The Browns are flush with cap room, and many fans are holding their breath and hoping that the team will utilize that available spending room to splurge on some free agent talent. The Browns have made several notable free agent signings since their return in 1999, which have had mixed results. As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and see if lessons of Browns free agency signings past might provide any instruction for this offseason.
2002: Ryan Tucker, OT, Rams (Signed to a 4-year contract)
Ryan Tucker was a former 4th-round pick of the Rams who had developed into a steady starter on the talented Rams teams that won the Super Bowl in 1999 and returned to the big game in 2001. The 26-year old Tucker became a key cog of the Browns offensive line over the next few seasons, despite battling injuries in 2004 and 2006. While his career ended in strange and disappointing fashion, most would agree that his signing was a solid move by the Browns that added a strong force to an offensive line that had been a mess in the preceding 3 years after the team’s return to the NFL.
2014 parallel: Brandon Spikes, MLB, Patriots
Like Tucker, Spikes has been an important contributor to successful teams in New England. Like Tucker, Spikes is just 26 years old and has prime years of his career ahead of him. There are limitations to his game, namely the fact that he is a real liability in pass coverage, but his fiery play and strength against the run could make him a major addition to the Browns front seven and contribute to the tough, aggressive tone that new head coach Mike Pettine is looking to set for his team – much like Tucker, who was respected for his toughness and grit.
2008: Donte Stallworth, WR, Patriots (Signed to a 7-year contract)
With Phil Savage going all-in to compete for a title in 2008, Stallworth was one of the many players added. Coming off of a good, but not great, campaign with the Patriots team that nearly went 19-0, Stallworth was allowed to walk away by New England when they declined an option in his contract. Savage did not take that as a warning sign, apparently, and inked the former first-round pick to a 7-year, $35 million deal. Stallworth, to his credit, didn’t try to make himself out to be something he wasn’t after signing the contract. He immediately began making it clear that he was completely unworthy of the money he was being paid.
First, he was slowed by a hamstring injury during training camp. Then he got into a footrace with a shoeless Braylon Edwards after the Browns first preseason game, stepping on the mercurial Michigan product’s foot and opening a cut that required stitches. Stallworth then managed to pull his quad during warmups before the team’s first regular season game, which led to him missing the first 4 games of the season. When it was all said and done, he finished the 2008 campaign with 17 catches for 170 yards and 1 touchdown. And that would be his entire production as a Cleveland Brown, as Stallworth proceeded to get suspended for the entire 2009 season for killing a man while driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana in Miami on March 14, 2009. Stallworth was released in 2010 after being reinstated by the NFL.
2014 parallel: Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders
Like Stallworth, McFadden is a former 1st-round pick who has flashed special playmaking ability in his career. And like Stallworth, McFadden has also shown a consistent tendency to be slowed by injury. “Run-DMC” has never played in all 16 games in a season since coming into the NFL.
McFadden had a career year in 2010, rushing for 1,157 yards with 5.2 yards per carry and adding 47 catches for 507 yards in 13 games. He continued to show explosiveness in 2011, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. However, he played in only 7 games. In the past two seasons, it appeared that his injuries may have caught up with him, as he has averaged 3.3 yards per carry in both 2012 and 2013. Despite all of the injuries and the warning signs that his explosiveness may be largely lost, McFadden is ranked by most as one of the top 2 or 3 running backs available and very well could draw some fairly serious money in free agency. The Browns would do well to let someone else pay McFadden to spend half the season watching their games from the sideline.
2004: Jeff Garcia, QB, 49ers (Signed to a 4-year contract)
As he entered free agency in 2004, Jeff Garcia was coming off of a disappointing season with the 49ers. After making the Pro Bowl 3 years in a row from 2000 to 2002 (despite a noticeable statistical dropoff in 2002), Garcia and the 49ers struggled to a 7-9 season. Garcia saw his passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating all drop for the third straight season, and he missed 3 games due to injury. He was 34 years old when the Browns signed him to a 4-year, $25-million contract, and expectations were very high for the 3-time Pro Bowler to bring stability to the quarterback position and get the Browns back on track after a rough season.
What followed was quintessential “new Browns”. Garcia never seemed comfortable in Cleveland, on or off the field, and he and the Browns went through a nightmarish season. He appeared in 11 games, posting a career-low 57.1% completion percentage while throwing 10 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. The most-remembered game in Garcia’s one season with the Browns is likely still his “performance” against the Dallas Cowboys in week 2, in which he completed 8 of 27 passes for 71 yards and 3 interceptions to achieve an amazing quarterback rating of 0. Even Brandon Weeden hasn’t accomplished that feat. That’s not to say Garcia didn’t leave any good memories. His record-tying 99-yard touchdown to Andre Davis is still one of the most exciting plays since the Browns’ return.
On February 14, 2005 Garcia was released by the Browns, less than one year after signing his 4-year contract with them. He would go on to experience a career resurgence with the Eagles and Buccaneers, even returning to the Pro Bowl in 2008.
