The Cleveland Browns have not been big spenders in free agency, having seen the majority of their unrestricted free agents depart to other teams and only a couple of depth players signed. That leaves the team with several starting voids to fill next season:
- Wide Receiver (Travis Benjamin's departure)
- Center (Alex Mack's departure)
- Right Tackle (Mitchell Schwartz' departure)
- Free Safety (Tashaun Gipson's departure)
Let's take a look at each position and where the team might go.
I think it's very interesting that Dwayne Bowe is still on the roster. Bowe's cap hit in 2016 is $8 million, and he's guaranteed to get $4.6 million of it. Until the team acquires more talent -- either in free agency or the draft -- maybe they'll hang on to Bowe. If things don't pan out for a receiver in the draft, maybe Hue Jackson believes he can include and get more out of Bowe than Mike Pettine did. Yes, I hated Bowe's approach last year, but deep down inside, I still thought he could've been an asset in the right role. Maybe being on the same page will help. If he still wants to play football in 2016, maybe the Browns could even get him to take a pay cut.
Not including long-time veteran receivers, the Browns could look through the receiver bin at Brandon LaFell (New England), Andre Holmes (Oakland), or Marlon Brown (Baltimore). LaFell would probably seek a multi-year deal, but Holmes and Brown could each be 1-year, near-minimum salary type of deals. Holmes has more upside but needs to be polished. Brown had a good year in 2013 before dropping to the bottom of the Ravens' depth chart.
The Browns have three internal options: John Greco, Cameron Erving, and Garth Gerhart. Gerhart was an undrafted free agent for the Browns in 2012, but bounced around to several teams' practice squads. Cleveland added him back to the roster right after the season ended as an insurance policy to Mack. None of the three have a lot of experience at center, but the competition is already in-house if necessary.
Outside, Stefen Wisniewski would no doubt be the most intriguing option, but there is probably a very small chance of it happening. Cleveland already chose not to retain their own players, and it sounds like Wisniewski is fielding offers to see whether to return to Jacksonville or sign with someone else. Cleveland's approach right now is clearly not to out-bid other teams, but to basically be the only team in on a certain player.
The Seahawks gave Patrick Lewis an original round tender, so I wouldn't mind seeing them make a run at him. However, Cleveland probably doesn't want to commit to a lot of guaranteed money on a free agent this year, something they'd have to do to discourage Seattle from matching the offer.
The Browns already signed Alvin Bailey, who has played several positions, including right tackle. However, it'd be interesting to see if the team still made a push for two former division players: Andre Smith or Kelvin Beachum. Smith has played with Hue Jackson before, but is coming off of a bad season and would be viewed as a short-term stop gap. Beachum is coming off of an ACL injury and having played a lot of left tackle, but if the Browns take a long-term chance on him, they could reap the rewards.
The veteran option on the market is Reggie Nelson, and it doesn't sound like Cincinnati is going to bring him back at the rate he wants. As soon as you hear that, it should raise the red flag that the Browns aren't going to pay an older veteran a lucrative deal in the secondary, especially when they already have one of those at strong safety. Heck, it's even possible that the team could still cut bait on either SS Donte Whitner or CB Tramon Williams.
In terms of in-house options, I'd love to see Ibraheim Campbell get a chance to develop. If the coaching staff watched the tape last year, they'd have to be going through game-after-game of, "man, how was everybody so bad...wait a minute, this Campbell guy actually stood out in a good way during his 1.5 games." Jordan Poyer could also replace him, as he's already started some games over the past year. I've also toyed with the idea of moving Williams over to free safety to see how he pans out there.
I'm still a fan of Louis Vasquez at guard, although he's visiting the Titans right now. If he doesn't command a top deal any more, I'd be intrigued by the following lineup combination:
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: John Greco
C: Cameron Erving
RG: Louis Vasquez
RT: Joel Bitonio
Bitonio played a lot of tackle in college, and I'd be interested in seeing if the transition to right tackle at the NFL level would pay off for the Browns. Ideally, the Browns will work out a contract extension with Bitonio after the 2016 season.