The Browns have some important decisions to make before the free agency period begins on March 15, the start of the 2023 league year. First off the block are the numerous free agents.
There are currently 17 unrestricted free agents (UFA), two restricted free agents (RFA), and three exclusive rights free agents (ERFA).
First off, let’s explain what each designation means. UFA are players whose contracts have expired and their club has either released them or not granted an extension to retain their services. Basically, these athletes currently do not belong to any team and are free to explore offers from other teams at any time. Players that qualify for UFA status have more than six seasons accrued.
RFA means that a player has his contract expired but is free to talk to other clubs and seek out contracts. However, his current team has the right to match the offer which he would then be re-signed by his current team under the terms of the new offer. Or, his franchise will let him go and allow him to sign with the new team. Notification is done within two days. Players that qualify for RFA status have three seasons accrued.
The difference with the ERFA is any Browns player that has less than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. Cleveland may offer the NFL minimum on these players, but the athlete may not negotiate with any other clubs. In order to qualify for a credited season, a player must be on (or should have been on) full-pay status for a total of three or more regular season games.
Players earn an accrued season whenever they are on the 53-man roster, injured reserve (IR), or physically unable to perform (non-NFI PUP) list for at least six regular season weeks.
Who are the 2023 free agents?
The list is just 22 players, but on that list is athletes Cleveland will want to re-sign who will help this club going into 2023.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
QB Jacoby Brissett
RB D’Ernest Johnson
RB Kareem Hunt
C Ethan Pocic
OT Chris Hubbard
TE Jesse James
TE Pharaoh Brown
DE Chase Winovich
DE Jadeveon Clowney
DE Stephen Weatherly
DT Taven Bryan
LB Anthony Walker, Jr.
LB Deion Jones
LB Sione Takitaki
LB Jordan Kunaszyk
CB Greedy Williams
S Ronnie Harrison
Restricted Free Agents:
OG/C Michael Dunn
DE Chris Odom
Exclusive Rights Free Agents:
DT Ben Stille
CB A.J. Green
CB Thomas Graham, Jr.
Free agent obstacles
GM Andrew Berry has a knack for signing starters and quality depth. He will first consider the salary cap and then find ways to get the Browns under when he is attempting to re-do these contracts and also decide who the club will need to pass on keeping.
He will evaluate which current players to try to keep before the free agency period gets into full swing. Some Browns free agents will attempt to find out what their market value is even after free agency begins even if they have a standing contract offer from Cleveland. Many a player has come to the realization that Berry’s offer is the best for their career and in some instances the only contract offer.
There are numerous obstacles when signing free agents. The most glaring is salary cap space. This year alone, numerous Browns players have their second-year contract rate or extension rate kick in with huge salaries.
Right off is DE Myles Garrett. He made just $1.035 million this past season, but in 2023 that jumps to $17.25 million. QB Deshaun Watson had his $230 million contract laid out where he only made $402,500 in base salary this past season with impeding suspended games on his horizon. However, in 2023 he will bank $46 million. RB Nick Chubb’s contract bumps from $1.2 million to $10.85 million while CB Denzel Ward’s goes from $1.035 million to $4.041 million. LG Joel Bitonio bounces from a base salary of $3.058 million to $11 million.
And currently, Cleveland is in a horrible cap situation ranked 26th with a negative of $9,181,484 according to our friends at overthecap.com.
All of these outgoing player expenses only affect the bottom line when Berry has to consider signing free agents. Even his own players.
When accessing which free-agent players to keep, on-the-field performance is important but at the same time, the financial aspect of the decision to retain also becomes a huge consideration.
What the free agency period does is create a chance for these players to test the waters and hopefully get a profitable payday or at the very least discover a better fit for their skills that the Browns may not have been utilizing.
Who should the Browns keep?
Only Berry can answer that question, but here at DBN, we have our suggestions with valid thoughts and reasons.
Linebacker is one of the glaring positions of need. And if you noticed, there are four on the Browns’ free agents list currently unsigned. The linebackers on the roster who have contracts include Tony Fields, Jacob Phillips, JOK, Dakota Allen and Reggie Ragland.
First, let’s look at the money these free agent players were paid in 2022 (all cap hits): Anthony Walker, Jr. - $1,819 million; Deion Jones - $1 million; Sione Takitaki - $965,000; Jordan Kunaszyk - $965,000.
All four players have great value in a position that because of analytics does not pay high dollars. Takitaki and Kunaszyk are not only cheap, but each was a beast on special teams. Once Walker went down with an injury, Takitaki filled that role and ended up as the third-leading tackler (71) despite not starting a full season. Walker was the club’s leading tackler before he was injured. Jones is one thing - a sure tackler. He ended up with 44 tacklers and was traded to the Browns for just 10 games.
Another big need is the offensive line. Ethan Pocic proved he belongs as the starting center going forward. As the anchor is the league’s best-rushing offense, the one-year contract with a veteran minimum base salary of $1.035 million plus a $152,500 signing bonus he signed last spring isn’t going to cut it. And get this done much sooner than later which doesn’t have to break the boundaries of analytics in order to get done. Probably in the neighborhood of a three-year contract for $18 million with $10 million guaranteed.
Chris Hubbard has value as a swing tackle and proved he can come in when an injury occurs and play either tackle spot as well as guard. His contract rate of $2.63 million is a steal for an experienced veteran who has plenty of starts in this league.
OG/C Michael Dunn is another who can play all five positions and in fact, was the backup center to Pocic this year after all the other centers became injured. His cap value was just $1.605 million.
As far as defensive secondary, CB A.J. Green is an asset for the nickel and played quite a bit this year as well as on special teams. And his salary is a perk as he made just $755,000.
Keeping CB Greedy Williams, S Ronnie Harrison, and CB Thomas Graham, Jr. is all a stretch and most likely won’t happen. Rookies corner M.J. Emerson and safety D’Anthony Bell have made them expendable and are quite a bit cheaper to keep for the next three years.
Along the defensive line, DE Chris Odom was the USFL’s Most Valuable Defensive Player but became injured before he could prove he can play in the big leagues. DT Ben Stille will not be re-signed.
DE Jadeveon Clowney’s mouth walked his way out of Cleveland while DE Chase Winovich was injured for a lot of games and had just 20 tackles with one sack. He had inked a deal with just $956,828 but will be hard-pressed to see him continue. The same goes for DE Stephen Weatherly who was on the books for $1.05 million.
DT Taven Bryan had 26 tackles with three sacks and made $2 million. He probably proved his worth even though Cleveland was horrible up the gut against the run. However, with the improvement of rookie Perrion Winfrey, it is possible to see a reunion between these two.
Both the tight ends Jesse James and Pharaoh Brown won’t see this roster next year.
Sadly, in all likelihood have seen the last playing days of running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Kareem Hunt. Although Johnson was cheap at $1.217 million, his main contributions were on special teams where he was an active tackler. He will want to explore options and sign with a club that needs him as a runner and will play him in that position. And he deserves to be a starter somewhere.
Hunt made $5.509 million and with the advancement of rookie Jerome Ford, Hunt will make someone very happy and will finally be out of the shadow of Nick Chubb and probably make the Pro Bowl next year. The Browns should have traded him before the deadline last year and gotten something of value for him. Not that everyone doesn’t want Hunt going forward, but the franchise has to make cuts in some very unfavorable areas.
The evacuation of QB Jacoby Brissett will be a sad/happy day. Sad that he is leaving knowing he outplayed Deshaun Watson, and happy that he will have the opportunity to compete to become another club’s starting signal caller.