Browns. Despite his ineffectiveness last year, expect Hartline to bounce back and put up respectable numbers no matter where he lands this year. He has already visited with the Browns, but has also been the subject of interest from a number of other teams. I don’t think the Browns like him enough to engage in some kind of bidding war, so unless he comes cheap, expect him to land somewhere else.
Without a doubt the Browns’ biggest area of need this offseason. Luckily, there is a slew of talented players available both in the Draft and in free agency. Ahtyba Rubin likely on the way out, the Browns will need to pick up a big body during free agency.
Ndamukong Suh (Lions)
There is not a better tackle on the market. There is no arguing with that statement. However, Suh will not land in Cleveland. I would really love him to, as it is extremely rare to be able to sign a hall-of-fame caliber player in his prime, but I don’t see Farmer being willing to spend the cash that would be necessary. Suh is looking to become the highest paid defender in the league, and there are teams who are willing to grant him his wish, just not the Browns.
Nick Fairley (Lions)
Suh’s soon-to-be-former teammate might be second to only Suh in terms of talent among free agents at the defensive tackle position. When he’s motivated, he can play like one of the best linemen in the league. However that whole “when he’s motivated” phrase is key. Fairley has shown a history of getting easily discouraged, and when that happens his level of play falls substantially. Playing for a program with the ups and downs that the Browns have probably wouldn’t be the best fit for him. Additionally, schematically there are better options.
Terrance Knighton (Broncos)
A better option schematically. Knighton is one of the top nose tackles in the league and is stellar against the run. After housing the worst run defense in the NFL in 2014, the Browns need to focus on picking up a run-stuffing tackle more than a pass- rushing one, and Knighton would be a great option.
Dan Williams (Cardinals)
Another great option, and one that might come slightly cheaper than Knighton. He has gotten better every year that he has been in the NFL, is just hitting his prime, and seems to be the kind of high value signing that Farmer likes to try to make. I could see the Browns spending a few dollars to bring him in.
BJ Raji (Packers)
Although he hasn’t really been effective since 2011, he is a player that is talented enough that he could bounce back. If he does, he could be a bargain.
Barry Cofield (Redskins)
At 30, he is past his prime and is coming off an injury-plagued season. Nonetheless, he is still one of the better run stuffers in the NFL. Also, having grown up in Cleveland Heights, he may be interested in coming home.
Stephen Paea (Bears), Henry Melton (Cowboys), Kendall Langford (Rams)
While all talented, they are more pass-oriented linemen. None would be a great fit in Cleveland.
Kendrick Ellis (Jets)
He has worked with Pettine before, and thus might be inclined to come play for him again. He would probably serve in a backup’s role as he never has really had a large impact in the NFL.
If the Browns are going to spend heavy money anywhere during free agency, it will be here. With Jordan Cameron out due to concussion issues and only Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray, and Andre Smith on the roster, the Browns need to pickup a high impact player who can spark their offense and give them a reliable option in the middle of the field.
Julius Thomas (Broncos)
He is one of the top 3 tight ends in the NFL and, at 26, is in his prime. It is unusual for a player of his caliber to hit the open market, and as a result he will demand big bucks. He has had some ankle issues over the past year or so, but still creates absurd mismatches over the middle. He isn’t the best blocker though, so he might be better suited for a more pass-oriented offense.
Virgil Green (Broncos)
Thomas’s sooon-to-be-former teammate is also set to hit the open market, although the Broncos seem to be trying to keep him in the Mile High City. He’s a decent enough blocker, is athletic enough to make an impact, and could come on the cheaper side due to his limited playtime and experience.
Rob Housler (Cardinals)
Personally, I think that he is the most exciting tight end available this year. At 6’5″ and 250 lbs, he can run a 4.46 second 40. So basically he’s a freak athletically who is going to emerge over the next two years to become one of the top 5 tight ends in the NFL. Underutilization in Arizona due to his poor ability to block stymied his development a little bit, but used in tandem with a better-blocking tight end such as Jim Dray, I think Housler could be a very effective option.
Jermaine Gresham (Bengals)
On the other end of the spectrum, Gresham is just about the blandest option at this position. He has always been alright, but never special. Unfortunately, he has been linked to the Browns more than any other tight end this offseason.
Pass Rusher (OLB/DE)
With Jabaal Sheard‘s likely departure, the Browns need to secure themselves a new outside linebacker. Pettine wouldn’t be too opposed to bringing in a strong pass-rushing defensive end as well, and there are plenty of options on both fronts.
Trent Cole (Eagles)
Although he is on the older side, he has the versatility to serve as a DE or an OLB in the Browns system. He still is a solid player, although he would only be able to contribute for a couple of years. He visited the Browns this weekend, so a deal may be in the works.
Jerry Hughes (Bills)
A soon-to-be-former member of the talented Bills defensive line, he has been overshadowed by his teammates. Despite that though, he has still racked up 10 sacks a year over the last couple, and he might could be interested in a reunion with his old boss.
Brian Orakpo (Redskins)
His career has been marred with injuries, but when he is healthy he is still one of the better players at his position. His injury history could make him a bit cheaper, but he is definitely a risky signing. High reward is everything works out though.
Brandon Graham (Eagles)
At 26, he is just entering his prime. He has shown that he can be an effective pass rusher when utilized, racking up 5.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles last season for the Eagles. His ability to create turnovers makes him an enticing option that Farmer and Pettine might be drawn to.
Pernell McPhee (Ravens)
The highest-rated outside linebacker available this year, he racked up 7.5 sacks in limited (540) snaps last season. Although there is a risk that he is simply a product of the system, he has shown an immense amount of talent and his just entering his prime. I think that he would be a high-impact player for the Browns, although he may take a season or so to fully develop into an effective player in the Browns system. Nonetheless, the combination of him and Paul Kruger (or Barkevious Mingo if he finally breaks out) has the potential to be rather lethal.
I still would like to see Hoyer remain in Cleveland, but with the Josh McCown signing that is unlikely. That, unfortunately, means that the Browns have no starting-caliber quarterbacks on their roster. So that will be fun… There is still the possibility that the Browns sign another signal caller in free agency, and they will no doubt take a quarterback at some point in the Draft, but I honestly cannot really tell what Pettine is planning here.
The right side of the line is not the strongest, and I would love to see someone like Bryan Bulaga come in and take over for Mitchell Schwartz. Pettine, however, has suggested that he doesn’t see a huge need to upgrade the position, so don’t be expecting to see any big signings in this department. A few depth-oriented signings could be made here, definitely at the center position.
…And that’s about it folks. There will no doubt be players signed that I didn’t cover here, since that is just how the NFL works. However, above are lists of some of the better options in the areas where the Browns most need help. Hopefully Farmer can repeat the success that he had last offseason, when he made a number of smart signings that didn’t break the bank. I guess we will see soon…