Free Agency Reaction: Where Are the Browns Now, and Where Do They Go From Here?


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“All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.”

That quote from novelist Ellen Glasgow could perhaps be used to describe how some fans feel about the early offseason moves by the Cleveland Browns.  Names changed at a couple of positions, but did the team really progress?  Did it move forward?

With those questions in mind, let’s take a look at some of the personnel decisions the Browns have made so far this offseason, as well as some of the opportunities still available to them to continue with the change that is underway under the direction of general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine.

dansby

Karlos Dansby is coming off of a Pro Bowl-caliber season

RELEASING D’QWELL JACKSON, SIGNING KARLOS DANSBY

D’Qwell Jackson has been a stalwart in the Browns defense over the past few years.  Drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, Jackson got off to a mixed-at-best start to his career.  While he clearly had talent, injury issues caused Jackson to miss nearly 40% of the Browns games over his first five seasons.  However, beginning in 2011 Jackson became a durable and reliable leader in the middle of the defense.  He played in all 16 games in each of the past 3 seasons, recording 419 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, and 17 passes defensed over that span.

While that production has made Jackson stand out among his often less-than-impressive supporting cast in Cleveland and afforded him the perception of being a gem in the middle of the Browns defense, many Browns fans were less effusive about his play.  It was often commented that Jackson rarely seemed to make big plays, and that many of his large number of tackles seemed to be made at least 5 yards downfield.  Decline was also evident in his performance the past two seasons, reflected in the fact that he went from being the 13th-rated inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus (PFF) in 2011 to 41st in 2012 and 42nd in 2013.

With a cap number of $8.1 million for 2014 and a $4.1 million roster bonus coming due on March 15, the Browns decided that the decline in Jackson’s game overrode the benefits of his experience and leadership, and the team released him on February 26.

When the free agent signing period opened on March 11, it was quickly reported that the Browns had signed 32-year old linebacker Karlos Dansby to fill the void left by Jackson’s departure.  We covered Dansby in detail shortly after he was signed (click here to read the article).  Few, if any, would argue that Dansby isn’t a noticeable upgrade in skill over Jackson.  He comes up with more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, is better in coverage, and rather than declining over the past couple of seasons Dansby has seemingly found a second wind.  Dansby himself said that last season was the best of his career, and looking at his numbers it would be hard to argue.

Dansby also has a reasonable contract for a player of his ability, basically equating to a 2-year deal worth $14 million even though the total value is $24 million over 4 years.

While the fact is that the Browns, on paper, improved their defense for the next couple of seasons with this move, some considered it to be little more than treading water to release a respected and productive 30-year old linebacker and replace him with a respected and productive 32-year old linebacker.

In the end, though, I find it hard to complain about the team making a move that improves their chances of winning games next year.  I’ll agree that it was a little frustrating to see the Browns create another hole on a defense that already had enough of them and then have to work to fill it in free agency, but the team got better.

My grade:  B  –  This was one step to the side and one step forward

whitner

Donte Whitner is already a fan favorite

ALLOWING T.J. WARD TO DEPART IN FREE AGENCY AND SIGNING DONTE WHITNER

Much like the decision to release Jackson and sign Dansby, the Browns choice to bring in Whitner has been praised for making the team better while also being questioned because Whitner is older than the player whose place he’s taking, T.J. Ward, and also because Ward signed a surprisingly affordable contract with the Denver Broncos.

I really like this move.  Whitner is capable of playing in the box and has been a key member of productive, winning defenses the past few seasons in San Francisco.  He is also not that much older than Ward, and his experience and leadership will be of huge value in filling the void left by Jackson’s departure.  While having a reputation for being a below average pass defender, the reality is that Whitner is much improved in that area and is better than Ward in coverage.  He has also shown himself to be a more durable player.

Another huge advantage with Whitner over Ward is that Whitner clearly wants to be a Cleveland Brown.  He is a local product who has made his genuine excitement to be playing for his hometown team very clear since signing on with the club.  While I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to say that Ward was dying to leave, I can’t imagine that he would have signed with the Browns unless they significantly outbid the Broncos for his services.

Did the Browns overpay to get Whitner?  That argument could be made, but the free agent period has shown that talented players in the secondary are going at a premium price.  Whitner has gone to the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons and is right in the prime of his career.  Plus, like Dansby, the Browns control Whitner’s rights for 4 years but the deal boils down to a 2 year contract with guarantees of $11 million.  This is a very solid move, in my opinion.

