DraftBrowns.com Writer, Ryan Alton
By now, most of you know NFL Free Agency is set to begin on Tuesday, March 12 at 4:00pm EST. A new rule passed by NFL owners last year allows for teams and player agents to enter into negotiations prior to this period (March 9-11), but no one can officially be signed until the clock strikes four on the 12th. With a new regime in place (again), the approach to Free Agency will be another “wait and see” type of process for Browns fans.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III has reiterated time and time again that the team will be “selective” in free agency and will instead place a strong emphasis on building through the draft, much like former General Manager Tom Heckert did in his three years in Cleveland. It makes sense given that new CEO Joe Banner, who hired Heckert in Philadelphia, shares the same philosophy and Haslam, who spent four years as a minority owner with the Steelers, watched and learned from the Rooney family; who has historically run a model franchise in Pittsburgh.
It’s typically not the approach that fans, especially those of a struggling team, want to hear because they want to get better as soon as possible. Acquiring big name players who have a reputation for being successful in the NFL already, instead of waiting for draft picks to go through a traditional learning curve, seems like the fastest way to do that. Unfortunately, with that comes a hefty price. You wanna get big name talent without waiting for it develop over time? You’re gonna pay for it.
Not since the days of Phil “Big Money” Savage have the Browns traditionally made a huge splash in free agency. And we all saw how well that worked out. GMs that are deluded into thinking they’re just a few players away from a Super Bowl run will spend a lot of money (cap space), and sometimes draft picks, to put their team over the edge. But if you’re going to swing for the fences of NFL Free Agency, you better make sure you hit a home run. Strike out and you’ll be out of a job sooner rather than later.
It sounds like the Browns, despite increasing whispers from some in the national media, will maintain a relatively low profile in free agency and choose to focus their efforts on being wise with their cap space while maximizing the value of their draft picks. That’s not to say Haslam and Co. won’t make a peep during free agency, but the moves that are made will likely be financially responsible and club friendly. And with approximately $30 million in cap space (after rookie allotment and a few player extensions), in addition to the fact that the Browns currently lack a second round draft pick, I think you can make the case that there will be some activity in Berea. But there’s a big difference between being active and spending a ton of cash (i.e. overpaying for someone else’s cast-offs). It’s important that fans understand the difference between the two.
With that said, I tried to narrow down the list of possible free agents the Browns might target based on factors like age, production and scheme fit. But the biggest factor of all may be price and, frankly, it’s nearly impossible to guess how this regime will react to the market presented to them.
Arizona Cardinals OLB, Quentin Groves - Drafted by the Jaguars in the second round of the 2008 Draft (52nd overall), Groves has largely underperformed during his time in the league, after drawing comparisons to DeMarcus Ware coming out of Auburn. In his first four years in the league, playing for both Jacksonville and Oakland, he only registered 2.5 sacks, but in 2012, his first in Arizona under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, he notched 4 sacks despite only starting in seven games.
Groves is not a starter. He hasn’t started 16 games yet in his career, though he has played in all 16 in 4 out of his 5 seasons in the league. He will be 29 when the season starts and likely wouldn’t command much in the way of salary. And the Horton connection shouldn’t be overlooked. If he thinks he can get something out of Groves the way he did in 2012, then this could end up being a quality depth signing as the Browns transition back to a 3-4 defense in 2013.
Baltimore Ravens ILB, Dannell Ellerbe/OLB, Paul Kruger: With the Ravens projected to re-sign Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco, one or both of these two up and coming players on the Ravens defense should become available in free agency. Ellerbe (92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble in 2012) has been a quality depth player for the Ravens but seems poised to secure a starting role, if not in Baltimore, then somewhere. He started 7 games for the Ravens in 2012 and is only 27 years old. He shined throughout the playoffs and had a great game against San Francisco’s offense in SBXLVII. If the Ravens have the option of re-signing one of the two, I’d put my money on Ellerbe to stay in Baltimore.
Kruger (42 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception in 2012) will likely demand more money than Ellerbe and that is why the Ravens may allow him to go elsewhere. On paper, he’d be a perfect fit for the Browns but I’m not sure, given Haslam’s comments about not making a “big splash”, that they would be willing to sign him to the amount of money he is rumored to be looking for. His 9 sacks in 2012 jumps out but many of those were playing opposite of Pro Bowl DE/OLB Terrell Suggs. The question with Kruger is whether he’s capable of replicating that production when offenses aren’t concentrating on double-teaming the guy on the other side. Can he be for Jabaal Sheard what Suggs was for him? That’s an expensive question that the Browns may choose not to answer.
Buffalo Bills G, Andy Levitre - Levitre has started every game for the Bills since he was drafted in the second round (51st overall) in 2009. At age 26, he is about to enter the prime of his career. I’m hard pressed to see why the Bills would let him walk in free agency but with only $16.7 million of cap space available and players such as FS Jairus Byrd also needing to be re-signed, the Bills may opt to let Levitre go.
