The Browns would love to be in a position where they don’t have to rely on free agency.
They’re not there.
After misses in free agency and the draft the last three years, another league year is set to begin with the Browns needing to sign veterans to fill critical holes on the roster. General manager Andrew Berry believes he has a core ready to contend and will be aggressive in an attempt to supplement it with a couple of high-priced free agents. After missing the playoffs the last two seasons and going all-in with controversial quarterback Deshaun Watson, the sense of urgency to win in 2023 has been heightened.
The Browns need at least one starting defensive tackle, a defensive end to pair with Myles Garrett, a safety to replace John Johnson III and a receiver with speed. Not every spot must be filled with a big name and they could all be addressed through a combination of free agency and the draft, but Berry is counting on free agency to make a significant impact.
Free agency is even more important because of Cleveland’s draft situation. Its first pick in April is No. 42 in the second round and the next is No. 98 at the end of the third round after surrendering picks in last year’s blockbuster trade for Watson. There are too many variables when drafting that late and no guarantee the first selections will be ready to be starters.
Free agency begins Monday at noon with a two-day negotiating period. Agreements should be announced minutes after the clock switches from a.m. to p.m., and contracts can become official Wednesday at 4 p.m. with the start of the league year.
Before any moves can be made, the Browns must create salary cap space. Moving most of Watson’s $46 million salary for 2023 to a bonus will get the job done.
With the madness right around the corner, here are five pressing questions for Berry and the Browns:
CAN THEY LAND THEIR MAN?
If the performance in 2022 wasn’t enough to convince Berry to make defensive tackle his top offseason priority, the addition of veteran coordinator Jim Schwartz sealed it.
Schwartz has built his respected career on talented, complete front fours with tackles who attack. The Browns were dreadful in the interior last year, so the expectation is Berry’s top free agent target will be defensive tackle.
With the Commanders using the franchise tag on Daron Payne, Philadelphia’s Javon Hargrave looks like the top choice. He had 11 sacks last season for the NFC champions, 7.5 in 2021 and has experience in the AFC North after spending his first four years with the Steelers.
He enjoyed playing for Schwartz with the Eagles in 2020, should help a young position group with his wisdom as a 30-year-old and would likely only expect a three-year contract.
Berry is a big believer in contingency plans and needs a good one in case another team makes a better offer to Hargrave. The Browns can’t live with status quo at tackle or rely on the draft for an impact addition. Some of the other attractive free agent options are Denver’s Dre’Mont Jones, a St. Ignatius and Ohio State alum, Minnesota’s Dalvin Tomlinson and New Orleans’ David Onyemata.
WHO’LL BE THE BOOKEND?
In his first three years on the job, Berry went with solid but temporary solutions at the defensive end spot opposite Garrett. Veteran Olivier Vernon was followed by Jadeveon Clowney the last two seasons on a pair of one-year deals.
Clowney is gone after a fall-off in sack production and a public meltdown, so Berry has a decision to make. He said he’s not committed to the short-term veteran solution and drafted Alex Wright in the third round a year ago with hopes of finding a long-term partner for Garrett. But Wright wasn’t ready to make an impact, especially as a pass rusher, as he didn’t register a sack or quarterback hit in 17 games.
Needing immediate contributions, it makes sense to add a veteran to the group of Garrett, Wright and Isaiah Thomas, a seventh-round pick last year who had one sack. A draft pick could also be added to the bunch, with a number of enticing pass rushers expected to be available in the second round if the Browns stay put at No. 42.
Brandon Graham looked like the perfect fit after a long, successful career with the Eagles and knowledge of Schwartz’s system, but he decided to stay in Philadelphia rather than test the market. New Orleans’ Marcus Davenport, Jacksonville’s Arden Key, San Francisco’s Samson Ebukam, Indianapolis’ Yannick Ngakoue and Kansas City’s Frank Clark are possibilities.
The quality, or at least price, of a free agent end could be tied to whom Berry can land at defensive tackle. Several large contracts signed in the last few years mandate tough decisions and could have Berry on a budget for the overall defensive line improvements.
HOW IMPORTANT IS SAFETY?
The decision to cut Johnson created another gaping hole in the starting lineup. How Berry fills it will be interesting.
With much of the cap now and in the future allocated to Watson, Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, receiver Amari Cooper, running back Nick Chubb and guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, safety could be a spot to save. The cheapest option would be a rookie taken in the second or third round — a trade down from No. 42 to acquire more picks fits the front office’s philosophy — but there’s no guarantee he would be ready to start Week 1 and be trusted as the last line of defense.
Pairing a rookie with a second- or third-tier free agent on a short-team deal could make the most fiscal sense.
The Browns could go another way and aim big. Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates III has been connected to the Browns, which would make sense if Schwartz requires a playmaking safety in the deep middle. But Bates would be costly, likely around $14 million a year — more expensive than Johnson.
WHAT ABOUT RECEIVER?
The to-do list isn’t limited to defense, even though that’s where the most glaring weaknesses are.
The need for a receiver with speed can’t be questioned, as the Browns want to help Watson. What’s less certain is how to address it.
The free agent market isn’t loaded with talent, so the skill set fits will come at a steeper-than-desired cost. Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman is a burner but is projected to cost $10.3 million a year, according to spotrac.com. Detroit’s D.J. Chark Jr. and Indianapolis’ Parris Campbell are also possibilities.
A less expensive veteran could be paired with a draft pick — which is becoming a theme — maybe Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott, who ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.
A second tight end to pair with David Njoku could also be added.
BRING THEM BACK?
Center Ethan Pocic is the most important Browns player eligible for free agency. The Browns would love to have him back after he played great in 2022, but the lack of an extension on the eve of free agency indicates he’ll reach the market. If that happens, he’s expected to get a huge raise that would take him out of the Browns’ price range.
Nick Harris is the backup plan but has started only two games in his career and is coming off a knee injury in the preseason that cost him the whole season.
At linebacker, starters Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki are free agents. They’re coming off season-ending injuries, the Browns missed them and would like to have them back.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, running back Kareem Hunt, Clowney, cornerback Greedy Williams and defensive tackle Taven Bryan aren’t expected back. Running back D’Ernest Johnson could return to compete with Jerome Ford for the No. 2 spot behind Chubb.
With Brissett in search of more playing time than he’d get behind Watson, the Browns will have an opening for the No. 2 spot. Joshua Dobbs, who backed up Brissett during Watson’s suspension last year, could return and join Watson and Kellen Mond in the quarterback room.