As the Browns gear up for free agency, a few positions of need on the team stand out as areas that would be ideally addressed by bringing in an experienced NFL player. Cleveland would benefit from immediate contributors at offensive guard, middle linebacker, cornerback, and safety.
We took a look at the available cornerbacks already. If you missed that, check it out here.
Next up is a look at the talent available at guard. The Browns got very underwhelming play from their guards last year, and that weakness contributed to their anemic rushing attack and the team allowing the 3rd-most sacks in the NFL. With Shawn Lauvao clearly on his way out, there is a clear need for at least one guard. While John Greco is a decent player who graded out as Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) 32nd-best guard in the NFL last year, most fans would be okay with the Browns looking to upgrade from him as well, which would allow him to provide depth on the line. The good news is that there are some guards available in free agency and the NFL Draft that could help the Browns.
6’6″ – 332 lbs – 27 years old
Geoff is the older brother of Browns right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Could the Browns look to set up a family reunion on their offensive line in 2014?
Schwartz is coming off of a really strong season with the resurgent Chiefs. Kansas City signed him to a 1-year deal last year, thinking that his ability to play either guard or tackle would offer quality depth. Then, when Jon Asamoah went down with an injury Schwartz took over and played so well over the final 6 games of the season that he never relinquished his hold on the starting job. PFF rated him the 8th-best guard in the league.
That season may have been a little unexpected, since Schwartz wasn’t considered a starter coming into the year. However, he is a blocker that has typically graded out well in his career. I don’t think that the team signing him is getting a guy that was a flash in the pan in a contract year, I think he is a guy who just took advantage of an opportunity to showcase his talent in an offense that was suited to it.
While Schwartz is nimble enough to play in a zone-blocking scheme, he is probably a little bit better fit in a straight forward smash mouth scheme. That is primarily what Andy Reid’s Kansas City offense employs, although they do mix in the occasional zone-blocking plays.
Kansas City will not let Schwartz get away easily. They have 3 key free agents on their offensive line, and they can’t afford to lose all of them. Schwartz’s agent has made it clear that he expects to be paid like a starting offensive guard, which is appropriate since most would rate him as the best guard available, so he isn’t going to be signed on the cheap by anyone. The Browns may have some interest, but I would be a little surprised if they were major players for Schwartz because he is more suited for a different scheme, which makes the idea of breaking the bank to sign him a little questionable.
6’4″ – 312 lbs – 32 years old
Wharton could be an interesting option if the Browns want to bring in a short term upgrade at guard that can help to fill a starting spot while perhaps providing veteran leadership for a player they take in the draft.
When the Panthers signed Wharton last year it was thought that he probably didn’t have much left in the tank. He played his first 8 seasons for Carolina before missing all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Wharton came in and had a really impressive season for Carolina, starting 12 games and appearing in all 16 while grading out as PFF’s 5th-best guard. As he hits free agency again this offseason, Wharton has said that he is not completely sure about his NFL future, but it would be hard to imagine that he’d retire if a competitive 1 or 2-year deal was put on the table for him.
Should the Browns be the team that does so? It probably makes sense for a young team like the Browns to look for a more long-term solution that can grow alongside the other members of the line, but Wharton would be a good fit if Ray Farmer and company decide that they don’t want to commit the money that it would take to sign one of the other top guards that are available. The Panthers ran a mixture of power runs and zone-blocking plays with a lot of play action and, of course, zone read plays for Cam Newton. Wharton’s success last season (and in prior seasons) in that scheme could make him a target of the Browns if they decide they want an above-average stopgap starter at guard. Whether there would be mutual interest from a player on the back 9 of his career would probably depend on the dollars being offered.
6’4″ – 305 lbs – 27 years old
Beadles has been a mainstay on the Broncos offensive line since coming into the league as a 2nd-round pick in the 2010 draft. He’s appeared in all 64 regular season games since being drafted, starting in 62 of those games.
Beadles played at tackle in his rookie season before shifting to guard in 2011, and in that first season at guard PFF rated him only the 73rd-best at the position. In 2012 he jumped up to 17th, grading out well in both run and pass-blocking. Last season he dropped back down to 51st, posting negative scores in both pass and run-blocking. Despite that, he is generally well-regarded and thought of as one of the better guards available this offseason.
Would he be a good fit in Cleveland? I think the Browns could do better in finding a player to fit into their zone-blocking plan. Beadles is more solid as a straight-ahead blocker. While he’s a hard worker and competitor who would probably improve if he was a starter on a team that was focused on zone-blocking, Beadles has struggled with it in the past. He doesn’t have great lateral agility, although he has been able to adapt his game to keep that from limiting his effectiveness too much.
Beadles is a leader for the Broncos and a good guard, but I personally don’t think he’s an ideal choice for the Browns this offseason.
