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, wide receiver, running back and safety.
I’m afraid I was a little behind on this since I only joined the DPN staff a week ago, so I don’t have time left before free agency opens in force to do individual articles for all of the other positions of need. So this one will combine the remaining positions to give a brief look at some of the guys available to the Browns at various positions of need. Hopefully it will help to preview some of the names that will be tossed around (or have been tossed around already) as possibilities for the Browns. We’ll definitely come back and take a closer look at anyone the Browns sign once the signings are official.
James Jones, Packers (6’1″, 208 lbs, 29 years old, Pro Football Focus (PFF) Rating: 55th) – Jones is the option I would most like to see the Browns pursue if they go after one of the top wide receivers available. He is a reliable receiver who has played really well over the past couple of seasons and would be capable of playing outside or inside for the team. He has 34 touchdown catches over the past 5 seasons, including 14 in 2012. He also dropped only 2 passes last year on 88 targets, and caught 67% of the passes thrown to him (24th-best in the NFL). A sure handed option with a nose for the end zone, Jones would be a really nice addition to the Browns receiver corps, and he probably won’t cost a ridiculous amount of money.
Julian Edelman, Patriots (5’10”, 198 lbs, 27 years old, PFF Rating: 28th) – Edelman is coming off of a breakout season in which he posted 105 catches for 1,056 yards and 6 touchdowns, which were all career highs by a huge margin. He did drop the 3rd-most passes in the league, but that partially goes along with receiving the number of targets he did. He caught 71.9% of the passes thrown his way, the 4th-highest number in the league. While Edelman is not a big-play threat, he showed last year that he can play in the middle of the field and find soft spots in the zone, being a reliable option to help move the chains. He has already been linked to the Browns since the negotiation window opened, so there appears to be some possible interest. My biggest concerns would be his injury history (last season was the first in his 5-year career in which he appeared in all 16 games) and the effect of playing with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in an offense that probably inflated his numbers. But as a receiver to play in the slot, he could be a nice fit if the Browns don’t have to break the bank for him. He’s also a solid return man.
Hakeem Nicks, Giants (6’1″, 208 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 69th) – Nicks hurt himself in his contract year by putting up a second straight season where his numbers were down. After posting back-to-back seasons with over 75 receptions and over 1,000 yards in 2010 and 2011, during which he also had 18 touchdown receptions, Nicks caught only 109 passes for 1,588 yards and 3 touchdowns total over the past 2 seasons, including no touchdowns in 2013. However, he is only 26 and has shown elite skills in the not-too-distant past. He had 3 100-yard games last year, and it must be noted that he was saddled with Eli Manning, who was absolutely horrible last season. There is some rumbling that Nicks could be open to a 1-year contract that would allow him to rebuild his value, although I think it’s fairly doubtful that he would come to the Browns on that kind of a deal because of the still-unstable quarterback situation.
Here is a condensed look at a few more available receivers.
Eric Decker, Broncos (6’3″, 214 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 11th) – Decker is a number 2 receiver who will probably get paid like a number 1. How much did Peyton Manning inflate his numbers? Decker is a good receiver, but I hope that the Browns let someone else overpay him.
Golden Tate, Seahawks (5’10”, 202 lbs, 25 years old, PFF Rating: 22nd) – I liked Tate coming out of Notre Dame, but I haven’t been terribly impressed with him when I’ve watched him with the Seahawks. He was productive last season, though, and he’s still only 25. A little intriguing, but the money would have to be very reasonable.
Andre Roberts, Cardinals (5’11”, 195 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 82nd) – Roberts has had some decent production at times over the past couple of seasons, but it’s hard to imagine him moving the needle too much. There would be nothing wrong with the Browns signing him on the cheap as a 3rd, or ideally a 4th, receiver.
Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers (5’11”, 180 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 60th) – Sanders had his best season for the Steelers last year with 67 catches for 740 yards and 6 touchdowns. He isn’t really a playmaker, but he has good hands and could potentially be a productive player working out of the slot for the Browns.
Sidney Rice, Seahawks (6’4″, 202 lbs, 27 years old, PFF Rating: 62nd) – Rice parlayed one impressive season with the Vikings into a lucrative free agent deal with Seattle, and then failed to play up to that contract. His biggest problem is injury, having played in all 16 games only twice in his 7 seasons, and playing in under 10 games 3 times. He will probably only draw a 1-year deal, and I would have no problem with the Browns taking a swing with him on a cheap, low-risk deal. He is coming off of a torn ACL and probably won’t be cleared until OTA’s at best.
