Cleveland Browns: Who’s next?
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns are rebuilding their roster and players on the wrong side of 30 are becoming endangered species. Who could be next to be released?
The Cleveland Browns have started their latest rebuilding efforts with a vigor and gusto that has left some fans feeling a bit stunned.
The team lost four starters in free agency – Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin and Tashaun Gipson – along with Johnson Bademosi. They will also, most likely, see linebacker Craig Robertson sign with another team.
They added to the exodus by releasing Karlos Dansby, Randy Starks, Dwayne Bowe and Jim Dray as the Browns are looking to get younger by bringing in players like Demario Davis, Rahim Moore, Alvin Bailey and Justin Tuggle on short-term deals to save cap space for when the team is ready to compete – hopefully in a couple of years.
While we don’t prescribe to the theory of “the team went 3-13 with those players, they can just as easily go 3-13 without them,” it’s not that difficult to see what the Browns are working to accomplish here.
And it may not be over just yet.
Among the quartet of released players, Dray is the youngest at age 29, with the other three being on what appears to be on the wrong side of 30.
Knowing that Father Time may soon come calling for more players in Berea, here’s a rundown of the Browns key players who are age 30 or older that could be next in line to be former Browns.
Quarterback Josh McCown (age 36)
Josh McCown joined the Browns in 2015 as a free agent and did just about everything that team could have wanted – other than stay healthy. He has two years left on his deal and carries a cap hit of just a little more than $5 million for each of the next two years. His dead cap money is just a bit more than $2.3 million this year, but falls to just $666,667 in 2017.
McCown is the oldest player on the roster, but it seems pretty unlikely that the Browns would release him. Even if/when the Browns draft a quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft, they may not be ready to start this fall and, just as importantly, are going to need someone to help teach them what it means to be an NFL quarterback during the week. McCown is far more suited to that role than Austin Davis or Connor Shaw, and even if the spends this fall as nothing more than an extension of the coaching staff, he is more than worth the salary. Likelihood of being released: Very Low
Punter Andy Lee (age 33)
Andy Lee joined the Browns in 2015 after being acquired in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. A three-time First Team All-Pro, Lee’s 2015 season was right in line with his career production, making him one of the few players on the roster that the coaches and fans did not have to worry about.
Lee is under contract for three more years, but only carries a cap hit of a little more than $2.8 million this year (that number goes up each of the next two years) and has no dead cap money left in his deal. Even though the Browns could easily absorb Lee’s cap hit this year, they also may struggle mightily this fall on offense, meaning that Lee will be called on even more than he was in 2015. Someone needs to punt and Lee’s production was fine last season, so no reason to make a move here. Likelihood of being released: Low
Cornerback Tramon Williams (age 32)
After losing Buster Skrine in free agency and watching Justin Gilbert knucklehead his way through his rookie season, the Browns signed Tramon Williams in free agency to play opposite Joe Haden. Williams was fine during the early part of the season, but once Haden went down with injuries, the nine-year veteran Williams struggled to move into the No. 1 cornerback role. Williams has two years left on his contract, carrying a $6.9 million cap hit and $3.8 million in dead cap space this year. His cap hit rises to $7.5 million in 2017, but his dead cap space drops to just $500,000.
If Gilbert was interested in being an actual NFL cornerback, then Williams would very likely be getting a call from executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown. Even without Gilbert contributing, the Browns are deep at cornerback with Charles Gaines, Pierre Desir and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (possibly) able to take on a bigger role, meaning that Williams’ days in Cleveland could be growing short. Likelihood of being released: Medium
Safety Donte Whitner (age 30)
Donte Whitner has seen his game continue to decline since arriving in Cleveland as a free agent in 2014. His career is following a familiar path for “big-hitting” safeties as he is now a player who simply runs into opposing wide receivers and running backs, rather than trying to wrap them up and make a tackle. He has two years left on his contract with a cap hit of $8.45 million and a dead cap space of $4.5 million in 2016; in 2017 those numbers are $8.45 million and $2.25 million.
If the Browns were to move on from Whitner, the current options on the roster to replace him are second-year player Ibraheim Campbell and … that’s it. While Campbell showed some flashes as a rookie, it could be a big jump to believe he could take over a starting role. Having said that, Whitner is not going to get any better with age and the Browns have the cap space to rip off the band-aid this year if the want to. Likelihood of being released: Medium to pretty good.
Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (age 30)
Desmond Bryant has been the Browns best defensive lineman since signing a five-year deal with the club in 2013. He has started 41 out of a possible 48 games, and with 14.5 sacks has been one of the few Cleveland players who has been able to get to the quarterback. He has a cap hit of $7 million with $2 million in dead cap space in 2016; those numbers go to $8 million and $1 million in the final year of his current deal.
The Browns are not very deep at the moment at defensive end, with John Hughes being the only other defensive lineman on the current roster with more than one year of experience. Bryant was also on the roster the last time that defensive coordinator Ray Hughes was running the show, which should be a positive in Bryant’s favor. Likelihood of being released: Relatively low.
Guard John Greco (age 30)
Before the start of free agency, John Greco seemed like a viable candidate to be released as even though he is a solid player, he was the weakest link along the offensive line. Greco has two years left on his current deal, carrying a cap hit of a little more than $2.9 million (with no dead cap space) in 2016, which drops to just $975,000 in 2017.
However, once the Browns lost 40 percent of their starting offensive line (and possibly more if the team ultimately trades Joe Thomas) and the team not being able to count on second-year lineman Cameron Erving, Greco’s spot on the team has become a bit more stable. He can either move to center if Erving can’t cut it, or hold down the guard spot between Erving and right tackle to be named later. Likelihood of being released: Low.
Linebacker Paul Kruger (age 30)
After a solid season in 2014, when he had a career-high 11 sacks, Paul Kruger saw his production drop in 2015 as he was mysteriously asked to drop into coverage as much as, if not more, than he was asked to rush the passer. Kruger has two years left on his current contract, with a salary cap hit of $7.7 million and a dead cap space of $2.4 million this season; those numbers are $8.2 million and $1.2 million, respectively, in 2017.
While Kruger was not very productive under Ray Horton in 2013, he still represents one of the few players on the Browns who has shown he knows how to rush the passer. It is conceivable that the Browns could be willing to turn over the pass-rushing linebacker spot to second-year player Nate Orchard (who can’t do much more than rush the passer), but Kruger should still have at least one more good year in him. Likelihood of being released: Relatively Low.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (age 30)
Andrew Hawkins was unable to follow up his 2014 season (63 receptions and 824 yards) as he dealt with concussions in 2015 that limited him to just eight games. He has two years left on his contract and carries low cap hits of $1 million in 2016 and $1.8 million the following year.
The wide receiver position is not an area where the Browns are currently flush with talent. They lost Benjamin in free agency and while many fans expect Josh Gordon to be reinstated, that is far from a guarantee. Even if the Browns draft a wide receiver next month, there should be a spot on the roster for Hawkins if he can return to health. Likelihood of being released: Relatively Low.
Next: Browns draft profile: Will Fuller
Free agency is underway and the NFL Draft is on the horizon. Be sure to follow Dawg Pound Daily to keep up with everything the Browns are trying to do while they go through their latest biennial rebuilding project.