The 2012 NFL free agent class is loaded with talent, and the Cleveland Browns could stand to gain quite a bit by inking a few. Currently, the Browns have more holes than a homeless guy’s shirt, so the possibilities this offseason are endless. Mike Holmgren and crew would prefer building entirely through the draft, but with a reported $20 million+ in cap space this offseason, it would be foolish to not try to add a couple of starters to the roster. Below, I have grouped a list of free agents that I would love to see play in Cleveland (and some that I might have to begrudgingly accept playing in Cleveland):
The “If These Guys are in Brown and Orange, You’re Probably Dreaming” Group
*Note: I didn’t waste anyone’s time and mention Mario Williams in this group.
1. OG Carl Nicks, New Orleans Saints – Nicks, 26, is one of the best guards in the business. With the uncertainty of Eric Steinbach’s future due to a major back injury, Nicks certainly makes sense for the Browns. A two-time Pro Bowler, Nicks would provide the Browns’ offensive line a major boost. However, Nicks is going to command big time money. In 2010, the Saints re-signed guard Jahri Evans – who at the time had a similar resume as Nicks – to a seven-year, $56.7 million contract. I think we all just read that and realized the Browns are unlikely to make a move on perhaps this year’s best available free agent.
2. WR Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers – Jackson, 28, has big-play ability that the Browns desperately need. If the Browns feel as though they are going to make a move to ensure drafting Robert Griffin III, an exceptional deep-ball passer, then Jackson will provide an ideal target. Generally, free agent wide receivers struggle initially to find chemistry with their new quarterback. Yet, if the Browns plan on bringing in a rookie quarterback, then chemistry must be built all-around and bringing in a big-name receiver could likely only help the rookie quarterback. However, if Colt McCoy is the quarterback next season, signing Jackson is not the right fit given McCoy’s inability to get the ball deep downfield. Let’s be real though – with such a long list of viable free agent wide receivers, Jackson probably isn’t going to be the Browns’ guy and will likely sign with a contender.
3. CB Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans – Finnegan, 28, is one of the hardest-hitting cornerbacks in the league and would help fill a major need for the Browns. Alongside Joe Haden, Finnegan would instantly help create a top-five cornerback duo in the NFL. Again, Holmgren and company is going to be reluctant to make a big-name signing, but Finnegan makes decent sense because the transition into a new system is easier for a cornerback than most other positions. In 2010, a poll naming the NFL’s dirtiest players listed Finnegan as the sixth dirtiest player in the league, to which Finnegan replied, “I’m number [six] right now, but I’m aspiring to one day hopefully be No. 1.” Call me crazy, but that’s a guy I want on the defensive side of the ball. Also worth mentioning: Sheldon Brown is old, slow, and bad at defense.
The “So You’re Sayin’ There’s a Chance” Group
4. DE Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts – The Indianapolis Star’s Mike Chappell expects free agent defensive end Robert Mathis to be re-signed by the Colts, either through a new long-term contract or the franchise tag. However, if Mathis, 30, is free to test free agency, it may be hard to find a better fit for the Browns defense. Mathis is a ferocious pass rusher who has put up consistent numbers his entire career alongside Dwight Freeney. While many question whether his productivity is the product of Freeney’s demand for double teams, Mathis would unquestionably provide the Browns with a leader on the defensive side of the ball who would complement Jabaal Sheard perfectly.
5. WR Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts – Wayne, 32, is the other big name free agent in Indianapolis. While many may scratch their heads at the thought of bringing in a wide receiver with Wayne’s advanced age, it is important to remember that Wayne is a workout warrior who many feel has plenty left in the tank. Wayne is smart, hard-working, and productive. The Browns wide receiving corps is vastly immature by NFL standards. Wayne would provide the Browns with a great leader on the offensive side of the ball who has won quite a few games in his career. Plus, it couldn’t hurt to have a wide receiver that most football fans in the world have actually heard of before.
6. DE Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions – Re-signing Avril is a top priority for the Detroit Lions this offseason, but there is no guarantee that a deal will be reached. Avril, 25, is an excellent pass rusher who would look great opposite Sheard. Despite Ndamukong Suh being more of a household name, it was often Avril who came up with big stops and sacks at key moments for the Lions last season.
