We are just a couple of days away from the start of free agency, and the Cleveland Browns are stacked with just over $100 million in cap space. This time last year, they had over $50 million in cap space and we thought that was a lot. The Browns also have high-profile draft 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 consider signing if I were running the Browns. This list takes into account the fact that teams can’t just sign the biggest five names in free agency. However, I do think the Browns have dropped enough hints to say they will be aggressive in free agency, which is reflected in my column.
When Free Agency Negotiations & Signings Begin
- On Tuesday, March 7th, at 12:00 p.m. ET, 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 Thursday, March 9th, 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
1. OG Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals - Yes, teams need a good quarterback to be successful in the NFL. They could try to settle for guys like Austin Pasztor or try to develop a Spencer Drango some more, but this team has boatloads of cap space. If Hue Jackson was sick of seeing his quarterbacks go down to injury last year, then what better way to address it than signing a guy he is more than familiar with from his Cincinnati days in Zeitler?
Zeitler is the 2nd-ranked free agent in this year’s class by Pro Football Focus. The Browns were uneasy last offseason to commit to players like Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, so it’s easy to ask, “why would we commit to an offensive lineman this year?” When you look at the big picture of how this team can quickly turn things around, the draft should focus on defense, quarterback, or an offensive playmaker among the No. 1, No. 12, and No. 33 picks.
Joel Corry of CBS Sports is projecting a contract package of 5 years, $60 million for Zeitler, with $26 million guaranteed. The Browns would then feature LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, and Zeitler in their starting three. At center, they could shift John Greco over, play around with Austin Reiter, continue with Cameron Erving, or sign a center (see later in this article). At right tackle, I think the team really wants to roll with Shon Coleman there in 2017 after red-shirting him as a rookie. Contending teams will be after Zeitler, so in order to make him choose the Browns, I think Cleveland would have to overpay. My projection is 5 years, $62.5 million, with $28 million guaranteed.
Alternate: I’m almost of the opinion that if the Browns can’t get Zeitler, they shouldn’t look to upgrade the guard position at all. In other words, “either go for the cream of the crop, or just focus on other positions.” If they do stay with guard and want to pay a little less, Larry Worford (Lions) is a solid option and he’s only 26 years old.
2. SS Tony Jefferson, Arizona Cardinals - Last year, the Cleveland Browns abandon the safety position by not re-signing Tashaun Gipson and by letting Donte Whitner go. In hindsight, given Gipson’s struggles last year in Jacksonville and Whitner’s age, it was probably the right decision if the team was going to go in to full rebuilding mode anyway. Safety was the only position that the club completely ignored last year, though, and for half the season, the entire defense suffered for it.
There is no way the Browns can ignore the safety position for the second year in a row. There are a few promising players in the draft they could go after, but this is a position I like addressing in free agency. I originally had my heart set on Eric Berry of the Chiefs, but he already re-signed witht he club. The next man up is Jefferson, an undrafted free agent in 2013 who worked his way up in to one of the league’s better safeties. Pro Football Focus particularly highlights the standout job he’s done against the run, and have him ranked as the 13th best free agent in this year’s class:
Jefferson has developed into an excellent strong safety and box defender for the Cardinals, and this past season, he earned a PFF run-defense grade 98.0. Jefferson recorded 35 defensive stops, third among all safeties, and missed only five tackles, less than half the figure of either of the players to better him in defensive stops. Jefferson has been solid in coverage close to the line of scrimmage, and would be a solid upgrade for teams looking for an upgrade at the position.
Pair him up with Ed Reynolds as the free safety, and now Gregg Williams will have addressed the biggest hole on defense. The only downside is that it’ll cost the Browns. Last year, my top coveted free agent was FS Rodney McLeod; I projected him to get $6.25 million per year, but he actually got $7 million per year. The top five safeties in the NFL are getting $10+ million per year, and I think Jefferson will find his way in between those figures. My projected offer would be a 4-year deal worth $36 million and $16 million guaranteed.
Alternate: There are a few other intriguing safeties on the free agent market, including John Cyprien (Jaguars), D.J. Swearinger (Cardinals), among several others. I’d really be content if Cleveland pursued any of them.
