We are just a couple of days away from the start of free agency, and the Cleveland Browns are loaded with around $50 million in cap space. This year, it is incredibly difficult to project who the Browns will go after in free agency because they don't have to address all of their needs right now. With all of the draft picks they have, some of the holes can be filled in May. Nonetheless, here is my annual list of five players I would sign if I were running the Browns.
When Free Agency Negotiations & Signings Begin
- On Saturday, March 8th, teams were allowed to begin negotiating with players' agents. That is an important distinction -- the team still cannot make contact with the players. Players who do not have agents cannot be contacted by teams during this time.
- On Tuesday, March 11th, at 4:00 p.m. ET, free agency officially begins. Teams can begin signing other teams' free agents and can meet with any free agents they so choose to.
Pokorny's 5 Coveted Free Agents
FS Jairus Byrd would give the Browns one of the best ball-hawk safeties in the NFL. Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
1. FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills - I have never been a big fan of listing the top player in free agency as one of my "coveted" players; instead, I prefer to choose players who are a bit more under-the-radar. With Byrd, though, I think everybody can see the writing on the wall.
Despite having no depth at safety in 2013 (aside from T.J. Ward), the Browns' previous front office did not do anything in free agency or the draft to significantly address the position. By NFL standards, they had three unknown players compete for a starting role in camp -- Tashaun Gipson, Johnson Bademosi, and Jamoris Slaughter.
Gipson ended up winning the battle and had a fair season, but he's not a guy who jumps out at you as a complete player. Ward had the best season of his career, particularly defending against the run.
If I am a general manager, there is no way I can let Ward hit the open market...unless I'm certain I can get somebody better. Enter Jairus Byrd. He is the same age as Ward, but with one more year of experience, having been a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. By virtue of the Bills placing the franchise tag on him last season, he got to play one season in Mike Pettine's defense.
The Bills did not place the franchise tag on him again this season, and could not reach a new deal with him despite trying to. Byrd wants out of Buffalo. Does he want to go to a contender, or where the most money is? It's tough to say. One could think that Cleveland can throw a lot of money at him, but so can other teams. All of that cap space that Cleveland has means that the Browns can throw money at several players -- but a contending team could, perhaps, make Byrd their only free agent acquisition and give him a similar deal that Cleveland would.
As much as I enjoyed Ward's skills as a run-stopping safety, I would love to have a game-changing, ball-hawk safety, and that's exactly what Byrd is. He's registered 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his five-year career to go along with 33 passes defended. Because he plays the single-high safety role, it's a bit unfair to compare him directly to Ward -- he would actually, in essence, be taking Gipson's role in Cleveland. Given the depth of the defensive line, though, I think you can lose Ward's run-stopping ability and still get by with a pretty good run defense. My projected offer for Byrd is a 5-year deal worth $42.5 million, with $21.25 million in guaranteed money.
Alternate: If Byrd shows no interest in Cleveland, my heart would be set on bringing Ward back. It is certainly a risk waiting until Ward hits the open market, though, because I think another team will pursue him early on.
The Browns missed out on OG Geoff Schwartz last offseason, but he can immediately strengthen the guard position in 2014. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
2. OG Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs - Look how much difference a year makes, eh?
In 2013, Browns fans wanted Cleveland to take a chance on cheap deals for CB Brent Grimes and OG Geoff Schwartz. Grimes signed a one-year deal with Miami, played very well, and was rewarded by a big contract extension. Schwartz signed a one-year deal with the Chiefs worth $700,000, and when he became a starter for the second half of last season, he flourished to the point where he is going to get paid as the top free agent guard available this offseason.
At 28 years old, the Browns have a chance to establish the type of consistency at the guard position that they haven't had since Eric Steinbach had to retire. Schwartz is a good pass blocker and is deemed by Pro Football Focus as having "elite power" as a run blocker. Schwartz also has tremendous versatility. His staple position is at right guard, but he can play left guard or right tackle just as well.
Despite Schwartz' massive size (6-6, 340 lbs), he has all of the attributes that would seem to align with Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. The Browns did not bring free agent right guard Shawn Lauvao back, so there is a void at that position. Schwartz is also the brother of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, and reports last offseason indicated that Geoff had an interest in re-uniting with his brother.
When evaluating Schwartz' value, we have to remember that while he's the top guard available this offseason, he's not necessarily the best guard in the NFL, and he really only had half a season to prove his worth. That should drive his value down a bit. Last year, I had OG Louis Vasquez as the top free agent on my wish list for the Browns. The Broncos signed him to a 4-year deal worth $23.5 million, with $10 million guaranteed. I'll go with the same projection for Schwartz this offseason.