My grade: A-  –  Regardless of what contract Ward signed, getting a guy in his prime coming off 2 Pro Bowl years who wants to be here is a great move

hawkins

How much can the 5’7″  Andrew Hawkins be counted on to give?

SIGNING ANDREW HAWKINS TO AN OFFER SHEET

The Browns next move was to try and poach away a restricted free agent wide receiver from the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.

Andrew Hawkins is a dynamic player who has the speed to take the ball to the house anytime he has it in his possession.  Despite boasting a 4.34 40-yard dash time and impressive athletic ability, he went undrafted and couldn’t catch on with an NFL team initially.  He spent two years in the CFL before being signed by the St. Louis Rams in 2011.  He was cut before ever appearing in a game with the team, and the Bengals claimed him off of waivers.

Hawkins went on to flash his playmaking abilities over the next three seasons.  His best season was 2012, when he posted 51 receptions for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns in 14 games.  Last season he was limited to 8 games by injury, and had just 12 receptions on 16 targets.

I have very mixed feelings about this signing.  I see many Browns fans that are excited about Hawkins being here.  They say he’s a bigtime playmaker, that he’ll really help them working out of the slot, and that this was a great signing.

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t see it.  Hawkins looks the part of an exciting playmaker, but he hasn’t really proven it at the NFL level.  Yes, he produces yards after the catch (6.9 YAC per reception in 2012), but it hasn’t really translated into big plays on a consistent basis.  The longest catch of his career is 59 yards, and he averages 11.6 yards per reception.  Also, Hawkins is just 5’7″ tall and weighs only 175 pounds.  Can he hold up if he is asked to consistently work in the middle of the field as the slot option for the Browns?  I really have doubts that he will produce consistently and stay healthy.

All of this is fine if he comes as a major bargain.  But the Browns paid at, if not above, the top end of Hawkins’ value (likely feeling it was necessary to keep the Bengals from matching the offer).  The deal is set to pay Hawkins over $13.6 million over 4 years, with $10.8 million in the first 2 years.  That is quite a bit of money for a guy who just simply hasn’t produced much at the NFL level.  What’s more, the Browns have to wait on the Bengals to make a decision on matching the offer for 5 days.  It is highly unlikely that Cincinnati will match the offer because of the inflated cap number in the first two years, but until March 18 the Browns won’t know for sure.

Hawkins could turn out to be a really productive player for the Browns, but I think that the odds are against that.  I hope that I’m wrong, but I’m not going to put on rose-colored glasses and ignore my concerns about overpaying a 5’7″ receiver who is not proven as a consistent slot receiver target.  There are other receivers who I’d much rather have seen the Browns target to play in the slot, even if they had cost a little more money.

My grade: C  –  I just don’t see Hawkins giving enough consistent production to justify the contract, but I hope he proves me wrong

dray

Jim Dray’s signing gives the Browns 6 tight ends on their roster

SIGNING ISAIAH TRUFANT AND JIM DRAY

These are depth signings.  There probably isn’t too much to say about either one of them.

Trufant is a 31-year old cornerback who bounced around the arena league for 5 years before catching on with the Jets in 2011.  Since then he has appeared in 39 games and recorded 32 tackles and 2 passes defensed.  He is respected as a special teams player, although he is not remarkable in that area.  On the defensive side of the ball, he is a body.  It would be foolish to expect him to move the needle for the Browns defensively.  He was thrown at 10 times last season, and all 10 times it resulted in a reception.  That said, this is a low-risk depth signing that helps to fill out the bottom of the roster, and coach Mike Pettine knows Trufant from his days as the Jets defensive coordinator, so he obviously likes something about him if the Browns chose to target him.  His contract is just a 2-year, $1.54 million deal.

A similar signing is former Arizona Cardinals tight end Jim Dray.  The Browns locked him up to a 3-year, $5.62 million contract with $2.25 million guaranteed in the first year.  This is sort of an odd move, since the Browns already had 5 tight ends on their roster.  Dray had his most productive pass-catching season in 2013, with 26 catches for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns.  PFF charged him with no dropped passes last year, so he is a fairly sure-handed target.  At 6’5″, 253 pounds he also is a nice-sized target.

