Cleveland GM Andrew Berry has had a vanilla free agency period this year. His first two contained major splash signings right out of the gate. This time around, circumstances involving getting WR Amari Cooper and the QB Deshaun Watson have tightened the purse strings.
But there are still quality free agents left to consider. Here’s 5.
LB Bobby Wagner
At first glance the Browns appear set at linebacker. Anthony Walker should once again be slotted in the center while Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will man the weak side backer position. Then newly-traded Chase Winovich, Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki will fight it out for playing time at the SAM. Winovich will also line up as a defensive end.
But Wagner (6’-0”, 242 pounds) is a special player and a tackling machine. When the season begins, he will be 32-years old but plays much younger and doesn’t seem to have slowed down much.
Last year on a very weak Seattle defense, he netted 170 total tackles which ranked third in the league. Cleveland needs a monster tackler on this defense. In fact, why shouldn’t the criteria be “excellent tackler” as the first and foremost in evaluations?
In fact, Wagner’s statistics from last year (in addition to his total tackles): three QB hits, three tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, two knockdowns, six pressures and three hurries. Wagner is not a pass rusher per say, but he is a viable force in the center of the defense. As we all know, several teams roasted the defense in the inside gaps last year. Yes, the Browns have Walker inserted into the MLB position. That would have to be addressed in training camp, but you can’t simply pass on talent.
In 2021, Wagner was paid $13.15 million. As we all know, Cleveland is an analytics team and analytics say to not pay linebackers astronomic amount of money. He is expected to be signed on a one-year deal worth $8 million. And even that is too high for Berry, perhaps they can ink him to a longer agreement for less capital each season in order to get a deal done.
DT Akiem Hicks
As stated above, the Browns defense had issues with stopping the run up the middle last season. The signing of Hicks would change that.
Hicks (6’-4”, 335 pounds) can be found very busy in the middle of the defensive line just like he was at an all-you-eat buffet. He is extremely strong and you aren’t going to move him with just one man.
He is very talented and huge in the run stoppage game. Signing a guy like Hicks would protect the linebackers more and provide a huge body to clog up the middle of the defense. On a list of the Top 100 free agents, Hicks was Number 17. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018.
Hicks did have a reoccurring groin injury in 2021 but still maintained a high ceiling as a run defender. He has significant power and is a bull rusher. He is not going to chase anybody down on the outside lanes, but can blow up the rushing attack to go along with his 3.5 sacks in 2021.
His signing projection is a two-year deal for $17 million. And that in itself may be too much for Berry to digest. Typically, Berry has signed his inside guys to deals around the $3-$4 million a year range.
OG/OT Germain Ifedi
The Browns will need a dependable backup for the outside tackle positions either in free agency or the draft. Ifedi would solve that problem.
Ifedi (6’-5”, 334 pounds) was a former first round pick of the Seahawks back in 2016. He was with the Chicago Bears the past two seasons. In 2020, he started all 16 games for the Bears with six games at right tackle and the remainder at right guard. So he has versatility. Last year he started nine games as a knee injury kept him sidelined for part of the season.
RG Wyatt Teller, RT Jack Conklin and LT Jedrick Wills have all had injury issues. If the Browns are going to become a steady offensive run-first team, they will need to plug-and-play a talented guy like Ifedi in order to not miss a beat.
He has been graded out as a better run blocker in gap schemes than as a pass protector - which is par for the Browns offensive line. In 2021, Ifedi had four penalties and allowed just two sacks.
Currently, Cleveland has on its depth chart several players who have filled in and just haven’t been successful such as Chris Hubbard, Blake Hance, James Hudson and Michael Dunn. Ifedi would solve the depth situation when the next man goes down.
S Tyrann Mathieu
What will Cleveland’s safety position look like in 2022?
Will Ronnie Harrison be back? M.J. Stewart signed with Houston. John Johnson had a so-so year while Grant Delpit and Richard LeCounte are still being evaluated as young players. The depth currently is Montrel Meander and Nate Meadors.
Mathieu (5’-9”, 190 pounds) would blow up the position and is an excellent tackler. He had 76 total tackles last year for Kansas City. He finds himself in the Mr. Versatility category in that just like Browns LB JOK can line up at safety, linebacker and even defensive end. Since 2019, Mathieu has played over 600 snaps in deep, box and also slot alignments. Plainly put, he is a playmaker.
Safety is not a high-paying position with analytics, so the Browns would have to consider a more longer deal in order to obtain his services. But the dude can play and comes as a three-time Pro Bowler.
DE Jadeveon Clowney
The defensive end had a great second half last year in addition to his run stopping skills. He actually became a pass rusher to be concerned with.
It is a known fact that Clowney (6’-5”, 255 pounds) works on contracts on his own timeline. It has been widely mentioned that the Browns are in negotiations with him presently, so progress can be done and then a waiting period will begin from his camp.
Last year he played under a one-year worth $8 million with up to $2 million in incentives, $7 million of which was guaranteed. If he was to indeed re-sign with the Browns, it is believed to be on a three-year deal that would pay him in the neighborhood of $10 million a season. Signing Clowney would allow Berry to focus on other positions of need in the upcoming NFL draft instead of reaching for a young defensive end.
Clowney, age 29, is a three-time Pro Bowler. Last season, he started 14 games and had 37 total tackles, 19 QB hits, 32 pressures, nine sacks, 10 knockdowns, 12 hurries, 11 tackles for loss, two batted passes and two forced fumbles. As always, his forte is run defense. Clowney’s nine sacks were the second-highest of his career.
Known for his run defense, in the second half of the season he was seen regularly chasing down a quarterback. An interesting note is that Clowney and Watson were once teammates with the Houston Texans.