The Cleveland Browns will head into the 2014 offseason with somewhere around $55 million in salary cap space, depending on the final cap number that will be set for NFL teams. With new general manager Ray Farmer no doubt eager to put his stamp on the team, this gives them a fine opportunity to add an infusion of talent that can benefit the team immediately.
While the top priority at this point is deciding how to address their own impending free agents, particularly Pro-Bowlers Alex Mack and T.J. Ward (for the record, I’m all for extending Mack for 5 years at somewhere between $6 and $7 million per year, while I think the franchise tag is perfect for a player with Ward’s injury history), there are players that could address needs for this team who will be available at the right price. Here are five of them, in no particular order. I’m ignoring any that seem to be out of the realm of reality, even though they may be very appealing (e.g. Vontae Davis, who is very likely to resign with the Colts, or Alterraun Verner, who will likely command too much money for the team to shell out for their secondary in tandem with the new contract that Joe Haden is negotiating).
1. Brandon Spikes, MLB, New England Patriots
Spikes is likely to leave New England in the wake of a rocky 2013 season which started with him not showing up to voluntary workouts and ended with a trip to injured reserve that the Patriots stated was a mutual decision, while Spikes’ camp said the linebacker wanted to continue playing through his injury.
Spikes is just 26 years old, and has put together a solid if unspectacular track record in his four years in the league. He is known for his tenacity and stoutness against the run. While he has had some struggles in coverage and doesn’t bring much in the way of rushing the passer (just 1 career sack), his value in taking on blockers and slowing opposing rushing attacks is evident. If the Browns can land him at a relatively affordable contract – it’s been speculated that he will likely end up getting somewhere in the $5 million a year range – he would add some real strength to the front seven, where the team already needed a middle linebacker even before releasing veteran D’Qwell Jackson this week. It’s also a position that isn’t very deep in this year’s draft.
2. Jon Asamoah, OG, Kansas City Chiefs
It is no secret that the weakness of the Browns’ offensive line is their guard play. While some have suggested that moving Mitchell Schwartz inside from his right tackle position could help, that doesn’t seem likely. While the Browns have a couple of developmental players that there could be some hope for, the best chance for immediate upgrade at guard is free agency and the draft.
While there are some other free agent guards that may be considered more desirable, including fellow Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz, Asamoah would be a nice target for the Browns. He has shown himself to be excellent in both run and pass-blocking. He is not a typical road-grader type guard. He is a nimble blocker with excellent footwork, making him an ideal fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. He’s coming off of a somewhat disappointing season, where he was slowed by a calf injury, but at 25 years old he could provide a solution at guard for years to come. The Chiefs will likely push to re-sign him, but with only about $8 million in cap room projected and other free agents to retain, they will be hard pressed to bring him back. Asamoah may not come cheap, but he would seem to be an excellent target for the Browns.
3. Nate Burleson, WR, Detroit Lions
It seems like every season there are calls for the Browns to bring in a veteran presence at wide receiver who can lead by example while still being able to contribute something on the field…and every year the Browns don’t do it. Burleson would fit the bill, and he would likely come at a very affordable price.
Burleson is 32 years old, and his best years are behind him. However, he has a solid reputation as a good locker room presence and would likely be a nice influence on other young Browns receivers like Josh Gordon and, as many are anticipating, another receiver the Browns are likely to take with one of their first 5 picks in the draft. And while Burleson doesn’t have a long future ahead of him in the NFL, he showed last year that he is still capable of being a very productive player. He was on pace for over 900 yards before an injury sustained in a car accident derailed his season, and boasted a catch rate of 72%, which ranked 5th among wide receivers. If the Browns work a clause into his contract that he is only allowed to order pizza if he’s having it delivered, he could be a solid low-risk addition to their offense.
4. Sam Shields, CB, Green Bay Packers
The Browns need a cornerback to start opposite Joe Haden. Despite turning around some of the doubters with his performance last year, Buster Skrine is more suited to be a nickel back. Sam Shields would allow the Browns to move Skrine back to that spot.
Shields is an excellent athlete with impressive ball skills who has been a key cog in the Packers secondary over his 4 years in the league. He took over as a starting cornerback when Charles Woodson was moved to safety, and last year had 4 interceptions and 17 passes defended. Shields is only 26, and now has 13 interceptions in his career. While the Packers are pushing to re-sign him, and may do so before he is able to hit free agency, the Browns should be ready to reach out to him and try to outbid Green Bay for his services. Hopefully they are already doing so through back channels (not that any NFL team would engage in tampering during this period leading up to free agency or anything). Somewhere in the range of $25 million over 4 years, with $15 million guaranteed, could be enough to get it done.
5. Rex Grossman, QB, Washington Redskins
It’s not the kind of signing that is going to make anyone throw a parade through downtown Cleveland, but Grossman would be a solid pickup for the Browns as they begin to install a new offense (AGAIN). Between the Texans and the Redskins, Grossman has spent the last 5 years with Kyle Shanahan. This would make him an ideal fit to help Brian Hoyer and whatever quarterback the Browns inevitably draft to get acclimated to the offense. And since the third-string quarterback for the Browns usually ends up starting at least one or two games, it should be noted that they can do worse than Grossman, whose familiarity with the offense would likely help him if forced into action. His real value to this team, though, is off the field.
There are other names out there that would likely generate a lot of excitement, and which the Browns should definitely look into. Ben Tate is a name that’s been tossed around, but personally I think the team is better served looking for a running back (or two) in the third to fifth round of the draft. There are some free agent wide receivers that will draw a lot of attention and big dollars, like Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, and even Julian Edelman. With the depth at that position in the draft, though, the Browns can find cheaper options there, even if they wait and use one of their 2 third round picks to draft one.
Freed of the shackles of a Joe Banner/Michael Lombardi front office, this is an offseason that Browns fans are rightfully excited about. Free agency will give us our first deep look at what direction the team will take. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my popcorn ready.
Rob Magee is a lifelong Browns fan who suffered his most devastating punch to the gut when a friend recorded The Langoliers over his VHS copy of the 1993 Browns vs. Steelers game that featured two Eric Metcalf punt returns for touchdowns. You can follow him on Twitter @robisindy.