Tuesday March 11th will kick off the start of 2014 NFL free agency, the first day of the new league year and first opportunity for NFL franchises to begin improving their teams. The Cleveland Browns are in an envious position with more than $50 million in cap space available, and with a new coaching staff implementing schematic changes the Browns may be looking to make an impact in free agency on both sides of the ball.
When assessing the 2014 free agency list, it is clear that the Browns should be able to target multiple free agents who can impact the team in a variety of ways. The upcoming 20 players highlighted will have varying degrees of impact, as well as require different levels of financial compensation to acquire their services. A year ago, the Browns added defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and rush linebacker Paul Kruger early in the free agency process. They later added role players such as Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Quentin Groves, Gary Barnidge, and Chris Owens. The Browns added seven players that factored heavily into their plans for the 2013 season and beyond and they did so with even less cap room than they will have for the 2014 off-season. With a first time general manager in Ray Farmer and a first time head coach in Mike Pettine, the roster building strategy of the new regime is still an unknown. All the matters is that the Browns will have more than enough ammunition to target and acquire the players they want. My list of 21 free agents that make sense for Cleveland is broken up into 3 tiers, with the first tier being the most highly sought after.
Jairus Byrd – S, Buffalo Bills
Potential Contract: Byrd is said to be seeking in the $9-10 million per year range, which would make him the highest paid safety in the NFL.
What makes him fit: He has experience in Mike Pettine’s defensive scheme from their time in Buffalo a year ago, and is a better fit than T.J. Ward due to his coverage skills.
Impact on the starting line up: Immediate. Byrd will step into a leadership role in the secondary due to his ability and experience, as well as his familiarity with the defensive scheme. Byrd’s presence in the secondary should make life easier for Buster Skrine while also taking center fielder pressure off of Tashaun Gipson. The aggressive scheme and improved pass rush should also fit perfectly with the ball hawking style of play Byrd brings to the table.
Level of Risk: Low. The Browns are a team on the brink of contending and signing an All-Pro caliber player, in his prime, to play in a scheme in which he has had previous success, at a position which is considered a team need, simply makes too much sense at this point.
Eugene Monroe – OT, Baltimore Ravens
Potential Contract: Monroe is reportedly seeking $10 million per year and has been balking at the Baltimore Ravens offer of $8-9 million per. Once Monroe hits the open market, left tackle needy teams will drive up his asking price and likely bid him out of the Browns plans at right tackle.
What makes him fit: Monroe is one of the better offensive tackles in the NFL and would immediately upgrade the right side of the line of scrimmage. He has the athleticism necessary to thrive in a zone blocking scheme and is familiar with playing in the AFC North.
Impact on the starting line up: Monroe would be a nice upgrade over Mitchell Schwartz and would allow the Browns the flexibility to either move Schwartz for a player/draft pick or swing him inside to guard and further bolster the unit. Having left tackle talent protecting the right side of the line is a luxury that few offenses are afforded.
Level of Risk: Moderate. Monroe has not played on the right side of the line since his days at the University of Virginia, where he played right guard as a freshman. Outside of the positional change, which is far more challenging than it gets credit for, it would be a large portion of the teams cap space invested in the offensive line along with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack’s current and pending contracts.
Zane Beadles – OG, Denver Broncos
Potential Contract: Word in league circles is that Zane Beadles is looking for a 5 year deal, at roughly $5 million per season. Beadles could land a deal similar to what Denver gave Louis Vasquez in 2013(4 years, $23 million).
What makes him fit: Beadles, much like left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack, is a technician. While not a road grader in running game, Beadles relies on his athleticism, fundamentals, and is a very good fit in Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking system.
Impact on the starting line up: Beadles would slide into the left guard role from day 1. Which would move incumbent left guard John Greco either to the right side or utility role where he would be the top back-up to each interior offensive line position. Thomas, Beadles, and Mack would form one of the most efficient pass blocking left side of the line in the NFL.
