Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry is getting an early start on the offseason after the Browns missed the playoffs following a disappointing season.
Berry has roster holes to fill at wide receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, and probably offensive tackle through free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft.
But before he gets there, Berry and the rest of the front office and coaching staff need to make a decision on their own free agents.
Depending on where you look, and based on the NFL office completing a final accounting of the salary cap numbers, the Browns will have around $24.9 million (overthecap.com) to $27.6 million (spotrac.com) in available cap space. (That number can also change depending on how Berry deals with some high-priced veterans entering the final year of their contracts.)
Free agency begins on March 16, so between now and then Berry will make the call on the following Cleveland players, broken down by their status in free agency.
Unrestricted free agents
Any player who has four or more accrued seasons in the league and an expired contract is classified as an unrestricted free agent, meaning they are free to negotiate and sign with any team.
Cleveland players who are unrestricted free agents include:
- Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end
- Dustin Colquitt, punter
- Ronnie Harrison, safety
- Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
- Rashard Higgins, wide receiver
- Malik Jackson, defensive tackle
- Takk McKinley, defensive end
- David Njoku, tight end
- Malcolm Smith, linebacker
- MJ Stewart, defensive back
- Anthony Walker, linebacker
Of the players on this list, Clowney, who played this past season on a one-year contract, and Njoku, who just finished his rookie contract, stand out as the two players that will likely be at the top of Berry’s list.
Both players have said they would be open to remaining in Cleveland, but the truth is that dollar signs will play a large role in increasing or decreasing that interest.
Njoku’s estimated market value, according to spotrac.com, is four years and $27.6 million. While there is no estimated market value listed for Clowney, he is coming off his best season since 2018 and will be looking for what might be his last big-money contract.
But the Browns need someone to play opposite defensive end Myles Garrett, and if Clowney is willing to stay with the same team for a second consecutive after moving around the past three seasons, a deal could be worked out.
Restricted free agents
Any player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract is classified as a restricted free agent and is free to negotiate and sign with any team. However, the player’s original team can offer them one of the various qualifying offers (also referred to as tenders) that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation.
Cleveland players who are restricted free agents include:
- Stephen Carlson, tight end
- D’Ernest Johnson, running back
- Chase McLaughlin, placekicker
- Ifeadi Odenigbo, defensive end
The one player to watch on this list is Johnson, who posted a pair of 100-yard rushing games this past season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry while filling in for running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Johnson’s estimated market value, according to spotrac.com, is two years and a bit more than $5.3 million. That is a reasonable price to pay, but with Hunt on the books for $6.2 million in the final year of his contract, and Chubb’s contract extension kicking in, that might be a bit much to invest in one position group.
Still, Johnson proved he has value, so Berry could place a second-round tender on Johnson and see what type of contract he can find elsewhere. Berry can then either match the contract or let Johnson leave and bank another second-round draft pick.
Exclusive rights free agents
Any player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract is classified as an exclusive rights free agent. If his original team offers him a one-year contract at the league minimum, the player cannot negotiate with other teams.
Cleveland players who are exclusive rights free agents include:
- Malik McDowell, defensive tackle
- Blake Hance, offensive lineman
- Michael Dunn, offensive lineman
McDowell had a rocky first season at times, but he was a regular member of the rotation and defensive tackle, playing more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps 11 times. Injuries along the offensive line forced Hance and Dunn to play more than is preferable, but both gave it their best and, if nothing else, picked up some additional experience.
All three, but especially McDowell, should be easy decisions for Berry to bring back next season. Of course, that was before McDowell was arrested in Florida, so it may be safe to say that Berry is striking McDowell’s name off the list.