A New Hope begins with Free Agency
Considering all that had transpired over the prior two months, it seemed the only person with extremely high expectations of first-year GM Ray Farmer heading into free agency was Farmer himself. He had only been promoted just a month before.
What could you reasonably ask of the guy at that point? Not being Mike Lombardi was a win already. And while the roster was in much better shape than past front office transitions, Farmer was still tasked with turning around a league-wide perception of the Cleveland front office that was anything but positive.
Despite everything, these new Browns came out of the free agency gate firing.
Before the door for FA signings even officially opened, the rumor mill was churning out names that were among the best available at their respective positions. Being jaded fans from Cleveland, waiting to believe it until you saw it was the safe stance. Ink on paper.
But something real was brewing. Farmer's tenacity and confidence were contagious.
It no doubt helped him reel in two of the most high-profile and highly-touted targets on this year's market, and both at immediate positions of need.
Almost everyone wanted to keep T.J. Ward, as a very good player and a fan favorite. But having played out his rookie contract, he earned the right to go where he wanted and it shouldn't be held against him. When he left for greener pastures in Denver, the Browns were left with a hole to fill.
‣ Enter Donte Whitner – 4 years, $28 million ($13m guaranteed):
Whitner came home. The Cleveland native is a very similar style of hard-hitting strong safety, great against the run, and only a year apart from Ward. Although, Whitner has improved considerably in pass coverage over the last couple of years. The 28-year-old does have more "football miles," entering his ninth season in the NFL, but is still less prone to injury.
Regardless of whether it's seen by some as a lateral move, a need became apparent and Farmer addressed it on Day 1. He didn't stop there.
Another departing fan favorite was veteran middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Respected as a locker room leader, quarterback of the defense, and total high-character class act, he was an unfortunate cap casualty for the Browns and appeared to offer the intangibles that would be hard to replace in a shallow inside linebacker free agent market.
Undeterred, Farmer found a way. He managed to land the one guy available at the position that was a clear notable improvement.
‣ Enter Karlos Dansby – 4 years, $24 million ($12m guaranteed):
Despite his age, turning 33 this November, Dansby has continued to be one of the most consistently productive inside linebackers in the league, both against the run and pass. The Browns are paying him more money in his first two years than they would have with Jackson, but Dansby is a significant upgrade, especially in Pettine's scheme that values fast linebackers.
To top off the first full day of free agency, Farmer turned his sights toward a division rival.
It's unclear to what extent, if at all, the front office was aware of Josh Gordon's looming substance abuse violation, nor exactly when the Browns officials were informed, per strict league policy. In any case, plagued by drops last season, the team could use all the hands they could get at WR and had the luxury of immense salary cap flexibility.
Interestingly enough, Bengals owner, president, and de facto GM Mike Brown kept Cincinnati in similar position when all was said and done. Still, Farmer liked what he saw from their coveted restricted slot receiver and managed to structure a front-loaded contract that probably made the notoriously stingy Mike Brown cringe.
‣ Enter Andrew Hawkins – 4 years, $12.2 million ($4m guaranteed):
Restricted free agent Andrew Hawkins is a speedy receiver that was actually on several teams' radar, but this deal with the Browns was much more than anyone else was willing to offer, including his previous team, the Cincinnati Bengals, who took all five days to consider matching, but ultimately never did.
Farmer's next standout signing took a slightly longer process, not becoming official until the fifth day of free agency.
With the Browns struggling for several years in the rushing department, finishing bottom five as a team in two of the last three seasons, the team hasn't had depth at running back that could be counted on since Peyton Hillis ran for over 1100 yards behind Lawrence Vickers in 2010. It was an offense ran by Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll, with a roster where that was all they could do.
Knowing the run game was one of Pat Shurmur's many achilles' heels, Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner were expected to improve that aspect of the offense. Instead, the exact opposite happened. The Browns finished with their worst rushing total in seven seasons.
And even in hindsight, trading away a hapless Trent Richardson for a first-round pick the right thing to do, one of Banner's rare highlights. Richardson's exit, along with his 2.9 yards per carry, wasn't the catalyst for such a perplexing and ineffectual rushing attack, if the less than 34% of snaps that it accounted for could even be called an attack.
The continued insistence on giving the balk of what little carries there were to 32-year-old Willis McGahee was a part of the problem. While Chris Ogbonnaya was consistently doing more with less, Chud and Turner stuck with McGahee, 2.7 yards at a time, until he completely broke down.
Farmer had an answer for this too, and despite the longer wait, he came at a bargain price.
