Usually, the NFL league year starts right after the end of the NFL combine. The rush from Indianapolis to get deals done that were basically agreed to during the combine is normally a frantic process.
The 2023 NFL free agency process will look a little different with a full week between the end of the combine and the ability to “legally tamper” with free agents from other teams. For the Cleveland Browns, that means a lot of hype and excitement despite the fact that the team is currently over the salary cap.
GM Andrew Berry can quickly restructure QB Deshaun Watson’s contract to get under the cap and have room to spend. Depending on how aggressive he is able to be in free agency, Berry can restructure a number of deals to create significant cap space of almost $60 million.
If one prediction comes true, Berry will need it. ESPN predicted one free agent signing (subscriber, $)for each team based on a number of factors. For the Browns, one of the, if not the top defensive linemen was the choice:
DT Javon Hargrave
If Jim Schwartz is your defensive coordinator, you need to be able to get to the quarterback with four guys. If you want to get to the quarterback with four guys, you need strong pass-rushers in the interior. Enter Hargrave, who had 11 sacks last season and a pass rush win rate (PRWR) of 17.2% when lined up in the interior (third in the NFL). There’s also familiarity, as Schwartz’s time as defensive coordinator in Philadelphia crossed over with Hargrave’s time with the team in 2020.
All did not go Cleveland’s way on the list with last year’s starting center Ethan Pocic returning to the Seattle Seahawks who drafted him. The Buffalo Bills also snagged safety Jessie Bates III to replace the departing Jordan Poyer.
Hargrave is going into his eighth season in the NFL and has put up 18.5 sacks the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Turning 30, Hargrave might not have five high-producing seasons ahead of him but Adam Schefter believes he has a big contract coming his way this season:
“Hargrave is going to get about $20 million a year, I think,” ESPN’s NFL insider Adam Schefter told 97.5 The Fanatic Wednesday morning. “That’s my projection going into next week, and we’ll see if that turns out to be right or wrong.”
Pro Football Focus has Hargrave as their third-best free agent behind quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Geno Smith. Jackson was tagged on Wednesday and Smith signed an extension which makes Hargrave the best unrestricted free agent with Bates right behind him according to PFF.
PFF has a slightly lower per-year average for the defensive tackle at $18.33 million. Depending on how the contract is structured, the salary cap hit could be lower than that.
Pocic is PFF’s 59th ranked free agent, after being an afterthought last year, with a predicted contract of three years, $21 million. Given all the money invested in the offensive line already, it is highly unlikely the Browns would come anywhere close to that.