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Five things to watch at this week’s NFL Combine

The scouting combine kicks off Tuesday and is the unofficial start to the offseason — even if the NFL calendar never really stops humming. The league congregates in Indianapolis to evaluate draft prospects and lay the groundwork for the start of the league year March 13.

The Browns will be well-represented, and general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski will meet with the media Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, respectively.

Here are five things to watch this week.

MOVING MONEY

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Before the Browns can add to the roster, they must make a few decisions.

First, they have to choose which contract or contracts to restructure to get under the salary cap and create enough room to sign free agents or make trades. Berry is adamant the front office has an edge in cap management and won’t have any trouble executing the moves needed to bolster the roster. The record $30 million jump in the salary cap announced last week was a bonus.

Plenty of the conversation at the combine will be about quarterback Deshaun Watson, particularly the progress of his rehab following surgery to repair a broken bone in the right shoulder. He’s expected to start throwing in March and the Browns are confident he’ll participate in the offseason program.

The more immediate news regarding Watson could be a contract restructure for the second straight offseason. The Browns owe him $46 million in salary but have the right to shift nearly all of that to a bonus, alleviating the forecasted $64 million charge to the cap. This would push the cap pain down the road but clear room for 2024.

Receiver Amari Cooper (cap hit of nearly $24 million, according to spotrac.com), cornerback Denzel Ward ($23.5 million) and running back Nick Chubb ($15.8 million) are other options.

Chubb’s deal will be redone regardless. He’s coming off two surgeries to repair a serious knee injury and might not be ready for the start of the season. Berry has vowed to find a solution with Chubb, which will likely include a lower cap number and incentives to recoup at least part of the original salary.

ON TARGETS

The free agent negotiating period starts March 11, two days before deals can be finalized at the start of the league year. The combine is the perfect place for clandestine conversations that set the foundation for signings and trades.

The Browns have established a strong roster that needs supplementation rather than reconstruction. The trip to the playoffs despite starting five quarterbacks is proof.

The vast majority of starters will return, but a few replacements and upgrades are needed. Defensive line and receiver figure to be the priorities.

Starting defensive end Za’Darius Smith and tackles Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst II and Shelby Harris are scheduled to become free agents. The line is the engine of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme and he used an eight-man rotation throughout the season, so quality depth is critical.

If Smith re-signs, end is set with Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett, Ogbo Okoronkwo and Alex Wright also returning. If Smith signs elsewhere, Emmanuel Ogbah, Romeo Okwara, A.J. Epenesa and Yannick Ngakoue are less expensive free agent alternatives.

The Browns invested heavily in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million) last offseason. Elliott is expected to leave in free agency and 2023 third-round pick Siaki Ika didn’t play much or have an impact as a rookie. Harris and/or Hurst could be re-signed, but a starter to pair with Tomlinson should be on the wish list.

Cincinnati’s D.J. Reader might be out of Cleveland’s price range, but Javon Kinlaw or veterans Sheldon Rankins, Fletcher Cox and Calais Campbell could fit.

Receiver has several interesting options. With Cooper coming back for what’s scheduled to be the final year of his contract, the Browns could sign someone to supplant or succeed him as the No. 1 wideout. What’s more likely is a cheaper veteran and another draft pick to join Cooper, Elijah Moore, Cedric Tillman and David Bell.

The latter scenario would eliminate high-priced free agents Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley and Michael Pittman Jr. from consideration. Gabriel Davis, Marquise Brown, Darnell Mooney, Curtis Samuel and Josh Reynolds are among the next tier who could interest the Browns.

STAY OR GO

The Browns can re-sign any of their free agents-to-be at any time or let them test the market. They have several decisions to make.

Backup quarterback Joe Flacco is the most interesting name on the list. He joined the team in November and threw 13 touchdowns while going 4-1 as the starter to finish the run to the playoffs. The Browns would love to have him back, but he might find a better opportunity to play and more money elsewhere.

Jacoby Brissett, who started 11 games for Cleveland in 2022, is another attractive option to back up Watson.

In addition to Smith at end and the trio of defensive tackles, starting linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki are slated to hit the market. Walker is a team captain but missed significant time with injury the last two seasons. Takitaki has developed into a reliable and versatile player who pairs nicely with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Takitaki or Walker returning makes sense but probably not both.

Punter Corey Bojorquez was solid if a bit inconsistent, and the Browns could decide to go cheaper. Running back Kareem Hunt said he’ll test the market and isn’t expected back. Tight end Harrison Bryant, guard Michael Dunn, center Nick Harris, left tackle Geron Christian, cornerback Mike Ford Jr., linebacker Matthew Adams and receiver/punt returner James Proche II are backups and role players who could return but aren’t a priority.

ON DRAFT

This will be the last year the Browns don’t have a first-round draft pick because of the trade for Watson. While the lack of premium picks has lessened the importance of and dimmed the spotlight on the draft, it still has great value.

Depending on how free agency goes, the Browns could look to the draft to upgrade receiver and the defensive line. A running back to join the mix, a tight end to complement Pro Bowler David Njoku and depth on the offensive line, in the secondary and at linebacker could also make sense.

Cleveland’s first pick is scheduled for No. 54 in the second round, although Berry traded his second-round pick the last two years. He has a total of seven picks — a third-rounder, two fifths, two sixths and a seventh.

Western Kentucky’s Malachi Corley, Michigan’s Roman Wilson, Florida’s Ricky Pearsall and USC’s Brenden Rice are among the receivers to watch on Day 2. Michigan’s Kris Jenkins, Florida State’s Braden Fiske and LSU’s Maason Smith are a few of the defensive tackles who could interest the Browns.

FIELD TRIP

For the first time since Stefanski’s first season in 2020, he’ll break in a significant portion of the coaching staff at the combine.

The Browns have changes at offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, running backs coach and tight ends coach. While Ken Dorsey, Andy Dickerson, Duce Staley and Tommy Rees have been working together in Berea for a couple of weeks, the combine raises the stakes.

It’ll be the first time each will work with Stefanski to scout and interview prospects, while the trip also presents the chance for staff bonding.

Stefanski is unlikely to have made a decision, but he’ll be asked if he or Dorsey will call the plays.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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