We are just a couple of days away from the start of free agency, and theare loaded with around $50 million in cap space. The Browns have two first-round picks that they will be able to add some talent from in April, but the right moves in free agency can fill some key roles with proven players. 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 7th, 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 10th, 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
UPDATE (3/9/15) : The Bills have re-signed Jerry Hughes. My original column still appears below. It will never happen, but I'd still be in awe if we tried to get Justin Houston. Cleveland could try to seek Pernell McPhee and/or Trent Cole now, but neither of them are as attractive as Hughes was.
1. DE/OLB Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills - The Browns are likely letting OLB Jabaal Sheard walk, and although OLB Barkevious Mingo had an improved season last year, the team is looking for a more dominant player to be opposite of OLB Paul Kruger.
Hughes is one of the more attractive candidates to fit that role because he played in Mike Pettine's defense in 2013, his first season with Buffalo after having been traded by the Indianapolis Colts. Hughes had a career-high 10 sacks in 2013, when he was more of a rotational player (he only started in one game). He started all 16 games for the Bills in 2014 and matched his previous year's production with 10 sacks.
I'm not interested in pure pass rushers, though. The Browns were ranked 32nd against the run last year -- they are in need of players who excel at defending the run too. On the surface, Hughes' career trajectory seems similar to when the Browns first signed Kruger. The difference, as Pro Football Focus points out, is that Hughes has graded positively against the run, and he has one full season as a starter under his belt to prove he isn't a one-hit wonder:
A positive run defense grade in a full-time role this season shows Hughes as more than just a one-dimensional pass rusher and being shutout only once as a pass rusher in two seasons with the Bills highlights his consistency.
The Bills want to retain Hughes, but it's getting more difficult to do so by the day. Buffalo recently acquired RB LeSean McCoy and QB Matt Cassel via trades, which lessens the amount of available cap space they have for this year. On top of that, with the Chiefs and Giants placing franchise tags on Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul, respectively, that makes Hughes the top-rated free agent pass rusher, which will surely drive up his asking price.
Last year, a lot of people wondered if the Browns would make a play at S Jarius Byrd due to the Pettine connection. Nothing ever materialized. I think the story could be different with Hughes -- Pettine's defense in Buffalo was successful because of its league-leading sack rate, but that, along with the Browns' atrocious run defense in 2014, makes Hughes' skill set more vital to being paired up with Pettine again. The big risk, which does make me a little apprehensive about this, is the fact that Buffalo's defensive line is so dominant in general. Is Hughes' productivity a byproduct of that? How would he respond in Cleveland where he becomes the guy?
Two years ago, Kruger signed a 5-year deal worth $40.5 million and $13 million guaranteed. Adjusting for it being two years later, Hughes being the top free agent pass rusher, and him having more credentials under his belt, I'm going to project a 5-year, $55 million deal with $25 million guaranteed.
Alternate: A player I'd covet even more than Hughes would be OLB Justin Houston. The Chiefs placed the franchise tag on him, but Cleveland could stun the world and offer him a massive contract. If the Chiefs opt not to match, then the Browns would give up their No. 12 overall pick this year, and next year's first round pick. They would retain their No. 19 overall pick this year. While I question Hughes' productivity a bit, I don't question Houston's -- he could be the best pass rusher in the NFL after J.J. Watt, and he's great against the run. Given the Browns' failure rate of first-round picks, why not go for the sure-thing?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
2. NT Dan Williams, Arizona Cardinals - For whatever reason, Mike Pettine preferred having Ahtyba Rubin play nose tackle last year with Phil Taylor at defensive end. Rubin was ineffective all season -- he was one of the worst-performing defensive linemen in the NFL, in fact -- and Cleveland's ability to generate a push up front suffered. Taylor could be a fit at nose tackle, but he is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has a history of injuries. Enter Dan Williams.
Williams isn't a signing that is going to make waves across the NFL, but the No. 1 goal for general manager Ray Farmer this offseason has to be improving the run defense. Defending the run is exactly what Williams excels at, according to Pro Football Focus:
Although Williams is a one-dimensional run-stopping nose tackle, he may be the safest of the free agents as you should get exactly what you pay for. He posted a +13.7 grade against the run on his 475 snaps last season and two-down nose tackle is likely to be his best role on prospective teams. He’s not completely useless as a pass rusher (+0.8), but he’s it’s still not likely that he’s a good fit as an every-down player. If used properly, Williams should provide good value in the proper role.
