Alright Cleveland Browns fans, it is almost that time—4 p.m. on March 9th, which is the official beginning of the new league year for the NFL. What that time means is that the “legal tampering period” will end, and teams will actually be allowed to make all of these moves you have been hearing about for days.
For the Cleveland Browns, the free agent rumor front has been more focused on retaining their own “big name” free agents. Key offensive linemen Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz are at the front of that line, while safety Tashaun Gipson and wide receiver Travis Benjamin follow shortly after that.
Aside from the team’s “big four” free agents, the Browns do have other contributors on the market. Linebacker Craig Robertson, special teams and defensive back Johnson Bademosi, special teams and wide receiver Terrelle Pryor are the most notable in that group. They team has also retained some of their guys, as linebacker Tank Carder and defensive lineman Jamie Meder have reportedly inked new deals to stay in Cleveland.
Other players hitting the market (either as unrestricted or restricted free agents) for the Browns are: tight end Jim Dray (cut), defensive lineman Randy Starks (cut), guard Austin Pasztor, kicker Travis Coons, quarterback Pat Devlin and a few other less notable players.
As you can see from above, the Browns could have quite a few spots open if their bigger name players leave town. Benjamin is already rumored to be signing a deal with the Chargers, and others seem to think Mack and Schwartz could leave for greener pastures. If both of these players leave, the Browns will likely have to come up with a plan of attack to fill their immediate starting needs.
While it does not seem the new regime is looking to build through free agency (which they shouldn’t), the team has plenty of money to address major needs if the player is a fit. For this reason, I have isolated five realistic options from the free agent market the Browns should be considering over the next few days.
Stefen Wisniewski, C, Jacksonville Jaguars
This one should be simple if Mack leaves via free agency. Wisniewski is only 26-years old (turns 27 later this month), has started every NFL game he has appeared in since coming in the league back in 2011 (77) and was a second-round pick of Hue Jackson’s when he was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Knowledge of Jackson’s system at what will be a major position of need should put Wisniewski to the front of the line for the Browns. He was regarded as one of the top center prospects coming out of college (Penn State), and is known best for his pass protection abilities. Couple that with the fact the Browns will likely be adding a rookie quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft, and this move is pretty much a no-brainer if Mack skips town.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
After missing out on Marvin Jones, who is going to Detroit, Sanu seems to be next in line as a receiving option for the Browns. At 26-years old, the 6’2” and 210-pound Sanu obviously comes with complete knowledge of Jackson’s system and the ability to be used in a number of ways thanks to his running and passing abilities.
However, the big question is—can he be a No. 2 wide receiver for a Browns team that looks to be losing Benjamin to the Chargers? He obviously does not have Benjamin’s speed (4.54 40-yard dash), but he has proven to be productive during his four-year NFL career despite being an after-thought at times in the Bengals defense.
For his career, Sanu caught 152 passes for 1,793 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Bengals. The majority of those numbers came in 2014, as he hauled in 56 catches for 790 yards and five touchdowns on 98 total targets. Last season, his targets were cut in half to 49 thanks to the emergence of Jones and Tyler Eifert, but he still managed to catch 33 passes for 394 yards.
**Update, it is being reported Sanu is going to the Falcons for $7 million per season**
Wesley Woodyard, LB, Tennessee Titans
When looking at potential additions to the Browns defense, the 29-year old Woodyard stands out with Robertson hitting the open market. The team will likely need to add a player who can rotate in with Karlos Dansby and Christian Kirksey, and Woodyard fits that bill. He also has played the last two seasons with new Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton in Tennessee, so he has knowledge of the system.
Over his career, Woodyard has logged 369 total tackles and 15.5 sacks according to Pro Football Reference. He has also intercepted seven passes and forced seven fumbles—showing he has the ability to make plays at the inside linebacker position as well. His best season was back in 2012 as a member of the Denver Broncos, as he finished with 70 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and six passes defensed.
For a team that will likely be looking for more linebacker depth, Woodyard is certainly a name to watch. Not only can he provide depth and potential starting ability at linebacker, but he is also a willing special teams contributor and someone who can drop back in coverage.
Chris Hairston, OT, San Diego Chargers
Rumors just came out that Schwartz is considering a deal to come back to Cleveland for $7.5 million a year, which would be an absolute coup for the Browns at this point. If they miss out on Schwartz—or even if they don’t—a name to watch could be Hairston of the Chargers.
A former fourth-round draft pick of the Bills in 2011, Hairston started 11 of 16 games last season for the Chargers on a beat-up offensive line. Standing 6’6” and 330 pounds, the 26-year old out of Clemson has started 26 of 57 games during his NFL career, of which he spent the first three years with Buffalo.
Unless the Browns want to go big-name if they have to replace Schwartz, bringing in a younger guy with starting experience to compete with Cameron Erving and other young linemen on the roster could be the direction they go. And for that reason, Hairston could fit the bill.
Damon Harrison, NT, New York Jets
Okay, I know the Browns have Danny Shelton on the roster as the team’s NT—but Harrison impressed me last season with the Jets and is someone I have had an eye on for a while. For a team like the Browns that has struggled to stop the run, Harrison is known for that ability—racking up 39 total tackles playing on the Jets line last season.
At 27-years old, Harrison is already drawing interest from the New York Giants and a number of other teams at this time. But if the Browns aren’t sold on Shelton and want to bring in more competition on their defensive line—especially after cutting Starks earlier this offseason, Harrison could be an excellent get for this team.