We are just a couple of days away from the start of free agency, and the Cleveland Browns are stacked with about $83.55 million in cap space. The Browns also have the No. 1, No. 4, No. 33, and No. 35 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft that they will be able to use to add some talent in April, but the right moves in free agency — in addition to the trades they’ve already locked in — 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.
When Free Agency Negotiations & Signings Begin
- On Monday, March 12th, 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. Note: It appears as though many NFL teams have already been contacting agents already, despite this ‘legal tampering’ date.
- On Wednesday, March 14th, 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. The trades that have been reported over the past few weeks around the NFL can also become official.
Pokorny’s 5 Coveted Free Agents
1. CB Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams - You might already think that the Browns added their “free agent cornerback” by trading for CB Damarious Randall. But many fans have been speculating that he’ll move to free safety in Cleveland, and this morning, Peter King of The MMQB wrote that the Browns “will likely play Randall at his college position, free safety ... in the one-high-safety look that [Gregg Williams] likes to play.” That would also allow last year’s first-round pick, Jabrill Peppers, to move to strong safety, with Derrick Kindred being a rotational player.
I already mentioned that I think CB Jamar Taylor is a candidate to be cut. CB Jason McCourty should stay, but he’s in the final year of his two-year contract and will be 31 when the season starts. That’s where Johnson comes into play — he is 28 years old, but it’s the right time for him to get one big contract in the NFL. The Rams have already traded for two high-profile cornerbacks, and the San Francisco 49ers just shelled out some money for CB Richard Sherman. Johnson will have other suitors, but he played in Williams’ system when he was the Rams’ defensive coordinator.
Johnson has been a staple of consistency. He and McCourty would play the outside, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun would be in the slot, and there’s always a chance the club could draft DB Minkah Fitzpatrick too. CB Howard Wilson is also waiting in the wings after a redshirt injury as a rookie. Joel Corry of CBS Sports is projecting a contract package of 5 years, $77.5 million for Johnson, with $37.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. I think that projection is a tad high, as I’d settle in for 5 years, $70 million, with $32 million guaranteed.
Alternate: Even though Darqueze Dennard was kind of a bust in Cincinnati, I’m intrigued by what he could offer after somewhat of a breakout season in 2017. However, if we miss on Johnson, I almost think the Browns might as well just stick with Taylor and then give some more consideration to a cornerback with one of their first four selections in the draft.
2. WR Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins - Many fans are “in” on the desire for Cleveland to sign WR Allen Robinson of the Jaguars. I wouldn’t mind the move, but I think we already made our big acquisition at the position with WR Jarvis Landry. At some point, I want us to extend WR Josh Gordon, and I don’t think you can afford him if you already have monster deals with Robinson and Landry in place. Robinson is also coming off a torn ACL in 2017, which limited him to just one game.
I am ready to go all-in again with Pryor. After having 77 catches for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2016 with the Browns, he decided to take a small one-year “prove it” deal in Washington last year instead of going with the type of lucrative deal the Browns handed WR Kenny Britt. It worked out terribly for both sides -- Britt was a bad influence on the locker room with his behavior, and Pryor struggled in Washington, finishing the year with 20 catches for 240 yards and 1 touchdown.
I think Pryor really loved playing for Hue Jackson and Al Saunders. He listened to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus last year, and it backfired. Even if John Dorsey isn’t strongly interested in Pryor, I think this could be a unique case where Pryor is the guy who approaches the Browns and says, ‘please, just make this happen.’ It was also reported (before Dorsey was hired) that Cleveland tried to re-acquire Pryor at the trade deadline last year, so we know how badly Jackson wants him too. This could be Dorsey’s peace offering to Hue -- “I didn’t get you A.J. McCarron, but here is the receiver you wanted.”
Pryor, unfortunately, set a bad precedent for himself last year with his 1-year, $6 million “prove it” deal. After a floundering statistical season, how would anyone give him more than $6 million per year? My projection is 2 years, $12 million, with $7 million guaranteed. But the contract should also include incentives that can drive it up to $15 million total.
Alternative: If Allen Robinson is willing to take a one-year deal, that’s an option. If neither Pryor nor Robinson are landed, though, I personally would just stick with Corey Coleman and see what young receivers you can develop in a later round.