In the past, we've complained about Taylor not getting enough snaps. If Williams anchors the line on first- and second-down, Taylor could use all of his energy on third down, providing a consistent force at the nose tackle position. Williams has been healthy enough in his five-year career, averaging 14 games played per season. The criticism of Williams is that he comes off the field too much, but if Cleveland has two good pass rushing ends (Kruger & Hughes), you can pick-and-choose the right moments to focus on defending the run vs. the pass. My projected offer would be a 4-year deal worth $23 million and $10 million guaranteed.
Alternate: Kenrick Ellis of the Jets, a 3rd-round pick in 2011, has never been a regular starter, but he's graded well as a reserve when playing against the run. If the Browns can't get Williams, then Ellis would be a much cheaper option who has the potential to blossom. Pettine also spent two years with him in New York.
3. RB Shane Vereen, New England Patriots - The Browns don't need a starting running back, as Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West will be more than capable of carrying the rock. What they do need are some more role players who will fit the strengths of the rest of the personnel on offense, and Shane Vereen is an example of one of those players.
The Browns have a history of not being able to contain RB Shane Vereen,
a pass-catching specialist. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Vereen is the perfect third-down or obvious passing down back that Cleveland needs. He's caught 99 passes over the past two seasons and has been a good pass protector for Tom Brady. The Patriots utilized their running backs at an inconsistent pace, but Vereen was the one constant who was always in the mix for his dependability. Browns fans should be very aware of the type of impact Vereen can have. When the Patriots had their improbable comeback against the Browns in 2013, Vereen had a career-best 12 catches for 153 yards.
Vereen also has the reputation of being a good locker room guy, which is the opposite of the reputation that Ben Tate carried last year. If the Browns don't fill the veteran leader role on offense with Miles Austin again, then that is a trait that would carry a lot of weight with Mike Pettine. My projected offer would be a 3-year deal worth $12 million and $5 million guaranteed.
Alternate: I was interested in him last year, and I still think he could fill a similar role to Vereen, just not in his prime -- Ronnie Brown. That would be a minimum deal, though. If we don't get Vereen, it's probably better to just invest the money elsewhere and forget about seeking another niche player.
4. WR Andre Holmes, Oakland Raiders - The Raiders just placed an original round tender on Andre Holmes, who was a restricted free agent. Considering he was never drafted, that means the Browns would not owe the Raiders any draft picks if they chose to pry Holmes away, much like they did with WR Andrew Hawkins last year. Hawkins was somewhat of an unproven commodity, but the Browns saw the potential he had and took a shot on him. It paid off.
Holmes is the opposite of Hawkins. At 6-4, 210 pounds, he has the size that Cleveland is currently lacking at the receiver position. If Josh McCown is going to be the team's starting quarterback this year, I've pointed out that the success he's had over the past two years has come when he's been able to throw at big targets (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans). Holmes would give McCown a viable downfield/jump ball threat.
Holmes has tried to make it in the NFL since he went undrafted in 2011. This past season with the Raiders was his best year, as he caught 47 passes for 693 yards and 4 touchdowns. He's at his best when he's running deep down the field or going for the jump ball. He doesn't have a reputation of running good routes or having good hands. Therefore, he's a bit of a one-dimensional player, and one who probably wouldn't crack the starting lineup. In the whole grand scheme of things, the Browns would draft a receiver who could mature into their No. 1 guy, and Holmes, Hawkins, and Taylor Gabriel would round out the receiving options.
The Browns' new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, was the Raiders' quarterbacks coach from 2012-2014, so he should have some familiarity with Holmes' catch radius for his quarterbacks. What type of deal would be enough to draw Holmes away from the Raiders, while also not over-paying for him? That's tough, because Holmes would not warrant the type of deal that Hawkins got a year ago. My projection would be a 2-year deal worth $7 million and $3 million guaranteed.
Alternate: There are a couple of options Cleveland is already considering, such as Cecil Shorts, Ted Ginn Jr, and Brian Hartline. One other player I'd keep my eyes on if they don't retain Miles Austin is Nate Washington. He's 31 years old and is coming off of a 6-year deal with the Titans that he made the best of despite always having shaky quarterback play. Washington would be a much more consistent option that Holmes, but Holmes got the slight preference due to his size.