Dray’s reputation, going back to college, is more as a blocking tight end.  However, PFF rated him 62nd out of 64 tight ends overall last season, and that included a rating of -3.8 in pass blocking (63rd) and -10.2 in run blocking (53rd).

Like I said, this is kind of a strange signing to me, but clearly the Browns see something in Dray that they like.  They obviously won’t carry 6 tight ends on their roster all year, so this will have a domino effect that will see the release of other players.

These are basically no harm-no foul kinds of moves.  I honestly don’t know enough about what the Browns see in these players from their tape study and so forth to give them a grade.  Hopefully they will help the team improve, but it’s hard for me to see how that’s the case in looking at the numbers and the little bit of video I can find on them.

My grade:  Incomplete  –  Let’s see if they have any impact

weeden

So long, farewell

RELEASING BRANDON WEEDEN AND TERMINATING THE CONTRACT OF JASON CAMPBELL

What can you say about these moves?  Neither was a surprise.

The only surprising thing about the Browns cutting loose Brandon Weeden is that they did it this early.  Many felt that the team would hold out until the draft in the slim hopes that some team would be foolish enough to give up a low draft pick to acquire him.  It would appear that releasing Weeden early on in the free agency period was a courtesy to him, allowing him to seek a new home.

In the end, the 22nd pick in the 2012 draft finished his Browns career with a 55.9% completion percentage, 23 touchdowns, 26 interceptions, 12 fumbles, a 71.8 quarterback rating, a 5-15 record as a starter, and more boneheaded plays than Browns fans can even remember off of the top of their heads.  In what has become an exceedingly depressing history of missed draft picks since 1999, he ranks near the top.  Weeden was, quite simply, a complete disaster.  He never should have been selected in the first round, so it’s hard to hold that against him.  Yet, it would be hard to think of any other first-round pick in the Browns history since their return to the league that has become so unanimously despised in such a short period of time almost entirely because of his poor on-field performance.

Jason Campbell, meanwhile, was destined to be cut when Kyle Shanahan came in as offensive coordinator.  Owed a roster bonus of $250,000 if he remained with the team through March 13th, he was let go.  It is likely that a veteran versed in Shanahan’s offense, such as Rex Grossman, will be brought in to provide guidance for Brian Hoyer and whichever other quarterback the Browns choose to add (most likely through the draft).

In his one year with the Browns Campbell started 8 games, completing 56.8% of his passes for 2,015 yards, 11 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 76.9.  While his performance was enough for Mary Kay Cabot to declare him an elite NFL quarterback (no, seriously…just click on this link and see point 2 of the article), everyone else on the face of the earth was not at all surprised to see him let go by the Browns.

My grade:  A  –  Both moves had to happen, and the team didn’t drag it out

SIGNING BEN TATE

You have to love that Tate immediately changed his Twitter avatar to a Madden screenshot of him in a Browns uni

You have to love that Tate immediately changed his Twitter avatar to a Madden screenshot of him in a Browns uniform

I made it very clear in previous articles and in my comments on Twitter that I was worried about the Browns interest in Ben Tate.  I felt like the money that he would demand would be far too much for a player with his injury history who doesn’t provide much in the passing game and isn’t very good in blitz pickup.  I did not question Tate’s talent as a runner, although his production was a little off last year.

In the end, the Browns negotiated a contract that makes it absolutely impossible not to love this move.

Tate was almost universally considered the best running back on the market.  And somehow the Browns got him to come to Cleveland on a 2-year deal worth “up to $7 million.”  I had seen numbers thrown around suggesting that Tate could receive upwards of $6 or $7 million a season.  To get him on what appears to be an incentive-laden 2-year deal is a coup.

How much has the league-wide value of the running back position changed over the past few seasons?  In 2008, Michael Turner was in a similar position to Tate.  He was coming off of some solid years as a backup to Ladainian Tomlinson.  Turner was 26 years old (Tate is 25).  And Turner received a 5 year, $34 million contract from Atlanta which included $15 million guaranteed.  Wow.

The signing of Tate is not guaranteed to be a home run for the Browns.  Tate has missed 24 of the Texans’ 64 regular season games during his career, despite never carrying the ball more than 181 times in a season.  As mentioned earlier, he is one-dimensional, averaging only 4.9 yards per catch in his career.  He has also put 10 fumbles on the ground over the past 3 seasons.