Nate Burleson, Lions (6’0″, 197 lbs, 32 years old, PFF Rating: 89th) – I’ve previously written about why I think Burleson would be a good addition to the Browns. The PFF ratings were not kind to him in 2013, but I see individual numbers in their analytics on him that I really like. Just one example: he caught 76.5% of the passes thrown to him last year, which was 2nd in the NFL. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room and still capable of being productive. For the small investment it would probably take to get him, I think Burleson would be well worth it.
Ben Tate, Texans (5’11”, 217 lbs, 25 years old, PFF Rating: 44th) – Tate believes that his is an elite running back and will be looking to cash in during free agency because of his almost unanimously-agreed status as the best available at his position. I don’t have anything against Tate, but I am very much opposed to the Browns throwing a big contract at him. I think there are real red flags with signing Tate to be a workhorse lead back. He has played in only 40 of the Texans 64 regular season games since coming into the league, never appearing in all 16. And that is with a backup’s workload. While he has been productive, I think the Browns are much better off looking for a starting-caliber running back in the draft, where they could likely get one in the 4th or even 5th round. Also, for what it’s worth, Tate was ranked 44th overall among running backs by PFF last year. The Browns Willis McGahee, who everyone would agree was ready for the glue factory last season, ranked 41st. Buyer beware on Ben Tate.
Rashad Jennings, Raiders (6’1″, 231 lbs, 28 years old, PFF Rating: 21st) – Jennings was an under-the-radar signing by the Raiders last season after struggling to 2.8 yards per carry with Jacksonville in 2012. However, he took advantage of his opportunity when injuries ravaged the Oakland backfield and is now considered a priority player to re-sign by the Raiders after rushing for 733 yards (with 4.5 yards per carry) and 6 touchdowns and adding 36 receptions for 292 yards. Jennings is a big back with soft hands, and could be a solid contributor as depth or a part of a running back committee, but he is another player that I don’t think is much better than what will be available to the Browns on the 3rd day of the draft.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (5’11”, 220 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 15th) – Moreno has seen an amazing turnaround to his career. Late in the season in 2012 he was still considered a 1st-round bust, but he seized a late-season opportunity as starter that year and then posted his best season in 2013. Moreno ran for 1,039 and 10 touchdowns and caught 60 passes for another 548 yards and 3 touchdowns for the AFC-Champion Broncos. Despite those fine numbers, the market is still very soft for Moreno’s services. Actually, reports say there is basically no market for any free agent running backs during the negotiating window this weekend. I actually think Moreno could be a solid addition for the Browns if he could be signed without giving him too much guaranteed money, but I think that it is likely he will return to Denver after finding little interest from other teams.
Here is a quick look at a few other options that are available at running back.
Darren McFadden, Raiders (6’1″, 218 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 54th) – McFadden was an incredible college player and has had some wow moments as a pro. However, injuries appear to have taken their toll and it is hard to imagine much of a market forming for his services. That should emphasize how weak this free agent running back class is, since McFadden is almost universally considered one of the 3 best available at the position this offseason. He was ranked 54th out of 55 running backs last season by PFF.
Andre Brown, Giants (6’0″, 227 lbs, 27 years old, PFF Rating: 47th) – Brown’s name has been floated as someone the Browns may have some interest in. He is a big, powerful back who some solid games as the lead back with the Giants last year after missing the first 8 games of the year with a broken leg. He also ran for 8 touchdowns and was averaging 5.3 yards per carry in 2012 before injury ended his season. He’d be an okay depth signing, but could not be relied on as a starter.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (5’7″, 210 lbs, 28 years old, PFF Rating: 27th) – Jones-Drew is a name I already wrote about as a potentially interesting signing this offseason. While he can’t be expected to start, I think it’s possible that MJD has something left to offer, even if it’s only as a 3rd-down back. He’s only two years removed from leading the NFL in rushing yards. If the Browns could sign him on a cheap two-year deal, I’d be okay with it, although I would not set my expectations too high.
Donald Brown, Colts (5’10”, 207 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 22nd) – Brown is another former 1st-round pick who’s never produced enough to justify his draft position. He did redeem himself some last season, though, by averaging 5.3 yards per carry and scoring 6 touchdowns on the ground while also grabbing 27 passes for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns. He could provide some production out of the backfield, but there isn’t much to get excited about with Brown.
