The first hours of NFL free agency can feel like dog years.
Or standing still while others sprint at the start of a race.
The anticipation among organizations and fans was heightened Monday at noon with the dawn of the two-day negotiating period ahead of the league year officially kicking off today at 4 p.m. The dream of franchise-altering acquisitions and instant roster improvement seemed attainable as hundreds of players became available on the free agent market.
NFL Network, ESPN and Twitter were quickly filled with a torrent of breaking news. Big names and huge dollar amounts scrolled across the screens as players switched teams or stayed put.
For the Browns and their fans, it was a test in patience, especially if you’re impatient.
DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo agree to deals on first day of free agency
About three hours into the frenzy, news broke that center Ethan Pocic was for sure re-signing and being kept off the market with a three-year, $18 million deal. It’s a strong move that continues the franchise’s investment in the offensive line and keeps the starting five intact.
But avoiding having another hole to fill doesn’t move the meter.
About two hours later, a bit before 5 o’clock, defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo agreed to a three-year, $19 million deal. The addition at the premium position was necessary with Jadeveon Clowney leaving, and for the first time gives the Browns a veteran to potentially pair long term with Pro Bowl end Myles Garrett.
Sione Takitaki agrees to return on 1-year deal
Okoronkwo made the first starts and played the best football of his four-year career in the second half of last season with the Texans, and the Browns are optimistic he’s ready to take off. He’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 253 pounds but is athletic and can get around the edge in a hurry. He had five sacks last season.
A center and an end before dinner weren’t enough to stop the anxiety inside and outside of the building.
Defensive tackle was clearly the top priority of the offseason, and the Browns watched two of their targets choose other teams. Philadelphia’s Javon Hargrave agreed to a four-year, $84 million deal with the 49ers, and Dre’Mont Jones took a three-year, $51 million offer from the Seahawks rather than play for his hometown team.
Notes: Center Ethan Pocic returning on 3-year deal
General manager Andrew Berry realized the importance of finding a big-time defensive tackle — the Browns didn’t have a guaranteed starter on the roster — and entered the week with a list of options. The clock was ticking to land one.
Berry heard it and while many people slept — it was after 11 o’clock Monday — locked down Minnesota’s Dalvin Tomlinson with agreement on a four-year contract worth approximately $57 million, including $27.5 million guaranteed. He was always in the discussion but is a different style of player than Hargrave and Jones.
Tomlinson is 6-foot-3, 325 pounds and known as a run stopper. That’s something the Browns desperately needed after ranking 25th against the run (135.2 yards) and allowing at least 130 rushing yards 10 times in the last 14 games.
He’s being counted on to be one of the leaders of the transformation of the defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, who’s built his career with dominant front fours.
As much as the Browns needed to improve against the run, Tomlinson lacks the pass rush ability of Hargrave and Jones. Hargrave (6-2, 305) had 11 sacks last year and 7.5 in 2021. Jones (6-3, 281) has 18.5 sacks in the last three years and is reaching his prime but would’ve been a bit of a tweener in Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme.
Tomlinson can push the pocket and get to the quarterback — 2.5 sacks last year and 13 in his career — but the defense will operate differently with him than it would have with Jones as the signature signing. The drive to secure Tomlinson likely speaks to the urgency of Berry to address tackle with a proven commodity, as well as Schwartz’s flexibility to work his scheme around the strengths of his players.
The contract also shows Berry’s ability to adjust.
In his first three years in charge of the personnel department, he never made this kind of investment of resources on the interior of the defensive line. In 2021 he let Larry Ogunjobi leave in free agency, signed Malik Jackson to a one-year deal and took a flier on Malik McDowell, then went with Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryan — on a one-year deal — in last year’s failed experiment.
Elliott is Berry’s top draft choice at the position, taken No. 88 in the third round in 2020. Tommy Togiai was added in the fourth round in 2021 and Perrion Winfrey in the fourth in 2022. None has lived up to expectations, but the hope is Schwartz can draw more out of them, specifically Winfrey.
The Browns shot their shot Monday — even if it took awhile — then took a step back Tuesday as free agency continued. Linebacker Sione Takitaki agreed to return on a one-year deal worth approximately $2.6 million, but no one else was added.
That doesn’t mean Berry’s done, but he’s comfortable with the core of the roster and must manage the salary cap despite clearing space Monday by restructuring quarterback Deshaun Watson’s massive contract. He’ll be more judicious in finding a safety and a receiver with speed, looking for a balance of talent and price while keeping the draft in mind.
Even with the commitment to Tomlinson, Berry may not be done at defensive tackle. But the next addition wouldn’t have the same importance or bring the same angst.