But for the investment, this is the absolute definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal.  It isn’t such a large investment that the Browns can’t still pursue a starting-caliber back in the middle rounds of the draft.  Tate is an ideal fit for Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, as a powerful one-cut runner who plants his foot and gets north and south in a hurry.  He’s not really a big-play threat, but he will win fans over with the way he drives through contact (he tied for 14th in the NFL with 2.4 yards after contact per rushing attempt last season).  Tate has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career.

If he can stay healthy, Tate should be very productive in this offense.  In a world where Toby Gerhart got $10.5 million over 3 years with $4.5 million guaranteed, Rashad Jennings got $14 million over 4 years (with $3 million guaranteed), and Donald Brown got a 3-year, $10.5 million dollar deal with $4 million guaranteed from the Chargers, the deal the Browns are getting on Ben Tate is outstanding.

My grade:  A  –  Big money for Tate wouldn’t make sense to me, but this deal is awesome

WHAT HASN’T HAPPENED, WHAT COULD HAPPEN, WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN

While I am okay with the moves the Browns have made overall, I admit that I’m a little bit confused by the fact that they’ve essentially seemed to ignore a couple of positions that have been clearly identified as needs.

Most have agreed wholeheartedly that the Browns really need to find a second wide receiver to play as the flanker opposite Josh Gordon.  Since before last season it’s been crystal clear that the Browns need an upgrade at cornerback to start opposite Joe Haden.  And with the new zone-blocking scheme (heck, even if they weren’t switching to a zone-blocking scheme) the Browns need to upgrade at least one of their guard positions, if not both.

Despite that, the Browns haven’t even been rumored to express any real interest in the top names at these positions that have gone off the market over the first several days of free agency.  The team still has ample salary cap space (somewhere around $30 million), so there is no reason they couldn’t be in the bidding on some of the players that would upgrade these positions.

Without occupying too much more space, I’ll look at just a few of the remaining options on the market (balanced against what could be done in the draft) and try to suss out what the Browns might be inclined to do going forward.

James Jones would upgrade the Browns receiving corps

James Jones would upgrade the Browns receiving corps

First, wide receiver.  Hawkins can provide something, but I don’t believe the Browns can possibly be thinking that signing him settles their need for a slot receiver, let alone the need for a #2 receiver.  Other potential targets are going off of the market quickly.  Julian Edelman has resigned with the Patriots, Emmanuel Sanders is headed to the Broncos, and the Patriots have landed Brandon Lafell.  What does this leave for the Browns to do?  There are two targets that I identified before free agency started that I would like to see the Browns reach out to, and they are both still available:  James Jones of the Packers and Nate Burleson of the Lions.

Jones is clearly the higher-profile player, and on most rankings lists is now the best free agent receiver available.  With the initial contract frenzy over, I think the Browns can land Jones at an affordable deal, and I would love to see them do so.  He can play outside at the flanker position or work inside in the slot.

Burleson could also work inside or outside, but clearly couldn’t be counted on for the same production that Jones would offer.  That being said, he was productive when he played for the Lions last year and will not command very much money.  I don’t see how bringing him in could hurt the Browns, and I really could see it helping.

Obviously, the Browns can go wide receiver in the draft as well.  I hope they do, actually.  There are tons of excellent prospects at the position, with Sammy Watkins right on top of the list.  However, rookie wide receivers are risky to rely on.  There is usually a real learning curve there.  I think the Browns are doing themselves a disservice if they do not add one more veteran wide receiver.

Could Antonio Cromartie shore up the secondary?

Could Antonio Cromartie shore up the secondary?

Next, cornerback.  The Browns obviously recognize the need to upgrade the position.  Otherwise, why would they have gotten involved in trade talks for Darrelle Revis, which would have entailed trading at least one draft pick and making a large financial commitment?  So the question is, if they were willing to consider that sort of investment in the position, why have they apparently been completely out of the mix on any of the other names that were out there?

Aqib Talib got too much money from the Broncos, and I’m glad the Browns didn’t try to outbid them for his services.  Alterraun Verner is a really good player, but perhaps not a good enough fit for the Browns scheme.  So I can understand them not trying to bid against the Buccaneers for him.  Sam Shields never really made it to the open market, and got a huge contract.  Captain Munnerlyn…well, I’m not sure why the Browns didn’t go after him.  He signed a very affordable contract and would have been an upgrade in Cleveland.  Vontae Davis apparently never really considered leaving the Colts, and may have been viewed as a risky signing because of a reputation for being somewhat inconsistent.

