The Browns haven’t made a significant transaction since Friday.
No $50 million extension for a left guard. No $60 million contract for a right guard. No outside-the-box, rule-stretching, league-shocking, vault-opening trade. No head-scratching free agent receiver switch. No quarterback dump of one of the biggest names in the NFL.
The weekend allowed everyone to catch their breath, and try to make sense of the two-day frenzy to open the league year.
Let’s start here: The Browns are better than they were when free agency started.
Seems like a simple achievement, but it’s drastically different from a year ago when five starters walked out the door. This time around, in Sashi Brown’s second season running the football operations, he fortified the interior of the offensive line that was devastated last year by the departures of center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
The Browns should be set up the middle for years with a five-year extension for left guard Joel Bitonio, a three-year deal for former Packers center J.C. Tretter and a five-year deal for former Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler. The moves were a home run with all the fans who put fixing the line ahead of finding a quarterback. The only unsettled position among the front five is right tackle, where Shon Coleman, Cameron Erving or Spencer Drango should be able to emerge as a suitable starter.
So the line is better. The evaluation at receiver is much trickier.
When the season ended on the first day of 2017, owner Jimmy Haslam said one of the primary goals for the offseason was to keep the team’s best free agents. That meant quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor and recently acquired linebacker Jamie Collins.
The Browns went 1-for-2.
Collins signed a four-year, $50 million contract to stay. The Browns and Pryor couldn’t agree on his value and he walked away to sign a one-year, $6 million deal with Washington.
It’s a sad ending to Pryor’s story in Cleveland. He was reluctant to give up his quarterback dream but embraced his new role and worked tirelessly to succeed. He proved the plethora of doubters, including this writer, wrong by turning his immense physical skills into catches, yards and touchdowns. He led the Browns with 77, 1,007 and four in 2016, his first full year at the position.
On a roster deficient in talent, Pryor emerged as one of the best players. And he wanted to stay. His departure is an obvious negative.
Just don’t pin too much blame on the Browns.
With more than $102 million in salary cap space when free agency started, they had the means to overpay Pryor. But a responsible front office sets limits. And it turns out, the limits matched the market.
The Browns offered Pryor a contract at least as large as the four-year, $32.5 million deal they gave receiver Kenny Britt to take his place. Drew and Jason Rosenhaus, Pryor’s agents, said no, convinced they could find at least $12 million elsewhere.
They were wrong.
If Britt can match Pryor’s production — they had nearly identical stats last year — then the Browns did the right thing. If Britt returns to the inconsistency of his early years and Pryor’s star continues to rise, the Browns will regret not at least offering another $2 million a year to try to keep one of their own.
If the perception is the Browns pinched pennies regarding Pryor, then spending $16 million for a second-round draft pick and a quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who may never play a down in Cleveland is mindboggling. But the big Harvard brains inside Browns headquarters crunched the numbers, borrowed Haslam’s ATM card and went full steam ahead.
The trade was entirely about acquiring a second-round pick in 2018. Osweiler was the vehicle, as the Houston Texans were desperate to get rid of him and the $16 million in guaranteed money in 2017 the Browns assumed. Osweiler’s future in Cleveland hasn’t been decided, but the Browns could cut him if they can’t trade him.
The move was innovative and Haslam deserves credit for agreeing to write a giant check. But it could be a lot of hype for a little return — Haslam’s money for a second-round pick.
Unless Brown can turn the pick into a quarterback. It always comes back to the quarterback.
The Browns terminated the contract of Robert Griffin III on Friday, saving the $750,000 roster bonus he was due Saturday. The latest quarterback gone in less than a year. Osweiler might not make it a month.
The Browns are back at Square 1, with fans hoping Brown has a master plan up his sleeve. Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo certainly qualifies and would be the ideal final piece to the trade with the Texans if the second-round pick helps entice New England’s Bill Belichick to loosen his grip on Garoppolo.
If the Browns don’t land Garoppolo, the struggle to find the answer at quarterback will continue. The pickings are slim on the free agent market, putting a lot of pressure on the draft.
In the meantime, the Browns will look to fill more holes in the cheaper, secondary stages of free agency. A safety and another receiver should be first on the list.
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