3. C J.C. Tretter, Green Bay Packers - The Browns gave Cameron Erving a full year at center in 2016, and although he played a little better than I expected, center was the weakest link on the offensive line. I think Hue Jackson is interested in someone he can rely on to not necessarily be a Pro Bowl type of player, but a quality center. Tretter fits that bill. A fourth-round pick in 2013, he started the first seven games of the season for the Packers last year before suffering a knee injury that kept him out the rest of the season.
That knee injury might have hurt Tretter’s value a little bit, but he’s only 26 years old and the expectation is that he’ll be fine for the 2017 season. Pro Football Focus has him as their 28th-ranked free agent, citing lack of experience as his shortcoming:
There isn’t a whole lot of tape on J.C. Tretter (his career is 1,001 snaps old, which amounts to effectively one full year of starting), but what is out there is pretty good. His grade over that thousand snaps would put him among the top 15 players in the league at his position, and in 2016, he ranked ninth overall with a grade of 84.1. He hasn’t really shown limitless upside, but his floor would appear to be a capable, solid starting center, which makes him a valuable commodity.
There aren’t any top centers on the market this year, so Tretter will get overpaid when factoring in that he only has ten career starts. My projected offer would be a 4-year deal worth $28 million and $13 million guaranteed.
Alternate: I banged the drum of center Stefan Wisniewski last year, and he has experience with Hue Jackson. He also gives the Browns the flexibility to play him at center or guard, almost taking the John Greco role if the team wants to move on from he or Austin Pasztor.
4. DT Nick Fairley, New Orleans Saints - Still only 29 years old, Fairley has bounced around the past couple of years, having to survive on a 1-year, $5 million deal with the Rams and then a 1-year, $3 million deal with the Saints. That year with the Rams came when Gregg Williams was the defensive coordinator, which is a significant part of the tie-in here. The Saints started Fairley in every game last year, boosting his stock a little.
Pro Football Focus ranked Fairley as the 9th-best free agent in this year’s class. I think that’s a bit over-the-top, but here is their reasoning:
Even at his best, Nick Fairley has always seemed like a player with more in the tank, but 2016 saw him play more snaps (723) than any other season of his career, and end the year with career-highs in sacks (seven) and total QB pressures (47). With a limited pool of interior linemen, Nick Fairley brings serious upside, albeit with some risk.
Word is that the Saints would like to retain Fairley, but I think the Browns could get him with a longer-term commitment. My projected offer would be a 3-year deal worth $16 million and $6 million guaranteed.
Alternate: Terrell McClain (Cowboys) made a late-career surge with 15 starts last year after being a career backup. Veteran Cam Thomas (Rams) was a role player for Gregg Williams last year.
5. TE Dion Sims, Miami Dolphins - A fourth round pick in 2013, Sims started 11 games for Miami last year, logging 26 catches for 256 yards and 4 touchdowns. He mostly filled in for an injured TE Jordan Cameron, but it is expected that the Dolphins will complete a trade to acquire TE Julius Thomas from the Jaguars for a seventh round pick.
While the Browns do have TE Randall Telfer as their blocking tight end, Sims would be an upgrade in that department. Last year, Dolphins head coach Adam Gase praised Sims’ ability as a run blocker and also the progress he’s made as a pass blocker. The Browns aren’t likely to feature a rushing package that includes both TE Gary Barnidge and TE Seth DeValve, so Sims gives them the guy they’d want to insert. My projected offer would be a 3-year deal worth $12 million and $4 million guaranteed.
Alternate: Jermaine Gresham (Cardinals) has experience with Hue Jackson and is one of the free agents I coveted last year. He’s older than Sims, but would also fulfill the role of a blocking tight end.
The Browns should have a little over $100 million in cap space when free agency begins. This is the most ambitious “coveted players” post I’ve ever done on DBN to my recollection, as I have $154.5 million worth of contracts I’ve suggested over the next 3-5 years.
That wouldn’t all be in one year, though — Cleveland might end up still only using around half of their cap space, giving them plenty to re-sign someone like WR Terrelle Pryor (which I would place at a premium above everything I listed in this article). Remember that LB Jamie Collins basically counted as a free agent signing too, and a big one at that.
What do you think, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section which free agents you covet this year.