Darren Sproles, Saints (5’6″, 190 lbs, 30 years old, PFF Rating: 7th) – He hasn’t officially been released as of this writing, but all indications are that he will be very soon. I’ve seen several say that they’d love to see the Browns sign him. I agree that Sproles has value, although I wonder how much longer he’ll hold up as he gets older. He was dinged up quite a bit last season, although he was able to play through it. Sproles is a huge threat in the passing game, with 71 catches or more in each of the last 3 seasons.
Brandon Spikes, Patriots (6’2″, 255 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 6th) – I’ve already written about why I think Spikes should be a top target of the Browns. He is a monster against the run, an intimidator inside who consistently makes plays to slow the opponents’ rushing attack. PFF rated him the best inside linebacker in rush defense last season by a wide margin, and that was in a season where he was playing through an injury throughout the year. While he is a liability in pass coverage, it cannot be overlooked how valuable he is. And he is perhaps not quite as bad as people make him out to be, as he ranked 38th out of 55 ILB in pass defense last year (the Browns own Craig Robertson ranked dead last, which should give Browns fans confidence in PFF’s rating system). He also gets pressure on the passer. He has only 1 career sack, but ranked 20th at his position in quarterback hurries last year despite being removed on passing downs in many cases. The PFF numbers really illustrate Spikes’ value. He doesn’t miss tackles and he diagnoses plays beautifully and makes stops. He would look really good in the orange and brown, and I don’t think it would take exorbitant money to sign him.
Karlos Dansby, Cardinals (6’4″, 250 lbs, 32 years old, PFF Rating: 5th) – Dansby is an excellent and underrated linebacker. The advantage he has over Spikes is that he is capable of playing on all 3 downs. He had a tremendous season in 2013, with 121 tackles, 6 sacks, 4 interceptions (2 of which he returned for touchdowns), 1 fumble recovery and 1 forced fumble. That is incredible production. It would actually be interesting to pair him with Spikes, because Dansby’s strength is against the pass (although he is capable in run defense too). The Cardinals reportedly offered him a head-scratchingly low 2-year contract in the range of $10-12 million. While there has to be some hesitation to give him too much money because of his age, that kind of offer is not going to get it done in a world where D’Qwell Jackson just got a 4-year deal worth $22 million, with $11 million guaranteed. Here’s an incredible scenario that I would really be thrilled to see: the Browns land Spikes on a 4 or 5-year deal that pays about $5-6 million a year, with around $13 million in guaranteed money…and then they sign Dansby to a front-loaded 3-year deal paying around $18 million with $10 million guaranteed. Yes, it would be a fairly hefty investment in the middle linebacker spot (although not an entirely unreasonable one, in my opinion), but it would take a position of weakness and immediately transform it into a real strength. I know it will never happen, but it’s a nice dream. Back to reality now: while Spikes is my number one guy for the Browns to go after at this position, I would have absolutely no problem with Dansby. He’s an outstanding player.
In my opinion, Spikes and Dansby are in a completely different class than the other players available at middle linebacker. While I have no problem with the Browns using a high pick in the draft to obtain another potential starter at the position, it would be a disappointment if they don’t try to sign one of these two guys with all of the cap room they have available. They are difference-makers on defense, while the rest of the guys available are solid starters at best.
Here’s a look at some of the other free agent options.
Daryl Smith, Ravens (6’2″, 248 lbs, 31 years old, PFF Rating: 16th) – Smith was very good in his first season with Baltimore last year, recording 123 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 19 passes defensed. He is a solid player who would be a decent signing for the Browns, but it doesn’t look like the Ravens are going to let him get away.
Perry Riley, Redskins (6’0″, 238 lbs, 25 years old, PFF Rating: 46th) – Riley has experience starting in a 3-4 defense and is only 25 years old. That’s basically what he has going for him. He’s an average starting linebacker at best, and reports indicate that he is seeking money in the range of what D’Qwell Jackson received from the Colts. That’s too much for a player of Riley’s caliber.
Arthur Moats, Bills (6’2″, 250 lbs, 25 years old, PFF Rating: 12th) – Moats has been linked to the Browns in reports because he played for head coach Mike Pettine in Buffalo last year. I would agree that this makes him a likely target of the Browns, and I don’t think that would be a bad move as long as the money is right. Like Spikes, Moats’ strength is his run defense (although he isn’t the stud in this area that Spikes is). He has never been a huge contributor in Buffalo. The 301 snaps he played in 2013 is the second-highest number of snaps in his career. At only 25 and with experience in Pettine’s defense, Moats could be a decent low-end free agent option for the Browns.