7. WR Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints – Colston, 28, is a great route runner who, when healthy, is highly productive, especially in the red zone. He has great hands and has played for a winning team his entire career. The only issue I have with Colston is how his skills don’t complement Greg Little quite as well as other free agent receivers. Little struggled with deep routes last season, and Colston doesn’t stretch the field quite like Jackson or Wayne. Still, getting Colston and a more bang-for-your-buck speedster could help the Browns immensely.
8. LB Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons – Lofton, 25, is a solid outside linebacker who was fifth in the NFL in tackles last season. Lofton will likely seek a contract similar to New York Jets linebacker David Harris, who received a four-year, $36 million deal ($29 million guaranteed) last offseason. That sort of deal likely will prevent the Browns from making a move on him, but Lofton would be a huge upgrade to their average linebacker corps.
The “This Might Be the Best They’re Going to Get” Group
9. WR Mario Manningham, New York Giants – Manningham, 25, made quite a name for himself in Super Bowl XLVI, grabbing five balls for 73 yards and making the game’s most iconic catch, a sideline beauty in the fourth quarter. Manningham is from Warren, so coming home might be an attractive option for him, particularly when you consider he’d likely step in as the Browns’ No. 1 receiver. Yet, for all we know, he may be as bored with Cleveland as many of its natives, and he could want to stay away at all costs. I personally feel that Manningham’s stock is slightly overvalued currently, and the Browns may be wise to focus on getting a less risky option to step in as their top wide receiver.
10. OT Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills – Bell is a solid offensive tackle who is capable of protecting a quarterback’s blindside. Bell is an intriguing free agent, as he would step in as the Browns’ right tackle with said left tackle talent. Buffalo’s line went significantly downhill after Bell got hurt this season, and he would surely help the Browns’ frustrating right side of the line. Besides, the guy is Karl Malone’s son (we think), so that has to be a reason to get him, right?
11. CB Brandon Carr, Kansas City Chiefs – Carr, just 25 years old, is a stout run stopper and has shown improvement in coverage during each of his four seasons. He had a career-high four interceptions last season, though his tackles dropped below his usual 60+. The Chiefs just signed former Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt, so Carr is likely on his way out of Kansas City. Did I mention Sheldon Brown is old, a liability, and makes Ted Washington look fast?
12. WR Stevie Johnson, Buffalo Bills – Johnson has been productive early in his career and has the swagger that Browns receivers miserably lack. Johnson would provide a nice deep threat for the Browns without them having to break the bank for a big name like Colston or Jackson. Because of the depth at wide receiver in free agency, Johnson might be a nice value pickup for the Brown and Orange.
The “This Is Probably the Kind of Guy the Browns are Actually Going to Get” Group
13. WR Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints – A 27-year-old former first-round pick who never quite reached his potential due to injuries and a case of the dropsies. This sounds right up the Browns alley, right? Meachem is a tremendous talent but has never had the opportunity to fully showcase it due to the depth at wide receiver that Drew Brees and the Saints have. However, Meachem would likely come into Cleveland as the No. 1 wide receiver, and that scares me.
14. WR Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys – Robinson is a speedster who made big noise for America’s Team last season, racking up 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. Robinson also was a member of the Rams during Pat Shurmur’s time in St. Louis, so a relationship already exists. But again, like Meachem, Robinson as the Browns’ No. 1 doesn’t make me feel that much better about their dismal offense.
15. QB Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers – Please don’t do it, Tom Heckert. I beg of you, please don’t sign Matt Flynn.
16. DE Israel Idonije, Chicago Bears – Idonije is a 31-year-old run stopper who could add experience to our defensive line. However, in a 4-3 defensive scheme, it is important to get pressure on the quarterback from the defensive end position, so Idonije, who had a career high five sacks last season, might not be what Tom Heckert is looking for. But at least he’s better than Jayme Mitchell, but that might not be saying much.
There you have it. This could be an exhilarating free agency period for the Browns. Signing any combination of these players – except Matt Flynn – would likely excite Browns fans big time. Now fans just have to cross their fingers and hope that the Browns spend the money necessary to do so.