The Browns entered free agency with around $45 million. They have signed free agents Donte Whitner (S), Karlos Dansby (ILB), Ben Tate (RB), Jim Dray (TE), Andrew Hawkins (WR), Isaiah Trufant (CB) and Paul McQuiston (OL). They re-signed kicker Billy Cundiff, and let go of QBs Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, as well as LB D’Qwell Jackson. Shawn Lauvao (G), Oniel Cousins (G) and T.J. Ward (S) left through free agency.
The big question mark remains Alex Mack, though it would seem that the team most interested in obtaining Mack is now out of that market. Baltimore traded for center Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay.
The Browns of course have the right to match any offer that Mack gets, but teams have been hesitant to try and pry the transition tagged player away from the Browns.
On Tuesday, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam met with reporters from the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando. He told the gathered throng that he believes Mack wants to be a Brown. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen. What seems very likely is that the Browns will be willing to match nearly any offer handed to to the Pro Bowl center. Haslam himself said that Mack is the kind of player that they want around long term.
The Mack situation aside, what is the next move for this organization?
The Browns still have holes. They could use another wide receiver, inside linebacker and cornerback. They also need to address the right side of the offensive line. Paul McQuiston may be “versatile” in the sense that he has played both guard and tackle at the NFL level, but he is a depth signing.
The Steelers recently signed former Bills ILB Arthur Moats. Moats is a player that many thought might be a target for the Browns, and certainly could have given Craig Robertson a run at the starting spot opposite Dansby. My guess is that if Mike Pettine wanted Moats, he would have at least made a visit here.
The free agent market is drying up quickly. None of the offensive linemen left out there are huge upgrades over the starters at their positions for the Browns. The defensive backs that are left are of the aged vintage, or the never had a prime variety.
Don’t get me started on the quarterbacks.
That means the next big chance to fill holes and improve the roster will be via the draft. The Browns have ten picks that they can use, including seven selections in the first four rounds.
Assuming the Browns even use all of those picks without trading out of one or more, that means another ten players to sign, which would eat around $10 million of the remaining cap space. By the way, that would also bring the Browns to 80 players under contract for the season, without any UDFA signings. Several more players will have to be cut.
Which will leave the Browns with over $21 million dollars under the cap.
The answer isn’t to go out and overpay a Santonio Holmes or Asante Samuel. The answer is to lock up Joe Haden, Phil Taylor and Jordan Cameron who will all be free agents following the 2014 season. They should also take a look at extending Jabaal Sheard and Buster Skrine, also set to be free agents after this season. Taylor, Cameron, Sheard and Skrine are all playing for under $1 million this season. There should be incentive enough for them to sign an extension that will kick in a larger 2014 base salary.
My top priority before the draft hits would be to lock up Haden and get the Mack deal done. Haden’s base salary is a little under $7 million in 2014, with incentives and bonuses taking his total compensation closer to $9 million. Realistically, it is going to cost the Browns between $12 and $15 million a season if they want to keep one of the top corners in the league in his prime. Haden certainly is that.
Can the Browns front load an extension for Haden? That would be their best move with the $21 million they have left to spend. Keep in mind that he already counts for close to $9 million against the cap. Adding another four or five doesn’t wipe out your ability to sign Taylor and Cameron.