Alternative: The man Schwartz replaced last year due to injury, Jon Asamoah, is young and perhaps just as promising. Either one of those guys would be a nice fit.
3. ILB Vincent Rey, Cincinnati Bengals - This would be a great opportunity for the Browns to try to steal a potential breakout player away from a division rival and plug him into the starting lineup. If you are unfamiliar with Rey, he went undrafted out of Duke in 2010 and signed with the Bengals. He was either a backup or a practice squad player for his first couple of years, but 2013 was his "breakout year" of sorts.
Rey was a backup, but when Rey Maualuga went down with an injury, he got an opportunity to start and took full advantage of it. His second start came against the Ravens in Week 10, a game in which he registered 15 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 passes defended, and 1 interception. The following week against Cleveland, he had 12 tackles and 1 pass defended. He returned to a backup role for the rest of the season, but saw an uptick and playing time and remained efficient.
The Browns could try to tap into the potential of ILB Vincent Rey. Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Rey made his mark on special teams and has the reputation of being a well-liked teammate and a hard worker. The Bengals would love to keep him for depth, but they are already committed to Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict as their two starting inside linebackers. Rey was a restricted free agent, and the Bengals placed an original-round tender on him worth $1.431 million. The Bengals would have the right to match any offer a team makes to him, but if they refuse to match the offer, they would not receive any compensation since Rey originally went undrafted. In a recent interview with FOX Sports, you can tell how humble Rey was at the peanut-sized tender he received from the Bengals:
"I was happy about it, man. I’ll be going into my fifth year this year. I never made that much money before and I was happy about it. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Cincinnati, and I’d like to spend more time there. I’m also excited to see what teams think about me. This was my best year that I had even though I didn’t play that much. I feel like I played pretty well."
I would pin the Bengals against a wall and offer Rey a 2-year contract worth $6 million, with $3 million guaranteed. That plays to Rey seizing the opportunity for more money, and it puts the Bengals in a position in which if they were to match, they'd be paying him nearly the same amount of money as Maualuga and more than Burfict. For Cleveland, it wouldn't cost us much, but would still give them flexibility to cut Rey next year if he ends up being a bust in a full-time role.
Alternative: I'm really intrigued by Rey's potential in coverage, after what we saw from Jackson and Robertson last year. Brandon Spikes would add a good presence to the middle of Cleveland's line, but we'd have to settle with the fact that he's predominantly a good run-stopper vs. a coverage player.
CB Captain Munnerlyn plays a physical game for a small cornerback and would come at the right price. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
4. CB Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina Panthers - Munnerlyn is another one of those players who Browns fans were interested in last offseason as a free agent. Ultimately, he re-signed with the Panthers on a 1-year deal worth $1.1 million and had a great season. Despite being on the smaller side at 5-8, that hasn't been a hindrance for him.
Last season, the Browns tried to roll with Chris Owens as their third cornerback, but he didn't live up to expectations and was cut before the end of the season. Munnerlyn has shown he can play the outside or the slot position, so the Browns would have the flexibility to see where he and Buster Skrine fit best. Munnerlyn is also an exceptional defender against the run and someone who could replace some of the production that T.J. Ward had in that department.
This is a very lucrative market for cornerbacks this year. Sam Shields already got a big contract, and teams are going to be trying to lure the likes of Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Vontae Davis. If I'm the Browns, while everybody else is busy bidding over the big-time players, I would set my sights squarely on Munnerlyn to make him part of the club. My projected offer would be a 3-year deal worth $10 million with $4 million guaranteed.
Alternative: I don't have a definitive alternative after Munnerlyn. For the sake of taking a flier on someone with some potential reward, I would say Walter Thurmond.
WR Emmanuel Sanders would help add a reliable target to a group of receivers that only has Josh Gordon. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
5. WR Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers - The Browns clearly need some work at the wide receiver position. Josh Gordon is a gem, but after releasing the disappointing Davone Bess, the only other options are Greg Little, who is in the final year of his contract, and Josh Cooper, who doesn't have any starting experience. Travis Benjamin is the only lock after Gordon, but he is more suited for a return/niche role and is coming off of a torn ACL.
Once Ward retired and Wallace was overpaid by the Dolphins last year, Antonio Brown and Sanders were elevated to the starting lineup. Brown was the star of the team, but Sanders did pretty well after moving to the outside, finishing the season with 67 catches for 740 yards and 6 touchdowns, all career highs. He is good in the open field and would fit in well at the slot position in Cleveland, especially if the team is able to find a No. 2 receiver in the draft.