Jairus Byrd, Bills (5’10”, 203 lbs, 27 years old, PFF Rating: 8th) – There isn’t much I can say about Jairus Byrd that hasn’t already been said here on this site and in Browns free agency articles elsewhere. He is one of the top safeties in the league and perhaps the top free agent prize available this season (that didn’t receive the franchise tag, that is). Byrd has 22 interceptions in 5 seasons (9 of those coming in 2009 as a rookie), as well as 11 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, and 33 passes defensed. He did play in only 11 games last year due to injury, but Byrd is definitely one of the best playmaking safeties in the NFL. He was rated the number 2 safety by PFF in 2012, and the number 3 safety in 2011. The Browns have been heavily linked to Byrd in the lead-up to free agency because of the connection to Pettine in Buffalo. I am perhaps a little more reticent than many Browns fans about committing the huge money that it will take to get Byrd here, but it would be hard to argue that the team shouldn’t pursue a ball-hawking playmaker at safety who is in the discussion of the very best safeties in the league. I’ve seen projections that his contract would be around $45.5 million over 5 years with $19 million guaranteed, but I would guess that it will actually take over $10 million per year with closer to $25 million in guarantees. That’s a lot, but if Byrd can continue to make plays as he has in the past, he could prove to be well worth it.
UPDATE (3/10/14 at 11:15 AM): Well, it appears that the salary projection that I questioned was fairly close to being accurate, if new reports are to be believed:
Donte Whitner, 49ers (5’10”, 208 lbs, 28 years old, PFF Rating: 6th) – Whitner would be a potential replacement for T.J. Ward at strong safety. He had a strong season in 2013, with 73 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and 12 passes defensed, and made the Pro Bowl for the second straight season. Whitner has always had a reputation as a hard hitter who will mix it up in run defense, but his coverage skills have been much improved since coming to San Francisco in 2011. In fact, PFF rated him 5th among safeties in pass coverage last year and 8th in run defense. Whitner is still only 28, but would be a strong veteran presence. I haven’t heard it mentioned much because of all the attention being paid to Jairus Byrd, but if the Browns end up backing out of the Byrd sweepstakes and lose Ward to free agency, it wouldn’t be a disaster if they were able to turn to Whitner, who can give solid Pro Bowl-caliber production for less money than either of those players.
Some of the other players available at safety are also solid options, although not in the same class as Byrd, Ward, and Whitner.
Antoine Bethea, Colts (5’11”, 206 lbs, 29 years old, PFF Rating: 53rd) – Bethea is a good safety who provides solid run defense and is slightly below average in coverage. The Colts appear likely to re-sign him.
Chris Clemons, Dolphins (6’1″, 215 lbs, 28 years old, PFF Rating: 19th) – Clemons plays free safety, and does a solid job in coverage. He is not much of a playmaker, with only 4 interceptions in his 5 seasons in the league. If the Browns were to lose out on one of the top targets, there would be nothing especially exciting or especially disappointing if they turned to Clemons.
Louis Delmas, Lions (5’11”, 202 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 26th) – Delmas is probably a marginally better safety than Clemons, and there are reports that the Dolphins are interested in signing him as Clemons’ replacement. He ranked 11th in PFF’s pass-coverage ratings last season, but has only 3 interceptions in 4 years. He’s another solid but unspectacular option.
Malcolm Jenkins, Saints (6’0″, 204 lbs, 26 years old, PFF Rating: 65th) – While Jenkins’ name may bring back warm and fuzzy memories to some Browns fans because of his days at Ohio State, the reality is that he has really failed to live up to his billing in the NFL. He ranked 65 out of 86 safeties in PFF’s overall ratings for 2013 after ranking 88th out of 88 in 2012. He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, although there will undoubtedly be some team that will take a shot on him because of his physical gifts, hoping that he can turn the corner. I think the Browns would be better off seeking help in the middle rounds of the draft than spending $4-5 million a year to sign Jenkins.
There are many other players that could be potential targets of the Browns, but this post has probably gotten long enough. There are also some intriguing names that could be released from their teams soon, such as Titans running back Chris Johnson. We will definitely keep you covered on all of the latest news and give full reports on any players that the Browns bring into the fold. Keep it locked on Dawg Pound Nation, folks. A highly anticipated Browns offseason is getting started!
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.