5. TE Daniel Fells, New York Giants - Convention would say that the Browns need to find a receiving tight end, as it appears as though they will let TE Jordan Cameron hit free agency. There are some attractive veteran receiving options out there, particularly in TE Owen Daniels, but then I go back to what the Browns' philosophy is going to be this year.
In his interviews after signing with Cleveland, QB Josh McCown said that Cleveland is going to win games by playing great defense and running the ball. When you have those two things working, a capable receiving tight end is all you need, not an elite one. Between Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray, they can catch the ball well enough. What the Browns need is somebody who can provide extra run support in the ground game. As Pro Football Focus discusses, that's precisely what Fells brings to the table:
After bouncing around the league since being undrafted in 2006, Fells enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season in 2012 with the Patriots. He played primarily as a run blocker, grading at +10.8 there and +12.1 overall before being cut loose and subsequently missing the entire 2013 season. He was back with the Giants in 2014, again playing the bulk of his snaps on run play, and again graded positively (+6.3 overall) as both a blocker and receiver catching 16 passes, scoring on four of them. He should be a very interesting player to watch as free agency progresses, given that he missed 2013 and will be 31 when the season starts. Not a bad option in a limited role as a blocking tight end.
The concern would be whether Fells' run-blocking skills translate to the zone-blocking scheme. Fells only made $730,000 on a one-year deal in 2014, so my projection is a 2-year deal worth $2.4 million and $1 million guaranteed.
Alternate: Daniels is a more buzz-worthy fit due to his zone-blocking experience, but I wonder about having too many similar players. With Fells, you know what he's in there to do. One other attractive name at tight end is Tony Moeaki. He's been plagued by injuries since a standout rookie season with the Chiefs, to the point where he's fallen off into irrelevancy. If the Browns got lucky, Moeaki would break out as a complete tight end and a bargain replacement for Cameron.
Pokorny's Bargain Bin Hunting
Here are some other names I think the Browns should show some interest in:
- FB/TE James Casey (Philadelphia Eagles) - I previously expressed my interest in Casey, who is the ultimate hybrid player on offense. The Browns plan on having a versatile fullback this year, and rather than develop one, they can get a polished product who was heavily under-utilized in Philly.
- C Tim Barnes (St. Louis Rams) - The clock is ticking when it comes to C Alex Mack, who might opt out of his contract after this year, which would leave Cleveland with no viable replacement at the position. Barnes, a backup center with the Rams, could be signed to a cheap, two-year deal, where the team could evaluate how he looks in the zone-blocking scheme. If he does well, we have an option in place for 2016 if Mack walks. If he doesn't do well, cut him.
- DE Leger Douzable (New York Jets) - Douzable has been a good role playing run stuffer and pass rusher for the Jets in the 3-4 defense. It doesn't sound like they will re-sign him, so he would be a nice, cheap addition to shore up Cleveland's depth on the defensive line.
- OL Jah Reid (Baltimore Ravens) - The former third-round pick in 2011 never panned out for the Ravens, as he only made seven starts in his career, all in 2012. He's bounced between being a backup guard and tackle, and he has experience in the zone-blocking scheme. This would be the equivalent of the Paul McQuistan signing last year, except that hopefully Reid would be a more competent backup.
- S Danieal Manning (Houston Texans) - With S Jim Leonhard retiring, the Browns could seek out a 1-year deal with Manning, who played for near the veteran minimum last season and was one of the most efficient defensive backs when it came to tackling in the NFL.
The Browns should have a shade under $50 million in cap space when free agency begins. My top five coveted players would go a long way toward improving the team's run defense, and coupled with a few of my bargain bin players, some of the team's depth issues could be addressed.
My top five moves would reduce the Browns' cap space by about $20.5 million. Let's take $7 million away to account for draft picks -- then we have $22 million left. That money would ideally go toward retaining CB Buster Skrine and FS Tashaun Gipson. If we can't retain Skrine, we're going to have to roll the dice on CB Justin Gilbert this year. Gipson will, at the very least, be tendered to prevent him from getting away as a RFA.
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 defensive tackle, top defensive end, top outside linebacker, top wide receiver, and top tight end all in the same year. Act as though you are the general manager and you have to make sacrifices -- if you take the top defensive tackle, then maybe you can't take the top outside linebacker too.
A good rule of thumb that I like to use is that you can sign two top-tier players, but then the other three have to be lower valued guys. If you take one top-tier player, the other four can be of slightly higher value. Or, you can try to go for five cheaper, but potentially good-value players.