‣ Enter Ben Tate – 2 years, $6.1 million ($2.5m guaranteed):
The 5-10, 220 pound running back will be entering his fifth season, one in which he has averaged 4.7 yards per carry as a backup behind Arian Foster in Houston. Tate has had some issues with injuries, though, which might be the reason why the Browns are only committing to a two-year deal...
Of course, one of the most important aspects of free agency is keeping the talent you already have. In Cleveland, the only significant players with expiring contracts were Ward and center Alex Mack. Perhaps with an idea of how to address the strong safety position if he would need to, Farmer opted to use the tag on Mack a few weeks prior.
To the surprise of many, it wasn't the common franchise tag most were expecting. The front office decided to apply the rarely used "transition tag" instead. This was considered a potentially riskier gamble as Mack would then become a free agent and have the right to negotiate with other teams, but the Browns would be guaranteed the right of first refusal to match any offer sheet he signed.
If no offer sheet was reached, Mack would earn the tender for offensive lineman, but the team would save about $1.6 million by opting for the transition tag compared to the franchise tag.
It was certainly an unconventional move, but the reasoning could be plainly seen. Farmer was daring both other parties, Mack and any possible suitors, to go ahead a reach a long-term deal or even a short one. No team had as much flexibility as the Browns. Now that "poison pills" were no longer allowed in NFL contracts, any deal good for one team would probably be more than fine for Cleveland.
It also effectively only ruled out Mack from bolting just to play for a more stable winner. If he just wanted a fair shot to find his true market value, he could still do that and the Browns would match it the resulting deal.
Farmer essentially created a situation where the Browns would be using some other team's resources to negotiate a new contract with Mack. Because they had a healthy enough cap to match any plausible deal, the other team was merely a conduit to get that done.
While Mack's agent, Marvin Demoff, publicly bolstered his ability to devise a contract the Browns couldn't match, that too worked in Farmer's favor. If they didn't want to do this all over again following a one-year tender, they'd need some other team to be convinced that negotiating with Mack wasn't a waste of effort.
Farmer's unconventional transition tag paid off like a master stroke.
The Jaguars signed Mack to an offer sheet that was a solid deal for both him and the Browns, keeping him in Cleveland for the next two seasons at least. Mack can opt out in 2016, and if he doesn't, it will be the last year the team owes fully guaranteed.
‣ Alex Mack – 5 years, $42 million ($18-26m guaranteed):
It is a win for Mack and his agent, though. Mack can assess the state of the Browns' roster heading into 2016, and at age 30, he'll still probably be able to get one more decent contract. However, he'll have to be certain that the market is right for him. He'd be passing up on a potential $24 million over three years, which is something that he might not get on the open market at that time.
In addition to those described above, a few other players were brought in at various stages of the free agency period.
Although they're all considerably less prominent names at this point in their respective careers, none of them were signed to egregious contracts. And while expectations aren't extremely high, the three of them do offer some sleeper potential.
‣ WR Miles Austin – 1 year, $2 million:
If the hamstring injuries are behind him, Austin has a good shot of making the Browns' final 53-man roster. He's also considered a great teammate and can bring more veteran leadership to the locker room.
‣ CB Isaiah Trufant – 2 years, $1.54 million ($0.15m guaranteed):
At 31 years old, Trufant regularly was among the special teams tackling leaders on the Jets, covering kickoffs and punts. ... Jets fans had a pretty favorable opinion of him, with 86% of fans saying they wouldn't mind him re-signing in New York.
‣ TE Jim Dray – 3 years, $5.62 million ($2.25m guaranteed):
Dray saw the most action of his career this past season for the Cardinals, where he started 15 games and recorded 26 catches for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns. He did not drop a pass all season, according to Pro Football Focus, but is mostly considered a blocking tight end.
All this from a team that was considered the laughing stock of the league not but two months before – a team with a brand new first-year head coach and mostly new first-year general manager – a GM that had officially been at the position for less than a month...
What kind of haul in free agency could make fans forget that quickly about players like safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Darrelle Revis?
It wasn't just the haul itself, but the process, respect, and acknowledgement of everything that occurred over the prior few months for Ray Farmer to even have found himself in that situation.
In another sense, it's likely that without all of the coaching search insanity and ousting of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, none of Farmer's good work here as the man calling the shots would have even been possible.
Even the infamous white board that sparked headlines across the web, turned out to be nothing more than insignificant notes from employees of the Browns' web video department, who were in no way connected to the front office, avoiding what would have otherwise been one of the biggest social media blunders by a front office since the advent of Twitter.
And despite all of free agency's grandeur, Farmer's best work was still yet to come.
• Part 1 - Like a House of Cards
• Part 2 - The Light at the End of the Tunnel
‣ Part 3 - A New Hope begins with Free Agency
• Part 4 - Worth the Wait: Ray Farmer wins the Draft