I will do a more in-depth free agent preview in the coming weeks, but today, the Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi posted a review of the team's top five free agents, along with predictions as to whether or not those players will return next year. Among the players listed: RB Peyton Hillis, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, S Mike Adams, and K Phil Dawson.
For all intents and purposes, Jackson is not a free agent, based on how confident the front office has been in saying that he will return next year. That leaves four players, and Hillis is going to be the most controversial one. Does he deserve to be back? Can we find another back at a more inexpensive rate to just plug in to the backfield? Has he worn out his welcome on the rest of the locker room? Here's the thing I wonder: even if Hillis tests the market to see what other teams will offer him, are there really a lot of teams out there who will break the bank on Hillis? Or, at the very least, make Hillis an offer to be a starting back? I don't think there are, given what happened this past year.
Shoving the unpredictable Hillis signing aside, Patterson is the team's most important free agent in my book. The element that prevented the Browns' secondary from thriving the past several years was that they didn't have that third cornerback who could challenge opposing team's receivers. Patterson was masterful in that role and also had some nice contributions on special teams.
I think you have similar situations when it comes to retaining Adams and Dawson. If you remove Patterson, Adams, or Dawson, you are suddenly adding three more positions to your offseason priority list. You could easily end up taking a step backward at those positions with new players. For this team to move forward, I think you need to continue stabilizing those positions by re-signing all of them, and then improving upon the more glaring holes (i.e. receiver, right side of the offensive line, linebacker).