The Browns were forced to formulate a Plan B before the NFL offseason had officially started.
The scramble drill began Tuesday night — five days before the Super Bowl — when the Chiefs chose Washington’s trade offer over Cleveland’s, agreeing to send veteran quarterback Alex Smith to the NFC in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick.
The Browns offered one of their three second-round picks — they have Nos. 33 and 35, and No. 63 or 64, depending on what the Eagles do in the Super Bowl — for Smith, according to an ESPN report Wednesday. The deal didn’t happen because the Chiefs wanted Fuller, who’s a good player and still on his rookie contract, and Washington was willing to sign Smith to an extension, reportedly for four years and $94 million.
The Browns didn’t want to give Smith that kind of money while intending to draft a quarterback with the No. 1 pick, according to reports. Supplying a young player the Chiefs wanted also may have been an issue.
The Browns are left to reassess the quarterback market that might not be completely settled for six weeks. What became clear Tuesday is that Washington will let Kirk Cousins become a free agent after using the franchise tag to keep him the last two years.
He immediately became the biggest prize available for the group of quarterback-desperate teams headed by the Browns.
Gambling site BetDSI.eu installed the Browns as the favorite to land Cousins, followed by the Jets and Broncos. The Bills, Vikings, Cardinals and Jaguars could also enter the competition.
The Browns need to decide quickly if they’re willing to spend the $25 million-$30 million per season Cousins will command. If they decide yes, they will need to call an all-out blitz, which would include convincing him the Browns can quickly turn into a winner despite going 0-16 last year and 1-31 over the last two seasons.
Cousins told a number of media outlets at the Super Bowl on Tuesday that winning will be a priority in his decision where to sign. If he sticks to that and is willing to turn down more money, the Browns would again be on the outside looking in, just like with Smith.
Cousins has the credentials to command the attention. He’s a three-year starter, going 24-23-1 and leading Washington to the playoffs once.
He’s completed 65.6 percent for his career with 99 touchdowns, 55 interceptions and a 93.7 rating. He was a Pro Bowler in 2016.
If the Browns choose not to pursue Cousins, or fail to land him, they will have to settle for Plan C: a combination of a lesser veteran and the top rookie quarterback.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it assumes the Browns value one of the prospects — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield — as worthy of the No. 1 pick.
It also could make it more difficult to win in 2018 — the top priority for embattled coach Hue Jackson — and allow the rookie to sit and watch and learn. Smith has the resume and pedigree to almost guarantee a year on the bench for the rookie. The other veteran options would provide varying degrees of stability.
Case Keenum is coming off a career year with the Vikings, but they might not let him leave. Tyrod Taylor could be expendable despite ending the Bills’ playoff drought but has his detractors. Minnesota’s Sam Bradford has a worrisome injury history.
The last man standing could be Bengals backup AJ McCarron, who awaits an arbitration hearing in a couple of weeks to determine if he’ll be a restricted or unrestricted free agent. His history with Jackson is well-documented but general manager John Dorsey’s opinion isn’t known.
McCarron would be signed as a bridge quarterback but he’s only made four starts in his three-year career, so the length of the bridge would be a question mark. If he struggled early, the temptation would be to turn to the rookie, even if he isn’t ready.
The Browns will examine a variety of options before the league year begins March 14. The first one got away, putting Cousins in the spotlight.
The Browns signed tight end Devon Cajuste, defensive back Denzel Rice and offensive lineman Christian Schneider.
Cajuste (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) played receiver at Stanford and has spent time on Green Bay’s practice squad. Rice (5-11, 185) has played in seven games with nine tackles. Schneider (6-5, 304) was in rookie minicamp with the Packers before the season.