The Browns aren’t good enough to let good players walk away. They haven’t been for two decades.
The statement is simplistic but true. And timely.
Middle linebacker Joe Schobert is most likely headed out the door when free agency begins March 18. A league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram on Sunday the Browns will let Schobert test the market, adding there’s a “good chance” multiple teams will offer more than the Browns are willing to spend.
The Browns already have holes across the roster as they head into the offseason. Not signing their premium free agent and opening another vacancy in the middle of the defense is a step backward as the organization tries to move forward after an incomprehensible stretch of futility.
Schobert isn’t an elite player but he’s a borderline Pro Bowler, getting voted into the all-star game after the 2017 season and improving since then. He made the Browns better and, at 26 years old, would continue to do so for years.
He’s exactly the type of player and person the Browns should keep and build around. He’s productive, dedicated, coachable and wants to stay — his crying emoji Saturday night supported what he’s said for years.
Instead, he will almost certainly sign elsewhere in a couple of weeks, although the door hasn’t been slammed shut on a return to Cleveland, according to the league source. The interest around the league is expected to be significant and place Schobert outside the Browns’ preset price range.
The bulk of the blame for the likely departure belongs to former general manager John Dorsey. He had two years to sign Schobert to a long-term contract extension but refused to make a reasonable offer.
Andrew Berry, who replaced Dorsey on Jan. 28, walked into a difficult spot but still bears some responsibility after meeting with Schobert’s agent, Joe Panos, last week during the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Berry has decided Schobert isn’t worth $10 million a season, which would put him among the top 10 inside linebackers in the NFL.
Berry said the organization’s priority moving forward will be to re-sign homegrown talent before it’s able to hit free agency. He would’ve taken that approach with Schobert, a fourth-round pick in 2016, but didn’t have the opportunity with free agency looming when he took control of the roster.
“That is one of the things that we believe at our core that we are going to be aggressive in engaging in pre-market extensions for players that we view as pillar players — long-term fits for the organization,” Berry said at the combine.
The philosophy makes sense, but Berry’s in position to make an exception for Schobert.
Owner Jimmy Haslam made it clear when he swapped out coaches and general managers again after the season that the organization wasn’t embarking on another rebuild. He spoke highly of the roster Dorsey reconstructed and expects playoff contention in the near future.
With that mandate, and $62 million in salary cap space, according to overthecap.com, Berry could stretch the budget for Schobert. It would send a powerful message to the locker room and fan base.
None of this is to say Schobert’s a perfect player. Linebacker has been an organizational weakness for a while, even with Schobert, and a year ago Dorsey used a third-round pick on Sione Takitaki and a fifth-rounder on Mack Wilson to upgrade the position and make Schobert expendable.
Wilson was promising as a rookie but may never become a better player than Schobert. Takitaki made no impact.
The loss of Schobert won’t define Berry’s tenure, but it’s a less-than-ideal start.
Even if Berry were to draft a talented replacement — Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray would be intriguing if he’s available at the top of the second round — it’s a hole that doesn’t need to be created. Schobert could be re-signed and the second-round pick spent on a safety, tight end, pass rusher or another offensive tackle — all pressing needs for a team looking to put 6-10 and the failed expectations of a year ago behind it as quickly as possible.
The Browns will get worse when Schobert signs elsewhere.
That’s a step backward for an organization used to heading in the wrong direction.