Cleveland Browns free agency 2017: Top 5 targets

No NFL team has more salary cap space to work with than the Cleveland Browns. Here are five players Cleveland should try to acquire in NFL free agency.

It was a trying season for the 2016 Cleveland Browns. They managed to win only one game, at home Week 16 against the hapless San Diego Chargers on a missed field goal by kicker Josh Lambo. Needless to say, it was a nice Christmas present for the worst team in football.

For as bad as last season was for the Browns, there is reason for optimism for this AFC North football this upcoming year. They have 13 draft picks, including the No. 1 and No. 12 overall. The Browns seem to have a good head coach in place in Hue Jackson. Cleveland was able to land a great defensive strategist in former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to run their defense.

Cleveland got to see first hand some of the best mid-tier prospects as one of the two coaching staffs at this year’s Senior Bowl. The Browns will also have more cap space than any team in football, roughly $108,766,997 to work with this offseason. They’ll have to pay a premium to land good to great free agents this spring. Regardless, here are the five guys Cleveland should target in free agency.

5

Isaiah Crowell

Running Back, Cleveland Browns

Overspending on a running back isn’t advantageous for most teams in free agency. However, Cleveland should pay enough to keep restricted free agent Isaiah Crowell in Northeast Ohio for the foreseeable future.

Crowell was an undrafted free agent that found his way into the Browns’ running back rotation in 2014. He is coming off his best NFL season where he had 1,271 yards from scrimmage and seven rushing touchdowns.

At 24 years old, Crowell is proving be a consistent runner and a productive player on a team in need of offensive stability. Though he is not a serious candidate to be franchise tagged for $12.2 million, Crowell is poised for a pay increase as he exits his rookie contract.

Crowell only made $603,344 in 2016, making him an incredibly productive player for the Browns in terms of bang for the buck. Since he has been able to get a ton of touches in Cleveland, he may be loyal to Jackson and the Browns organization. They took a risky chance on him and he’s been a solid player for them the last few years.

Of course, Cleveland can match any offer Crowell garners in unrestricted free agency. Barring him getting something ludicrous close to that eight figures range, expect Cleveland to be pragmatic and re-sign their productive veteran running back this spring.

Nov 6, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) yells before the snap during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 6, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) yells before the snap during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

4

Melvin Ingram

Outside Linebacker, Los Angeles Chargers

Expect Cleveland to use its No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. The Browns are in dire need of a pass rusher, and unless they are infatuated with a quarterback, expect them to go with Garrett at No. 1.

Even if they do the right thing and take Garrett first overall, Cleveland should still spend big on landing a key pass rusher in free agency. One target that makes a lot of sense has to be Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.

Ingram could very well leave the Chargers before the play their first season in Los Angeles. Though he could stick in Gus Bradley’s defense, losing former defensive coordinator John Pagano to the rival Oakland Raiders may be the biggest reason Ingram leaves Los Angeles.

The Chargers have little cap space at a projected $21,928,850 to work with this spring. It is highly unlikely that they will slap the projected $14.6 million franchise tag on Ingram. Look for him to walk in free agency, all things equal.

Cleveland is in a great position to overspend for a productive player like Ingram. He’d get to play for a strong defensive coordinator in Williams. Ingram would get to inherit a leadership role on a rebuilding team that has more of a clue what it’s doing than Los Angeles, in all honesty.

Nov 27, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) runs the ball against the New York Giants during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Giants won 27-13. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 27, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) runs the ball against the New York Giants during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Giants won 27-13. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

3

Terrelle Pryor

Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns

Let’s be real. Cleveland really isn’t in any position to let a 1,000-yard receiver walk out the door. Given the amount of inherent turmoil surrounding the quarterback position with the Browns, Cleveland’s biggest in-house free agency target is wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.

The former No. 1 passing prospect of his high school class has successfully converted to wide receiver with the Browns. In his fifth season in the NFL, Pryor became somewhat of an on-field leader for Cleveland.

He had 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns. Keep in mind he was playing for a franchise that started six different quarterbacks last season. Add in that he seems to have a good working relationship with Jackson and Pryor could be paid handsomely by the Browns front office this season.

Pryor made $1,671,000 last season. While he’s not going to command the projected $15.7 million franchise tag this offseason, wouldn’t it be something if the Browns use that on Pryor this spring? They’ve got one to burn and a ton of cap space, why not use it on somebody who is coachable and productive like Pryor?

Realistically, expect Pryor to quintuple his salary this offseason. He should garner offers over $5 million. Since the Browns took a flier on him to convert him into a wide receiver, he could have some degree of loyalty to Cleveland. Either way, the Browns can afford to pay a premium to keep a good wide receiver like Pryor around.

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) against the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) against the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2

Kevin Zeitler

Offensive Guard, Cincinnati Bengals

When the Browns lost center Alex Mack to the Atlanta Falcons and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency last year, it was clear to see that the Browns might have some issues up front with their offensive line.

Though they still have a future Pro Football Hall of Famer in left tackle Joe Thomas, it would be advantageous for the Browns front office to spend big on their offensive line. One player that would make a ton of sense to land with the Browns is Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler.

Zeitler might be the best guard hitting free agency this spring. He’s 26 years old and a former first-round pick that made $8,070,000 last season. Cincinnati would be reluctant to spend $14.4 million to exercise the franchise tag on their guard, but that might be what it takes to keep him with the Bengals.

Zeitler has made it known that he is not looking to re-sign with the Bengals. The Browns make sense because he has played for Jackson and would transition marvelously to the Cleveland protection schemes up front.

Not only can Cleveland outspend everybody to land a strong interior offensive lineman of Zeitler’s caliber, but reuniting with Jackson could be something he is up for. If he needs to be incentivized to play for the Browns, how about eight figures?

Oct 2, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson (22) reacts after intercepting a pass against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Rams won 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 2, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson (22) reacts after intercepting a pass against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Rams won 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

1

Trumaine Johnson

Cornerback, Los Angeles Rams

If the Browns think they can land Zeitler in free agency because of his working relationship with Jackson, could the same thing be in order on the other side of the football? Cleveland has an excellent shot at being able to sign high-priced cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

Johnson was slapped with the franchise tag by the Rams last season. He made $13,952,000 last season on the tag. If Rams general manager Les Snead wants to do it again with Johnson, it will cost him a projected $14.3 million in 2017.

Snead could do this, as Los Angeles will have a projected $38,985,625 worth of cap space to work with. Since the Rams traded away a lot to move up to draft Jared Goff No. 1 overall last spring, expect Snead to use the bulk of his cap space in free agency.

In short, the Rams can afford to re-sign Johnson to a long-term deal. Frankly, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would love to have a player of Johnson’s caliber in the back-end during his first season in Los Angeles.

However, Johnson thrived playing for Williams with the Rams the last several years. He knows exactly what type of defense Williams would want to run with the Browns. Cleveland could outbid Los Angeles and reap the benefits of a budding star in the secondary in Johnson. He won’t be cheap, but he’d be worth it for the Cleveland defensive backfield.

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