2014 parallel: Ben Tate, RB, Texans
On the surface, this may not seem like an obvious parallel. But I direct attention to the heading for this section of the article: ugly. That’s how I think we’d look back at the signing of Ben Tate if the Browns did it.
Tate is basically the unanimous pick as the number one running back available in free agency. He has impressed as Arian Foster’s backup over the past few seasons, most notably in 2011, when he ran for 942 yards on 5.4 yards per carry. He has averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry the past two seasons, receiving a career-high 181 carries last season. However, Tate has also shown a tendency to be dinged by injuries, missing his entire 2010 season and never playing in all 16 games since coming into the league. He played through injuries throughout the season last year, and it affected his play.
Tate is talented, he’s only 25, and he doesn’t have a ton of miles on him. So why am I putting him here? I don’t think he will hold up carrying the main load for the team. I think he’ll get injured and wear down, and he already seems to have lost some of his explosiveness that was on display in 2011. And he’s going to command big money. I think whichever team signs him will be regretting the contract by the early stages of the 2015 season at the latest. There are many running backs in this year’s draft that will probably provide roughly the same production as Tate at a much lower cost.
2006: Willie McGinest, LB, Patriots (Signed to a 3-year contract)
With Romeo Crennel working to build Patriots culture in Cleveland, the 34-year old McGinest was brought in to provide veteran leadership for the defense and help young linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and D’Qwell Jackson learn to do things Crennel’s way.
McGinest didn’t have much left in the tank when he joined the Browns, and his contributions on the field were sketchy at best. However, he did provide the leadership the Browns were looking for and had the respect of the team from the second he walked in the door.
2014 parallel: Rex Grossman, QB, Redskins
Obviously, Grossman does not have the kind of track record that McGinest brought with him when he joined the Browns. However, he does have tremendous knowledge of new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He offers a veteran presence that could be valuable to the Browns offense, specifically Brian Hoyer and rookie quarterback X, as they all adapt to the new scheme. Unlike with McGinest, the Browns likely wouldn’t have to overpay to bring Grossman in. This is a signing that makes a lot of sense.
The Reanimated Corpse
2007: Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens (Signed to a 1-year contract)
When the Browns brought Jamal Lewis in prior to the 2007 season it was generally believed that he would be for the offense what McGinest was for the defense: a veteran leader who would have a positive influence on the young offensive players but not likely a huge producer on the field. 3 years had passed since Lewis bulled his way to a dominant 2,066-yard season in 2003, and he didn’t run for more than 1,132 yards in any of those 3 seasons while seeing his yards per carry linger around the 3.5 range. The Browns got more than they could have hoped for, though.
In 2007 Lewis became a key part of the Browns high-flying offense, rushing for 1,304 yards and 9 touchdowns as the team posted a surprising 10-6 record. He followed that up with another 1,002 yards during the messy 2008 season before going through an ugly final 9 games under the Eric Mangini regime in 2009. When it was all said and done, Lewis had given the Browns over 2,800 yards in 2 and a half seasons while providing the veteran presence the team had expected him to be.
2014 parallel: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
Okay, okay, I know. Jones-Drew is washed up, right? That’s what they said about Jamal Lewis, too.
I’m not saying that the Browns should bring in MJD to be their starting running back. There are definitely plenty of reasons to think that he is running on fumes. But as far as parallels on this list go, this one is pretty close. Like Lewis in 2007, Jones-Drew has about 1,800 carries in his NFL career. Like Lewis, he is a couple of years removed from his greatest season, although MJD’s 1,606-yard 2011 campaign is not as far in his rear-view mirror as Lewis’s 2,000 yard season was. In another similarity, Jones-Drew’s yards per carry dipped to 3.4 last season, matching the low that Lewis reached two years before coming to Cleveland.
So, should the Browns really consider signing Jones-Drew? Maybe. It will be interesting to see what the market is like for his services. While he didn’t look as explosive last year, it was the first season in his career where he dipped below 4 yards per carry. In 2012 he posted the second highest yards per carry of his career with 4.8, although he was limited to 6 games that year. However, I can’t help but feel that he still has something in the tank, and at the very least he can help the Browns with pass protection (an area that isn’t a strong suit for most young running backs, assuming the Browns draft their potential starter) and receiving as a third down back. He caught 43 passes last year from the poo-poo platter of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, and Pro Football Focus notes:
Lost in his poor rushing, however, was an utterly incredible pass blocking season. In 110 pass blocking snaps he didn’t allow a single pressure. That’s the most unblemished set of pass blocking snaps we’ve ever seen. If he can get his legs healthy, MJD is as complete a running back as they come.
If Jones-Drew could be signed on a relatively inexpensive 1 or 2-year contract, especially with the cap space the Browns have, he could be an intriguing option as a veteran leader at running back – as long as he understands that would be his role, and that he’s not being handed the starting job.
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.