Free agency starts this week and offers the first chance of 2017 for the Browns to improve the roster. After a franchise-worst 1-15 season, they need all the help they can get.
The first couple of months of the offseason were spent trying not to get even worse. Linebacker Jamie Collins, punter Britton Colquitt and long snapper Charley Hughlett were signed to extensions, and the team placed the second-round tender on restricted free agent running back Isaiah Crowell. Receiver Terrelle Pryor is the final piece in that puzzle.
The Browns didn’t use the $15.7 million franchise tag on Pryor, enabling him to become a free agent. The league’s negotiating period opens today at noon, allowing teams to legally talk with the agents for impending free agents. Contracts can be signed Thursday at 4 p.m. when the league year begins.
The Browns remain hopeful they’ll be able to keep Pryor on a long-term deal -- perhaps $12 million a year over four years -- but there’s no guarantee once he hits the market.
With or without Pryor, the Browns have needs across the roster, even at receiver. The roster doesn’t have a position that couldn’t use an upgrade.
Free agency will set the stage for April’s draft, when the Browns have 11 picks, including five within the first 65. If the Browns can solidify two or three positions in free agency -- or at least remove them from the dire category -- they will increase their flexibility in the draft.
The start of the league year carries extra intrigue this season because of the uncertainty at quarterback. Trades can be made beginning Thursday, and the Browns remain interested in New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo -- if Bill Belichick makes him available.
Garoppolo looks like the perfect fit. He played well in limited action with the Patriots, is only 25 years old and projects as a giant improvement over the current crop of Cleveland quarterbacks. The options drop off if the Browns can’t land him.
Tyrod Taylor will become a free agent if the Buffalo Bills don’t pick up $31 million in options by Saturday. The Browns hired his former quarterbacks coach in David Lee and are reportedly interested.
Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon, Chicago’s Brian Hoyer and the Los Angeles Rams’ Case Keenum are lesser options but would allow the Browns to cut Robert Griffin III and have a bridge if the quarterback they draft isn’t ready.
Until the Browns get it right, quarterback remains the top priority. But their needs are so varied and overwhelming, the focus must be broad as free agency gets underway. They have more than $100 million in salary cap space, which should help entice good players to a bad team as owner Jimmy Haslam promised to be “appropriately aggressive” in free agency.
Here are the top three non-quarterback positions the Browns should target:
The Browns are so thin at the back end of the secondary they could use starters at both safety spots. The ideal scenario is to sign the best free agent and take advantage of a deep draft.
New coordinator Gregg Williams runs a complex defense reliant on communication. An experienced safety would be a big help as he installs the system.
Arizona’s Tony Jefferson (5-foot-11, 213 pounds) sits at the top of the free agent class. He’s 25 years old and should be entering his prime.
Jefferson has started 31 of 63 games in four years, including 14 of 15 games last season, when he had 74 tackles, 18 assists, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, five passes defensed, zero interceptions and two sacks. For his career, he has 220 tackles, 53 assists, two interceptions, a touchdown, six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 11 passes defensed and five sacks.
He was undrafted out of Oklahoma and is expected to command $7 million-$10 million a season.
Executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said he wants to keep Pryor but won’t panic if he signs elsewhere. There will be competition, as Pryor is among the most attractive free agent receivers. The Steelers, Giants, 49ers, Titans and Eagles are interested, according to a Cleveland.com report.
“I’m anxious and nervous. But everything in gods hands.... We must follow his plans...” Pryor tweeted Monday, followed by prayer emojis.
The Browns’ need at receiver will go from pressing to critical if Pryor leaves. He led the team with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, and on a team that drafted four receivers last year, he’s the only wideout with more than a year in the NFL -- and he didn’t switch from quarterback until 2015.
Regardless of Pryor’s decision, the Browns should seek a veteran or two to add experience, talent and competition. Washington’s Pierre Garcon, Brandon Marshall, who was recently released by the New York Jets, and Baltimore’s Kamar Aiken would fit the bill.
Many fans believe the line should be at the top of the list, even above quarterback. The Browns allowed a league-high 66 sacks last season and have talent questions at center and right tackle and injury concerns at both guard spots, with Joel Bitonio and John Greco recovering from Lisfranc surgeries.
League analysts have criticized the depth and talent of the draft class on the line, so the Browns would be best served looking to free agency to fill one of the starting spots. Cameron Erving, Shon Coleman and Austin Pasztor (an unrestricted free agent) are options to compete at right tackle, so the focus should be on the interior.
Nick Mangold, 33, was cut by the Jets last week, has Ohio roots and would provide a proven option at center as youngsters Austin Reiter, Anthony Fabiano and Gabe Ikard learn from one of the best.
Guard Kevin Zeitler, who turns 27 Wednesday, was a first-round pick of the Bengals and has been a five-year starter. He’d step right in at right guard, allowing Greco to be the veteran bridge at center, assuming he’s healthy.
The competition should be heavy for Zeitler, who might command $12 million a year.
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