The Browns desperately need someone who can provide better run blocking on the interior of the line and Levitre, while not a road-grater, is effective run blocking in short yardage situations. According to Mike Clay of ProFootballFocus.com, the Browns (tied with the Buccaneers) averaged an NFL-worst 1.7 yards per carry with less than three yards to go for a first down in 2012. Simply put, that is pathetic and there’s little doubt Rob Chudzinski will want to improve on that average in 2013.
Buffalo Bills FS, Jairus Byrd - I highly doubt the Bills will let Byrd (76 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 5 interceptions in 2012) go without re-signing him, but if they did, he’d be a perfect fit next to TJ Ward in the Browns secondary. At age 26 without a history of injuries, I’d be willing to talk big money with him if I were the Browns. I’d be very surprised to see him available on March 12th.
Carolina Panthers DT, Dwan Edwards - Edwards (52 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble in 2012) is 31 but could be a good depth signing for the Browns to bolster their front 7 on defense. Coming off a one-year contract with Carolina where he started in 14 games, perhaps he made enough of an impression on Chud to garner consideration in Cleveland. Helping Edwards is the fact that he played in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense in his first five years in the league.
Carolina Panthers CB, Captain Munnerlyn – At only 24 years of age, Munnerlyn is only just beginning to come into his own, after being drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 Draft (216 overall) by Carolina. He started 11 out of 16 games in 2012 for the Panthers and registered 61 tackles and 2 interceptions. At 5’8” he is a bit undersized but possesses the physicality that Ray Horton covets from his “small guys that can hit”. He is also a valuable commodity on Special Teams as the Panthers Punt Returner. If the Browns choose to let Josh Cribbs go in Free Agency, Munnerlyn could fill the void there. While other big name corners like Brent Grimes and Nnamdi Asomugha (assuming the Eagles don’t pay his bonus) are given all the attention during the first wave of signings, Munnerlyn could be a solid low-key addition as the Browns look to reunite him with Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland. By the way, Carolina is currently $13.7 million OVER the salary cap.
Chicago Bears DE, Henry Melton – Melton, if he’s not re-signed by Chicago, will be a highly sought after free agent. In 2012, he combined for 44 tackles, 6 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He is only 26 years old and has notched 15.5 sacks in his first three seasons in the league. Those totals should only improve as his career goes on. A former running back, he has the speed to rush the passer off the edge yet plays with the force to disrupt the middle. Like Kruger, he has benefitted from having a dynamic pass rusher opposite him in Julius Peppers. The Bears have a long list of players scheduled to hit the market as Unrestricted Free Agents, but few with the promise and talent Melton has displayed early in his career. With $10.3 million in cap space available, I’d be surprised to see Melton hit the open market, but it may ultimately depend on if a team with more flexibility is willing to sign him for more.
Dallas Cowboys OLB, Anthony Spencer – With the Cowboys switching away from the 3-4 employed the last few years by former Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan, Spencer (95 tackles, 11 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 2012) may get his walking papers in Big D. The most logical fit for him might be to follow Ryan to New Orleans, however the Saints are currently sitting at $20.6 million OVER the salary cap. They would need to do some masterful restructuring in order to sign a guy with Spencer’s ability in Free Agency. The Browns obviously seem like a logical fit but the question will be what kind of price he commands given his production and the fact that he is still sitting on the right side of 30.
Detroit Lions DE, Cliff Avril – Avril (35 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 2012) is another option the Browns may consider in Free Agency but, like Melton, he would likely command starter money and may be better as a 4-3 DE than an OLB in a 3-4. It all depends on how Ray Horton thinks he could use each guy independently rather than trying to fit him into a certain scheme. Coming out of Purdue, he was projected to be a better strongside linebacker that could work in space rather than rushing the edge from a 3-point stance. If that is still the case, then it may be worth the Browns time to consider Avril.
Houston Texans DE, Connor Barwin – Barwin doesn’t have the stats (44 tackles, 3 sacks in 2012) that some of the other pass rushers due for free agency have, but that will likely push him into the second wave of the player signing period where I have a feeling the Browns are most likely to pounce. At 26 years old, he has started all 16 games for the Texans the past two seasons after being drafted in the second round (46th overall) in the 2009 Draft. His profile coming out of the University of Cincinnati describes him as the “consummate team player” and a “relentless pass rusher”. Barwin could just be exactly the type of player the Browns have targeted in Free Agency.
Well, that’s a start. The fact is, with a flat cap of $121 million in 2013 and many teams struggling to get under it by March 12th, there will be a long list of players available to sign in Free Agency. This reality will provide even more incentive for the Browns to take their time and let the market come to them instead of diving head over heels into the murky waters of NFL free agency. I’ll be back with more possible targets as more teams make cuts and some guys are re-signed all in the build-up to this highly anticipated time of year.