There will be a market out there for Sanders, but I don't think teams view him as being worthy of starter-level money. My projected offer would be a 4-year deal worth $17 million, with $6 million guaranteed.
Alternative: A guy that nobody is talking about is Andre Roberts of the Arizona Cardinals. He is young and has done some great work from both the outside and the slot. In my mind, he and Sanders are on the same level -- getting either one of these guys would be great.
Pokorny's Bargain Bin Hunting
Last year, the Browns treated the back-end of their roster as being very fluid, but at some positions, they can really shore things up by bringing in some veterans. Here are some other names I think the Browns should show some interest in on one-year deals:
- FB Vonta Leach (Baltimore Ravens) - Played with Kyle Shanahan in Houston and has been a Pro Bowl level fullback for awhile. He's getting near the end of his career, so he'll want to be attached to someone he is familiar with, and that would be Shanahan and the zone blocking scheme. His running backs coach from the past few years in Baltimore, Wilbert Montgomery, now holds the same position with the Browns.
- RB Ronnie Brown (San Diego Chargers) - He can protect the passer, catch the ball well, and still has enough legs on him as a running back. He hasn't been a starter for several years and is accepting of a backup role.
- WR Lance Moore (New Orleans Saints) - He was a bit banged up last season and is 30 years old. He's never been a full-time starter, but if the Browns are looking for a veteran receiver this offseason who won't cost a lot (i.e. James Jones, but without a sizable contract), then they should look no further than Moore.
- OT Eric Winston (Arizona Cardinals) - This is a signing that could certainly put Mitchell Schwartz' job in jeopardy. Similar to Leach, Winston played for Kyle Shanahan in Houston. He played on a 1-year deal with the Cardinals last year, and has started 119 consecutive games in his career. He seemed to struggle a bit in Arizona last year, but I would attribute that more to everybody else being so bad next to him. Winston would give Cleveland the depth they've been lacking at offensive tackle, and also the flexibility to trade Schwartz in the coming weeks if they find the right suitor. The more likely alternative would be that Winston and Schwartz compete with each other in training camp.
- ILB Larry Foote (Pittsburgh Steelers) - He barely played last season, but his career with the Steelers has finally ended after the team released him recently. Foote has plenty of experience in the 3-4 system at inside linebacker, and the Browns have no depth at the position right now. He can be a veteran / rotational presence at the position.
- SS James Ihedigbo (Baltimore Ravens) - At 30 years of age, Ihedigbo finally became a starter in the NFL last year with the Ravens and ended up having a really good year, all things considered. He was a member of the Jets from 2008-2010, playing as a backup, but two of those years overlapped with when Mike Pettine was the team's defensive coordinator. It might take a two-year deal to get Ihedigbo, but if Ward isn't brought back, the combination of Byrd-Ihedigbo would make a ton of sense, given the connections to Pettine.
The Browns should have over $50 million in cap space when free agency begins. Given the 89% spending rule (which we explained in depth here), the Browns are going to have to spend at least some money soon, and I think this is the year they do that. My top five coveted players would fill a lot of holes, and coupled with a few of my bargain bin players, some of the team's depth issues could be addressed.
Quarterback and running back weren't addressed here, but that's where the team's ten draft picks should come into play. Many of the running backs that Kyle Shanahan has worked with have been low-round picks or undrafted guys, so it doesn't makes sense to me for the Browns to overpay a running back in free agency -- use that money for positions that are harder to come by in the draft. Some rumors have said we will make a run at Matt Schaub in free agency. That doesn't matter to me, since I don't see him being the starter.
A big part of free agency could also be locking up Alex Mack to a long-term deal. If another team signs him to an offer sheet, I feel very confident the Browns would match it -- otherwise, they would have used the franchise tag instead of the transition tag. If Mack doesn't play for the Browns in 2014, it will be a huge blunder by Ray Farmer and company.
What do you think of the free agents on my coveted and bargain bin list? Could you see the Browns going after them? In the comments section below, please list your top 5 most coveted free agents. Ideally, try to be reasonable -- know that it is impossible for the Browns to sign the top safety, top cornerback, top running back, top linebacker, and top offensive lineman all in the same year. Act as though you are the general manager and you have to make sacrifices -- if you take the top safety, then you can't take one of the top-tier cornerbacks too, knowing you'll be extending Joe Haden soon as well.