When you look at the body of work that Ray Farmer and staff have done thus far in free agency, you have to take notice. The Browns used free agency to address many of their needs, but didn’t compromise their salary cap room as they are still near the top in that department. Heading toward the draft and armed with 10 draft choices in what has been called by many experts a ‘deep’ draft,’ the Browns are in a great position to bolster their team immensely heading into the 2014 season.
Thus far, the Browns have signed seven free agents (six unrestricted, one restricted) and have addressed a number of issues. A team spokesman said after several of the signings that the free agent activity isn’t expected to be an "annual norm" rather the goal is to "build the team through the draft."
Not that we think we have all the answers, but many of our perceptions of the Browns’ needs were addressed in free agency. On the eve of free agency, we listed eight priorities for the Browns to address.
The first one being to retain center Alex Mack. That situation has not been resolved as of yet, but it appears the Browns are in good position to retain the Pro Bowl center for at least this season and beyond.
Farmer spoke about Mack to reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando on Monday.
"Alex is well within his rights to do the things that he thinks are necessary moving forward," Farmer said. "We’re still committed to making sure he’s a long-term Brown and that’s really our focus."
Farmer said he feels good that Mack will return to the Browns.
"Yes, I’m very confident," Farmer said. "It’s the continued interaction, the continued support, the continued vibe that we’re giving Alex that will inevitably prevail."
We then listed the second priority as either retaining T.J. Ward or replacing him with Jairus Byrd or Donte Whitner. They accomplished the latter as they signed Whitner. You can check that box off.
The third priority was to get a wide receiver to play opposite of Josh Gordon. Although Andrew Hawkins is a slot receiver, he will help take the load off and add a player who can rack up the yards after catch. It is now believed the Browns will use one of their top picks to draft a potential starting wide receiver in the draft, whether it be Sammy Watkins at four or a little bit later at 26 or 35. Make a half check mark in that box.
The fourth priority we noted was to sign a veteran running back, such as Ben Tate. Check that box.
The fifth area of need we listed was cornerback and that is the area they came up short. They reportedly tried to trade for Darrelle Revis and had interest in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie but were unable to land either. They signed Isaiah Trufant, but he is a special teams player and a sub-package cornerback. They need to address cornerback in the draft. Big blank in box.
We listed the sixth area of need to sign a starting caliber right guard or tackle. They signed Paul McQuistan, who started at tackle and guard for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in 14 games last season. Check that box.
The next area we listed was inside linebacker and the first name we listed, Karlos Dansby, was added immediately at the beginning of free agency. It appeared they would sign another inside linebacker to compete with Craig Robertson, but that will most likely come in the draft. Check the box.
The last area we outlined was finding a veteran quarterback to compete and backup Brian Hoyer. Matt Schaub was rumored to be joining the Browns as have the names of Mark Sanchez and Rex Grossman. Likely the Browns will sign another quarterback like Grossman and draft one in May. Don’t be surprised if they drafted two quarterbacks. The team parted ways with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell leaving them with just two quarterbacks on the roster in Hoyer and Alex Tanney. Box still blank.
Here are the additions thus far and who they are expected to replace, along with our opinion if the Browns upgraded the position or not.
(Additions: Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Andrew Hawkins, Ben Tate, Paul McQuistan, Isaiah Trufant, Jim Dray)
(Subtractions: D’Qwell Jackson, T.J. Ward, Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, Davone Bess, Shawn Lauvao, Oniel Cousins, Willis McGahee)
ILB Karlos Dansby vs. ILB D’Qwell Jackson: Dansby is expected to replace Jackson immediately. Despite being two years older than Jackson, Dansby is coming off his best year in the NFL. He is a true inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense and is a playmaker. Jackson had his best seasons with the Browns in the 4-3 and although he made a lot of tackles, he didn’t have the sacks and turnover production that Dansby has had. Jackson had one interception and 1.5 sacks last season. Dansby had 6.5 sacks last season and four interceptions. Dansby’s sack totals from the inside linebacker position were more than any player on the Browns, whose sack leader was OLB Jabaal Sheard with 5.5. Some would say the Browns just switched inside linebackers and added an older version. UPGRADE
SS Donte Whitner vs. SS T.J. Ward: The Browns added a player who has been to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, while losing one who just went to his first Pro Bowl in Ward. Whitner is one year older than Ward, but has more wear on his body having played longer in the NFL. Again, some would say the Browns made a lateral signing in replacing a safety with a safety. SLIGHT UPGRADE
RB Ben Tate vs. RB Willis McGahee: This is really not a contest as McGahee was a fill-in at the end of his career and has yet to sign with any other team. Tate is a young, hungry back looking to make his mark in the NFL. The Browns were able to sign him to a team favorable contract that will make Tate eager to prove he is an elite back. The biggest question mark with Tate is his durability. MAJOR UPGRADE
WR Andrew Hawkins vs. WR Davone Bess: This is hardly a comparison because of the lack of production the Browns were able to get out of Bess. Besides the number of drops he had, he had off-the-field issues and hasn’t signed with another team. MAJOR UPGRADE
OL Paul McQuistan vs. OL Shawn Lauvao, Oneil Cousins: The Browns didn’t try to retain Lauvao or Cousins. The Redskins saw something in Lauvao as they paid him $17 million over four years to sign with them. Cousins signed with the Buccanneers but was a backup for the Browns. McQuistan should be a very good addition because he can play guard or tackle. Could be a similar find like John Greco was. He started 14 games with the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. UPGRADE
QB TBD vs. Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell: The Browns are expected to bring in a veteran quarterback and a rookie or two through the draft to compete with Hoyer. Weeden clearly needed a fresh start and will get one with the Cowboys. The same can be said of Campbell, who gets another chance with the Bengals. The duo combined for a 1-12 record last season. TBD, but should be UPGRADE
TE Jim Dray was signed to give more depth at tight end. He is considered a better blocker than TE Gary Barnidge.
DB Isaiah Trufant was signed to give depth at cornerback in sub-packages and to be a core player on special teams.
There is still a lot of work to be done with the big part still to come in the NFL Draft, but the Browns are heading in the right direction in this ‘crucial’ offseason.