3. DE William Hayes, Miami Dolphins - Originally drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2008, Hayes will be 33 years old when the season starts, but we’ve seen some defensive ends play effectively into their mid-30s. Hayes played under Gregg Williams with the Rams from 2012-2016, first as a rotational player and then as a starter. In his last two years with Williams, he combined for 10.5 sacks.
Last year, he signed a 1-year deal with the Miami Dolphins worth $4.75 million. He was a rotational run-stuffing defensive end with them, but did an excellent job in that role, as PFF highlights:
While he may have not played enough snaps to qualify for a ranking, Hayes put forth a season grade of 85.6, his fifth grade over 80.0 in the past six seasons, and one that would have placed him tied with Ryan Kerrigan at 18th among all edge defenders this year. He recorded 17 pressures on just 122 pass-rush snaps this year and managed to bring on 16 run stops on his 19 total tackles in run defense. Hayes is a proven veteran who can both rush the passer and stop the run, and that should peak team’s interests.
I view Hayes as an upgrade over both DE Nate Orchard and DE Carl Nassib in terms of depth, two players who I think could be cut. Hayes can be a 2-3 year holdover as the Browns eventually try to find some more young depth at defensive end. My projection is 2 years, $10 million, with $4 million guaranteed.
Alternative: Guys like Trent Murphy and Dion Jordan are risky because of either injury or being a bust, but do offer some intrigue for a 1-year deal. The Browns have explored several options already through the rumor mill at defensive end, so I feel pretty good about them adding someone at the position.
4. RB Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys - With the Browns likely letting RB Isaiah Crowell hit the open market, the front office has already explored a few veteran running backs this offseason like RB Frank Gore and RB Chris Ivory. But the guy who I wouldn’t mind is Morris, who is coming off of a 2-year, $3.5 million deal he signed in Dallas.
Getting more touches last year due to the situation with RB Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas, Morris carried the ball 115 times for 547 yards (4.8 YPC) and 1 TD. He has never been a prolific receiver, so that doesn’t overlap with RB Duke Johnson’s specialty. In Cleveland, he’d either be in a time-share with Johnson (alas last year with Crowell and Johnson), or be an insurance policy if the team were to draft someone like RB Saquon Barkley.
Morris’ production last year will drive up his value a tick, but not too much. My projection is 2 years, $6 million, with $2.5 million guaranteed.
Alternative: I almost groan saying this, but if we’re looking for a Hue Jackson connection, then Jeremy Hill is out there. He’s been terribly disappointing the past couple of seasons, but the upside is that he is still only just 25 years old and could probably be had on a cheap deal.
5. QB Josh McCown, New York Jets - In his two years with the Browns, everyone loved McCown, even if he didn’t really win any games. He was cast aside at the wrong time last year, leaving the club with no veterans to help mentor rookie QB DeShone Kizer. He went on to make a career-high 13 starts at the age of 39 for the New York Jets, completing 67.3% of his passes and throwing for 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while also rushing for 5 touchdowns.
Those are numbers that scream that McCown deserves another shot at starting somewhere. But, I don’t think he’s going to get it because he’ll be 40 years old by the time the season starts. Cleveland is a familiar stop for him, and while QB Tyrod Taylor is busy running the offense, McCown can be the mentor in the quarterback room for whoever the team selects at No. 1 or No. 4 overall. It may seem silly to pay for a guy to just do that, but we have that luxury in cap space. My projection is 1 year, $3 million, fully guaranteed. And there should be some contract escalators built in, in case the team asks him to make a few starts.
Alternatives: The Browns could either stick with Kevin Hogan, or sign a guy like Chase Daniel. But this is another case where I think McCown is ‘the guy’ to fill the purpose of the role I’m discussing.
The Browns should have around $83.55 million in cap space when free agency begins. This is no where near as ambitious as I was in my free agency projections last year (two of which I nailed), but part of that is because of the three trades the team has already made to acquire players. I do think the club could be a sneaky contender for some unknown big-name free agent, but I can’t even begin to speculate who that might be because I have no clue.
What do you think, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section which free agents you covet this year.