Level of Risk: Low. $5 million per season is nothing to sneeze at, but Beadles looks to be a nice fit within the scheme and would be an upgrade over anything the Browns currently have on the roster at guard. There is always an argument that guards are not valued at a premium in the “ZBS”, but adding good players to the offensive line can never be considered a poor use of funds.
Julian Edelman – WR, New England Patriots
Potential Contract: There has been recent rumblings that the Patriots could look to keep Edelman in New England by releasing Danny Amendola and essentially giving his contract (5 years, $31 mil) to the former Kent State quarterback. If Edelman hits the open market he could command an annual salary of over $6 million per season.
What makes him fit: Edelman might be the best possible fit for the Cleveland Browns offense as a number 2 receiver and would essentially battle Jordan Cameron to be the 2nd option in the passing game behind emerging super star Josh Gordon. Edelman has reliable hands, knows how to get open against zone and man coverage, and is a terrific threat after the catch. He also offers special teams versatility and is an accomplished punt returner.
Impact on the starting line up: Edelman would/will have a clear path to the starting line up in Cleveland. Outside of Josh Gordon, there is not a single wide receiver on the Cleveland roster who has a guaranteed spot on the roster going into 2014. What remains to be seen is whether Edelman would help open things up for Gordon and Cameron, or if he would simply reap the benefits of so much defensive attention placed on the Browns pro bowl duo. Either way, Julian Edelman enhances the Cleveland Browns passing attack.
Level of Risk: Moderate. Edelman is going to command and ultimately get a hefty contract in free agency, and the wide receiver position is always one of the most disappointing when it comes to free agent acquisitions. Is Edleman another David Givens or Deion Branch? - player who capitalizes on Tom Brady’s excellence. Or is he a Wes Welker? - a guy who will get open and make plays regardless of scheme and support?
Golden Tate – WR, Seattle Seahawks
Potential Contract: At a minimum, Tate starting point will be somewhere above the 5 year $25 million deal that Philadelphia just gave Riley Cooper. Though, his age and well rounded style of play could ultimately land him in the $6-8 million per range.
What makes him fit: Reliability and a workmanlike approach. Tate may not be great at one particular facet of his game, but he does everything well, including blocking which is a must for a Kyle Shanahan offense. His run after the catch ability would add another wrinkle to the passing game that defenses must account for.
Impact on the starting line up: Similar to Julian Edelman, nothing would be standing in Tate’s way to the starting line up. If the Browns stay put with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, Tate’s ability to utilize intermediate routes and work the middle of the field will be taken advantage of.
Level of Risk: Moderate. While Tate’s price tag may be higher than the Browns would ultimately like to pay a #2 wide receiver, he has proven the past couple seasons that he can make an impact without being the focal point of the offense and will do the dirty work when the ball is not in his hands. Selfless players who compete day in and day out is a hell of a way to build your roster and could have a profound impact on a young receiver like Josh Gordon.
Lamarr Houston – DE, Oakland Raiders
Potential Contract: Lamarr Houston will likely start his negotiations at the 5 year, $42.5 million deal that the Vikings and Everson Griffen just agreed to. At just 26 years of age, Houston is a balanced defensive end with interior and edge rushing capabilities.
What makes him fit: A versatile player like Lamarr Houston would present Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil with a lot of options schematically. Former teammate Desmond Bryant could give the Browns an inside advantage on luring Houston over from the Raiders.
Impact on the starting line up: Huge. Signing Houston means the Browns would be moving on from Ahtyba Rubin and would be infusing more athleticism and disruptive capabilities into the starting defensive line. Houston is not as strong a run defender as Rubin, but he offers more big play potential in an aggressive hybrid scheme from Mike Pettine.
Level of Risk: Moderate. The Browns already have significant money wrapped up in their defensive line, but could make room for Houston’s contract by removing Ahtyba Rubin. Houston is a high energy, impact defensive lineman who will be highly sought after on the open market.