The Browns officially enter the free agency period armed with nearly $50 million in salary cap space ($49.9 million according to NFL Network).
The Browns must use free agency to plug some of the holes in the roster and they need to wait and see what will become of their top two free agents, Alex Mack and T.J. Ward.
Mack has been given the transition tag and it is expected the Browns will match any offer that he might give. If Mack chooses to, he can sign a one-year tender of $10.039 million and become a free agent after the 2014 season. The Browns hope to sign Mack to a long-term deal.
However, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King posted on his twitter account that the agent for Mack is "confident" he can construct a deal with another team that the Browns with "reasonable likelihood" wouldn’t match.
Ward is expected to hit the open market and reports have said that as many as 11 other teams besides the Browns have already expressed interest in him, including the Broncos where former Browns GM Tom Heckert is involved in personnel decisions. Heckert drafted Ward in 2010 in the second-round. The Browns have negotiated with Ward from the combine according to his agent, but have also contacted Jairus Byrd and are believed to have a "serious" interest in Donte Whitner.
The Browns under GM Ray Farmer are expected to build through the draft with 10 picks, including three of the top 35 picks. However, free agency will affect the Browns draft strategy.
They have to decide what positions they can best fill in free agency and which positions they can best fill through the draft in May.
The Browns released linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in a cost-cutting move and he signed a four-year contract with the Colts for approximately $22 million. They re-signed kicker Billy Cundiff last week and tendered an offer to restricted free agent linebacker Craig Robertson.
Offensive linemen Shawn Lauvao, Oneil Cousins and running back Willis McGahee are set to become unrestricted free agents Tuesday and are not expected back with the Browns. Jason Campbell is due a roster bonus this week of $250,000 and might be released before then.
Here’s the Browns off-season priorities as we see it and possible solutions should they seek them through free agency:
1) Match any offer to Mack or try to sign him to a long-term deal before he hits the open market after the 2014 season. If the Browns let Mack walk, they will have a major hole to fill. There are no centers available in free agency or through the draft that are as good as Mack immediately.
2) Sign Byrd to replace Ward, but if they are unable to immediately they need to re-sign Ward or Cleveland native and Ohio State product Whitner. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowl player and is the same age, 27, as Ward. Whitner is 28 and played last season with the 49ers. The Browns have enough holes and it is unnecessary to create more holes, especially when you have a Pro Bowl player at the position already. If the Browns lose out on Byrd, Ward and Whitner, their options might be another former Buckeye Malcom Jenkins or use a high pick in the draft in May.
3) Sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, Hakeem Nicks or Eric Decker to play opposite of Josh Gordon. With the release of Davone Bess, the Browns are very thin at the position. Signing Sanders would also hurt the Steelers and they should be able to sign him for a lot less than Decker. Other next tier options are former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman, Andre Roberts or Golden Tate.
4) Sign a running back that can carry the load. The only backs on the roster are Edwin Baker, Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker. Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno and Darren McFadden are the biggest names available. Donald Brown and Andre Brown are also free agents the Browns could pursue.
5) Sign a veteran cornerback to start opposite Joe Haden. The Browns did little to upgrade the cornerback position last year other than drafting Leon McFadden. They lost out on Brent Grimes, who had a Pro Bowl season. This year, they need to land one of the top cornerbacks. Buster Skrine was improved last year, but would be more effective in the slot or as the third corner. Options are Alterraun Verner, Captain Munnerlyn, Aqib Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Vontae Davis.
6) Sign a starting caliber right tackle or guard. With the change to Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, it is expected the Browns will look for more athletic guards. Options are Zane Beadles, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz and Rodger Saffold. The Browns previous regime stock-piled many young offensive linemen on last year’s roster, but it’s unknown what the current front office thinks of those players and how they would fit into Shanahan’s scheme.
7) Sign at least one inside linebacker. The best available are Karlos Dansby, Arthur Moats, Daryl Smith or Vincent Rey. The Browns have to replace Jackson and add competition for Robertson and depth at the position.
8) Sign a veteran quarterback to backup Brian Hoyer. It is rumored that the Texans will release Matt Schaub and that Shanahan might want to bring him in after having success with Schaub when he was with the Texans. Rex Grossman has also been linked to the Browns because of Shanahan. The free agent quarterback group is very weak with Michael Vick and Josh McCown the most notable ones available.