Two days have gone by since free agency began for the Cleveland Browns and the rest of the NFL. While the rest of the league set off fireworks with trade after trade just minutes into the new league year, Ray Farmer and company have remained eerily quiet for nearly the first 48 hours—much to the dismay of Browns fans everywhere.
As players like Buster Skrine (New York Jets), Jabaal Sheard (New England Patriots) and Brian Hoyer (Houston Texans) have left town, Browns fans have seemingly turned to the “doom and gloom” scenario before training camp has even taken place. The pessimistic nature has even found its way to some local “Beat Reporters,” as Tony Grossi wrote what was the equivalent of a whiny, hit piece today for ESPN Cleveland—boastfully citing the signing of a “premier fullback” and acquiring a 34-year old QB with “two 10-win seasons” as part of the reason the Buffalo Bills are on the way up and the Browns are on the way down.
Now, while we could spend hours going through the Grossi article, I’ll just allow the words he put on the web for everyone to read do the talking. Should Browns fans be upset with the past and previous failures of regimes? Absolutely. But to pit all of their failures on the current regime and anoint this thing a failure before it has the opportunity to really take off is an injustice to the game of football, and shows a true lack of understanding of how building a winning culture in the NFL happens.
Let’s start with the 2015 NFL Free Agency period.
Would it have been nice to lure top-end free agents like Ndamukong Suh, Jeremy Maclin, Pernell McPhee and Darrelle Revis? Only an idiot would say no to that question, as they all would have impacted the Browns in one way or another. However, Suh was off to Miami for $60 million guaranteed, Maclin was reuniting with his old head coach for $11 million a year, McPhee cashed in for roughly $8 million a year in Chicago and Revis “headed home” to the Jets.
While landing one of these players would have been great, their price tags and reasoning for going elsewhere were not a product of Farmer or the Browns front office—no matter how much fans and people with agendas want it to be. In fact, when you look at the players who have actually changed teams at a position of need for the Browns (aside from the top-tier guys above), many of them would not have altered the landscape of football in Cleveland.
Starting with quarterback, you could argue the Browns could have acquired Sam Bradford or Nick Foles in a trade. But it seems both players were the target of the other team, making it very difficult to make a trade actually happen. Removing these two from the conversation, the Browns quarterback situation would not have been altered in a major way by signing Mark Sanchez (went back to Philly), Ryan Mallett (back to Houston) or Hoyer (also to Houston).
Is Josh McCown a game-changer or a long-term starting quarterback option? No and no. But you cannot definitively say any other player on the available list was either, so the Browns opted for a mentor who is willing to fight to be the starter and is okay with backing up a young quarterback. For just over $5 million per season you can do a lot worse than McCown, and I highly doubt the Browns are done with the QB position this offseason.
Next up on the list is wide receiver, where the Browns inked Brian Hartline prior to the beginning of free agency. Not a No. 1 receiver by any means, Hartline brings proven productivity, the ability to run excellent routes and experience lining up all over the field to this team for a cheap price (two-years, $6 million total).
The only top-end wide receivers to change teams so far were Maclin to the Chiefs, Torrey Smith to the 49ers ($8 million per season) and Andre Johnson to the Colts ($7 million per season). Smith took the money to join Anquan Boldin, and Johnson wanted to play with Andrew Luck. Could the Browns have lured either if they had a big-time quarterback? Certainly, but they do not—thus neither player was truly in play.
Even after missing out on the top guys they really never had a shot at anyways, Farmer and company can still add to a depleted receiving corps with someone like Michael Crabtree, Kenny Britt, Andre Holmes or Cecil Shorts. Bringing in one of those players with Hartline and a rookie with No. 1 upside would be a major upgrade on the position from last year, and they did not have to spend $50-plus million to do it.
Now let’s move on to the tight end position, where former Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron has hit the free agent market. Cameron (as of the writing of this article) has no intentions of returning to the Browns organization, and was on his way to visit the Miami Dolphins to talk contract.
Does the potential loss of Cameron hurt the Browns? Sure, when he was healthy for an entire season (2013) he caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. But an injury-riddled 2014 season (10 games played) showed a different player, one who caught 24 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns—and I’m sorry, but that player isn’t worth ponying up a five-year, $46 million contract like the one Julius Thomas received.
#Browns have wanted Clay from day one. Was considered to be their top target for free agency. Transition tag complicated the situation.
— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) March 11, 2015
With Cameron likely out, the team has turned their attention to Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham and Miami’s Charles Clay—a recently transition tagged player. Both have been very productive, and have the upside to replace Cameron without the injury concerns. If the Browns can snag one of them for a lower dollar amount than the Thomas contract, they could easily handle the need at this position.
Moving on to the defensive line, many have identified the position as one of great need. Ahtyba Rubin is hitting free agency, Phil Taylor is in the final year of his contract and the Browns were one of the worst teams in the league against the rush. With this in mind, the team has been very quiet thus far at addressing this glaring need—but there are still options available.
Suh, Dan Williams, Jared Odrick and Stephen Paea may be off the market, but Nick Fairley, Terrance Knighton, Kenrick Ellis and other players are still available. After Suh, not one player can be defined as a “disrupting game-changer,” so the team is likely combing through their options to find a player or two to fit the scheme and upgrade the run defense.
Finally, let’s look at the outside linebacker position—where the Browns just lost Sheard in free agency and already had question marks with Barkevious Mingo not living up to expectations as of yet.
The Browns pursued Trent Cole (who opted to sign with the Colts instead), and were interested in Jason Worilds (who shocked everyone by retiring). When you look at the rest of the “edge rusher” market, I ask the question—which player is an “impact” signing worth a bigger contract at this point in time? And on top of that, would this player potentially provide more than any player on the current roster, or one the team could acquire in the draft (one known for edge rushers) with higher upside at a much lower cost?
If you can swallow your pride and anger for a second and answer that last question truthfully, your answer will arrive at the Browns free agency strategy thus far. That answer is simply, the team is not overspending on free agents because their potential output does not justify the larger dollar amount they are currently going to command on the open market.
Take a look back at the past few years of free agency.
When did a major free agent signing take a team with numerous needs from pretender to contender in one year? While you are still looking, I’ll continue on—the teams that win in this league are the ones who can draft well over time and make depth additions to their roster in free agency. They retain the valuable players they have drafted and grown, and continue to draft and retain their players. From time to time, players will leave—but the system of drafting prevails and develops a long-term winner.
It may be difficult to see through the Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel selections (which many of you were celebrating only a year ago with tears rolling down your faces), but Farmer’s first draft was very successful. Add in his job finding key undrafted contributors, and it was easily the best first year for any regime in recent Browns history. Despite this fact, fans cannot get past Gilbert and Manziel and see the front office is actually building something here—and could be one move for a quarterback or one more solid draft where they get production from their potential first-round picks away from actually being a real playoff team.
Think about it—the Browns finished 7-9 with Hoyer at QB, had very few threats on the offensive side of the ball and could not get a decent push up front. With the rest of free agency to go and a draft with six picks in the first four rounds, the Browns can easily still change all of those problems (or the majority of them depending on your outlook of the QB position). Oh, and they are getting back the key to their offensive line and run game—center Alex Mack—who their rushing attack struggled in a big way without after he was lost for the season.
So what does this all mean? Do not judge an offseason by the first 48 hours, there is still a lot of time between now and training camp. Let’s take a deep breath, and wait and see how the rest of the offseason plays out before we go calling for another regime to be fired and the roster to be turned over, yet again.