The off-season is about to end. Training Camp is about to begin. The season not far behind that. Yet, as the Cleveland Browns embark on their first season under Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine, the 2015 off-season looms large. The Browns could have up to 9 starts as either unrestricted or restricted free agents. One of the big reasons the Browns have been somewhat conservative this off-season in spending is related to these players. Even a trade for Andre Johnson is impacted by the future.
The Browns currently have an estimated $24 million in cap space this year. That space is able to be rolled over into next year. Any signing or trade that brings in salary slashes into the cap space for next year. Rolling that $24 million over to next year creates a huge advantage for the team with so many roster decisions to make. We will look at all 9 free agents, in order of priority for the team. Expect discussions to go on during the 2014 season on extensions for some of these players.
- Jordan Cameron - Cameron had a huge breakout season for the Browns last year. In the Kyle Shanahan system the tight end has always played a huge role. Cameron, after the Jimmy Graham contract, will be looking for a huge contract. The Browns will be equally as motivated to get a deal done with Cameron as he will be a cornerstone of their offense. If required the Browns will save their Franchise Tag for Cameron, but hope to get a deal done to use on a player later in this list.
- Jabaal Sheard - Sheard had a good season last year and provides quality pass rush and run stopping defense. Transitioning to OLB in the 3-4 was new for Sheard but he made the move smoothly. With the way Pettine likes to play defense Sheard could be a terror, even if his numbers aren’t huge. Reports are that the Browns have started negotiations with Sheard but those could be tough. Sheard’s numbers haven’t been big enough to command a big salary, but pass rushers always get over paid. Sheard’s experience in both even and odd fronts also show his versatility.
- Brian Hoyer - Hoyer is currently slated to start at QB for the Browns. We understand that the Browns have attempted to sign Hoyer to an extension already. It makes a ton of sense for the team to try to lock up a veteran who can start but can be a solid veteran behind Johnny Manziel. For Hoyer it makes little sense to commit to the Browns long term. If he has a breakout season he could be line to start long term somewhere for good money. The Browns likely hope to have the Franchise/Transition Tag to use on Hoyer if this is the case. This is similar to what the San Diego Chargers did with Drew Brees as they developed Philip Rivers.
- Tashaun Gipson - Gipson is a restricted free agent, or he might be higher on this list. Gipson has a chance to make huge impact plays in Pettine’s defense that emphasizes the free safety position. Currently Gipson is underrated nationally but the Browns see a big season ahead for him. Restricted free agents rarely move in the NFL and the Browns should be able to lock him up for a few years. Even if Gipson has an average season expect the Browns to make sure to lock him up.
- Buster Skrine - Skrine will battle first round pick Justin Gilbert, if he ever signs his rookie contract, for the starting job across from Joe Haden. In today’s passing league expect all 3 corners on the field a lot. Skrine doesn’t fit Pettine’s mold of bigger corners but is a hard working player bound to earn his respect. Skrine, with his speed and quickness, is a perfect fit on the inside of a defense. If Skrine and Gilbert can hold their ground the Browns defense will shine, and Skrine’s price tag will go up. The Browns will be judicious but expect them to often spend money on this position with Pettine in charge.
- Miles Austin - Austin is likely a one year starter for the Browns given the Josh Gordon situation. Yet Austin could be a big keep if he is able to stay healthy. The Browns seem unlike to spend huge money in free agency, or a high draft pick, on receivers. If they are able to bring back a healthy Austin to help mentor Gordon and the rest of the young receiving core they will look to do so. If Austin struggles to stay on the field the team will just move on.
- Billy Cundiff - He is a kicker. He has value but they are also often replaced quickly. For the Browns, with their ball control offense, the kicker has higher value. Cundiff showed he could take over for Phil Dawson in front of the lake. The Browns won’t want to spend huge here but Cundiff, who bounced around after his highlights with the Baltimore Ravens, may want to take security over testing the market. If Cundiff struggles this year he could be cut quickly and replaced by any number of kickers on the market.
- Jason Pinkston - Pinkston is in competition for the right guard starting spot. He likely will be considered a swing player, 6th offensive lineman. Early reports are positive that Pinkston could excel in the Zone Blocking Scheme. With the number of linemen on the roster, and the Browns draft considerations coming up, the team is likely to move on from Pinkston if he gets a big offer. Paying a good sign amount of money to Pinkston with Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Joel Bitonio‘s contract also on the balance sheet would not be a good allocation of resources.
- Ahtyba Rubin - Rubin is a fan favorite for his hard work and seemingly coming out of nowhere to make a big impact. With the depth on the defensive line this is likely his last season. It is possible that the team could cut him at the end of Training Camp as well. Rubin is a high character/motor player but with Billy Winn, John Hughes, Armonty Bryant and others he may be squeezed out earlier then 2015. The Browns will likely go with a younger player, even if Rubin could be had cheaper.
The Browns will have a number of other free agents that could impact depth but none that have a chance to be a starter as TC starts. Expect the Browns to try to work out contracts with Cameron, Sheard, Hoyer and Skrine during the season. Sheard and Skrine seem the most likely to be able to work out deals while Cameron and Hoyer’s agents will likely push their clients to the brink of free agency to find the best place/deal for them.
How would you prioritize these 9? Different then we did here? Who are you most worried that we may lose?