6’4″ – 305 lbs – 25 years old
As mentioned earlier, Asamoah is coming off a bit of a rough finish to the 2013 season. He went down with an injury in November and lost his starting job to Geoff Schwartz, but that doesn’t mean that Asamoah wasn’t playing well.
In fact, Asamoah has been a top-notch guard over the past 3 seasons. After playing sparingly as a rookie, he graded out as the 17th-best guard in 2011. He followed that up with another good season in 2012 in which he was rated as the 10th-best guard in the NFL. Last year, despite the injury, he finished the year rated 20th among guards.
Asamoah has been linked to the Browns as a potential target from the time the season ended, seemingly. And that is for good reason. He is a very nimble, quick-footed player who would be a great fit in the Browns scheme. In fact, his slip from 10th to 20th-best guard last year is likely at least partially to be attributed to Kansas City largely going away from zone-blocking.
It seems unlikely that the Chiefs will end up pushing hard to bring Asamoah back, although they could turn to him if they are unable to retain Schwartz. In my opinion, the Browns should strike quickly and try to land Asamoah. At 25 years old, he offers them a long-term solution at guard who would be an immediate upgrade and a great fit to their offense. Some have suggested that he could end up being one of the best steals of this free agency period, although I have a feeling that he will not come cheap. The Falcons have also been rumored to have interest, and I’m sure there are several teams eyeing Asamoah. It will be interesting to see what happens with him once the gong sounds and free agency starts.
Those are 4 of the top guards available in free agency. Here are some quick looks at a few more of the names that are out there.
Chad Rinehart, Chargers (6’5″ – 320 lbs – 29 years old – PFF rating: 42nd) – Rinehart could be a fairly low-cost option, even though he is considered an above-average offensive lineman in pretty much all phases. He has a checkered injury history, which has kept his career from ever really getting going by limiting his opportunities to lock in as a starter. He has bounced around to different teams, but had a solid season in San Diego last year and has zone-blocking experience.
Willie Colon, Jets (6’3″ – 315 lbs – 30 years old – PFF rating: 36th) – Colon has been a solid guard for several years, first with the Steelers and last year with the New York Jets. However, he wouldn’t make sense in Cleveland because he is not a good fit in a zone-blocking scheme.
Brian Waters, Cowboys (6’2″ – 318 lbs – 37 years old – PFF rating: 30th) – Waters was playing well for the Cowboys last season before a torn triceps ended his season. As of the end of the season he still hadn’t decided if he was going to have the surgery that he would need in order to continue his career. While it would be a long shot for him to end up in Cleveland, his name might be one to file away in case the Browns suffer an injury during training camp and find themselves again in need of a guard. Waters has extensive zone-blocking experience from his days as an All-Pro in Kansas City, which means Ray Farmer is familiar with him.
Uche Nwaneri, Jaguars (6’3″ – 325 lbs – 29 years old – PFF rating: 34th) – Nwaneri had several good seasons in Jacksonville, but struggled to adapt to their zone-blocking scheme last year (he was rated 67th in run blocking by PFF). The Jaguars proceeded to release him and look to rebuild their interior line. While he could very well get his second wind and have a few strong seasons left, it probably makes more sense for him to go to a team that doesn’t run a zone-blocking scheme.
Richie Incognito, Dolphins (6’3″ – 305 lbs – 30 years old – PFF rating: 26th) – Anyone who is familiar with the whole Jonathan Martin saga knows that Incognito would bring serious baggage and distractions. However, he is still rated as one of the top 10 guards available by several sources, so he merits a mention here. The good news for anyone who doesn’t want the Browns to touch him with a 10-foot pole is that he is a much better fit with a conventional blocking scheme than a zone-blocking one.
Mike Johnson, Falcons (6’5″ – 312 lbs – 26 years old – PFF Rating: N/A) – Johnson is capable of playing guard or tackle, and looked poised to make a run at the starting right tackle spot in Atlanta last year before suffering a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula in training camp and missing the season. He has played sparingly in his time in the NFL and is likely to draw only a 1-year “show-me” contract. However, he is a former 3rd-round pick who was highly regarded coming out of Alabama and could end up finally getting going if he finds the right situation. Whether the Browns scheme would be the best fit for him is questionable, though, especially coming off of an injury that could limit his agility. He certainly isn’t a guy that could be viewed as a sure upgrade at starter.
While there are players available, the list above shows that there aren’t a ton of established guards in free agency that would be good fits for the Browns zone-blocking scheme. Hopefully the Browns will be able to swoop in quickly on Jon Asamoah, who I feel is the best option in this group. If not, there are other possible fallback options available, and there are also several options in the draft. A full list of free agent guards can be found here.
Again, I welcome your feedback on what guards you’d like to see the Browns target, whether you submit it here in the comments or fire off an email.
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, or you can send your thoughts to him at DPNRob@gmail.com.