So, explanations can be given for the Browns being quiet on this front thus far.  There are a few really good cornerbacks available in the draft.  Two of them, Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, are on their own tier, while a second tier that includes Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Florida’s Marcus Roberson, and a few others are also high-potential players.  But unless the Browns get one of those top two guys, it would be risky to count on one of these rookies to come in and start right away.

So should the Browns pursue a cornerback on the open market?  I believe they should, although legitimate starting options are dwindling.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is unquestionably the best cornerback remaining (rated the 5th-best CB in the league by PFF last year), and he is shopping for a good deal.  However, the Browns have apparently not gotten involved at all in the pursuit of him.

Antonio Cromartie is another possibility after having been cut loose by the Jets.  He struggled last season as he battled through injury, but he was the 16th-rated cornerback by PFF in 2012.  He is a skilled veteran who has played under Pettine with the Jets, although reports say they didn’t have the best relationship.

Veteran Champ Bailey is available following his release by the Broncos, but he is becoming more and more injury prone and has fallen off considerably over the past couple of seasons.  He may have something left in the tank, but it would be hard to trust that he can stay healthy and give consistently strong play at this stage in his career.

There are other options, too, including Carlos Rogers, Walter Thurmond, and Jabari Greer.  All of them have flaws, but would likely be considered upgrades to Buster Skrine as #2 corners.  Not only would it strengthen the Browns at that spot, but it would allow Skrine to slide to the slot corner position and focus on that, which would make the whole defense stronger.  Honestly, at this point I’ll be surprised if the Browns sign one of the top remaining names, although I can’t understand why they aren’t involved in the pursuit of Rodgers-Cromartie with the cap space they still have available and such a clear need at the position.

Travelle Wharton's veteran presence and talent are both assets the Browns could use

Travelle Wharton’s veteran presence and talent are both assets the Browns could use

Finally, offensive guard.  Many hoped that the Browns would target Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, or Zane Beadles as potential upgrades at the guard position who would fit in the zone-blocking scheme.  All of those players have signed contracts without apparently receiving any real interest from the Browns.

That doesn’t leave many options on the market.  Travelle Wharton is the best remaining free agent guard.  He is 32 years old, but is coming off of an excellent season with the Panthers.  He’d fit the profile of the kinds of signings the Browns have made, because he likely would consider signing if offered a 2-year deal with some decent guaranteed money.  I really hope that the Browns consider him, although there appears to be no interest at this point.

There are several solid options in the draft that would fit the Browns scheme.  UCLA’s Xavier Su’a Filo, Stanford’s David Yankey, and Notre Dame’s Zack Martin are all projected as 1st or 2nd-round picks and are athletic enough that they should fit nicely as guards in a zone-blocking offense.  Later in the draft Furman’s Dakota Dozier and Alabama’s Anthony Steen are two other players who would warrant consideration.  The Browns could come out of the draft with two nice young players at the guard position if they want to invest the picks in them.  Su’a Filo, Yankey, or Martin all could likely start from day one and learn on the job.  Others would need some development.

I think it makes a lot of sense to sign Wharton and allow him to start and help with the development of a rookie or two that are acquired through the draft.  It would solidify the position now and down the road.  Whether the Browns will sign a veteran guard, though, remains a mystery.

The only other player that it seems the Browns are likely to bring in at this point is middle linebacker Arthur Moats of the Bills.  He’s another player who’s worked under Pettine, and is a solid run defender who has shown some ability to pressure the quarterback as well.  He could earn a starting job opposite Dansby if the Browns are able to sign him.  This would be a solid move, although I’m not sure how much of an upgrade he really is over Craig Robertson.  Moats isn’t exactly known for his coverage skills, which is Robertson’s weak spot.  In my opinion, the Browns should still look to add a middle linebacker in the draft.  There aren’t very many available that project to make an instant impact, though.

It will be intriguing to see how the Browns proceed from here in free agency.  Their moves so far have been solid, reasonable, and don’t involve great risk.  It seems clear that they are planning to improve in the short term with these acquisitions, and hope that they can provide a bridge during the next two years to the point where more of the young players currently on the roster and soon to be added in this loaded draft will be ready to take over as the core of the team.  The work has only just begun.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Free Agency Reaction: Where Are the Browns Now, and Where Do They Go From Here?

Bark Right Here

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