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Browns mentioned early and often in free agency rumors

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The NFL’s free agent negotiation period -- often referred to as “legal tampering” -- began Tuesday at noon. The rest of the day was filled with rumors and reports, many mentioning the Browns but none with any degree of certainty.

Here are two things that are sure: The Browns have a record amount of salary cap space -- $102.4 million, according to overthecap.com -- and more holes on the roster than any team in the league, with the possible exception of the 49ers.

So it only makes sense they’re connected to many of the NFL’s top free agents. They need them and can afford them.

Whether the Browns are willing to pay top dollar and if the players are agreeable to join a rebuilding project will begin to be revealed Thursday at 4 p.m. when the league year begins and free agents can sign. In the meantime, fans can imagine the possibilities.

The key to the pre-draft part of the offseason could be the New England Patriots.

The Browns’ interest in trading for backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is well-known, and his acquisition could solve the decades-old problems at the position. NFL Network’s Michael Silver, who is good friends with Cleveland coach Hue Jackson, reported Tuesday that Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower could be among the free agents the Browns target.

Hightower (6-foot-2, 266 pounds) would be reunited with linebacker Jamie Collins, who was traded from New England to Cleveland during the season and signed a four-year, $50 million extension earlier in the offseason. Hightower, who will turn 27 on Sunday, has started 64 games since being the No. 25 pick of the Patriots in 2012. He has 251 tackles, 153 assists, 17 sacks, 13 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including a touchdown.

He made one of the key plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback with a strip-sack of Matt Ryan. NFL.com lists him as the fourth-best free agent.

The possibility of trading for Garoppolo remains intriguing. NFL Network reported the Patriots are looking for a first-round pick this year -- the Browns have Nos. 1 and 12 -- and likely a first-rounder next year. That seems like way too steep an asking price, but it could signal the Patriots’ willingness to make a deal. So perhaps the Browns could get Garoppolo for the 12th pick and a mid-rounder.

Quarterback is the top priority, but the Browns’ issues stretch across the roster. Offensive line and cornerback are among the most pressing, and the rumors Tuesday landed on those areas.

Silver cited Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner, Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler and Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore as possible targets. The Houston Chronicle included the Browns in a group of six teams expected to be “extremely competitive” in the chase for Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye. And NFL Network reported the Browns could try to trade for Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

The Rams put the nearly $17 million franchise tag on Johnson (6-1, 205) but are willing to move him, with the new team expected to work out a long-term deal. Johnson, 27, was a third-round pick in 2012, has started 47 games and has 16 interceptions and 54 passes defensed. He played for new Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams the last three years.

The Browns have their own free agent to worry about, as leading receiver Terrelle Pryor will be free to sign with any team Thursday. The Browns would like to keep him on a long-term extension but may not be willing to match the market.

NFL.com ranks Pryor ninth among free agents, and he could receive $12 million a year. Pryor led the Browns with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in his first full year as a receiver, but his limited history at the position might prevent the Browns from paying top dollar.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.



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