The Cleveland Browns will likely be fiscally responsible in free agency this year. But if they want to make a splash, here are five players to keep an eye on.
The Cleveland Browns will enter free agency on March 9 with around $105 million, give or take, in available cap space to spend.
While there has been some mild speculation that the Browns will “make it rain” in free agency, that idea would seemingly go against the current thinking of executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson.
But, just for fun, what if the Brown and Jackson decided to crank open owner Jimmy Haslam’s check book and make a splash next month?
Here is a quick list, based off of Pro Football Focus’ rankings of the best potential free agents, that play key positions – and are in the right age group – that the Browns could look to sign.
Dont’a Hightower, linebacker, New England Patriots
"If the Patriots aren’t able to re-sign the former first-round pick, expect Hightower to land himself a large contract with several teams competing for his services. Consistent each of his five years and utilized by New England to highlight his strengths, Hightower rushed the passer on 29.4 percent of his pass snaps, most of any ILB in the NFL. The concern for Hightower is that his play took a noticeable step back once Jamie Collins was traded, though still was able to be a productive player."
What better way to get Hightower back on top of his game than to reunite him with Collins?
Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs
"Seven years into his career, Berry has five seasons under his belt in which he played in at least 1,000 snaps; he’s earned a positive overall grade in all five of those seasons, with four of them earning him exceptional grades. Opposing QBs had just a 52.3 QB Rating when targeting their receiver while Berry was the primary defender in coverage, the sixth-lowest rate among all safeties who were on the field for at least 25 percent of their teams’ defensive snaps."
The Browns need help all across the defensive, but the need is most acute at the safety position, where the team resorted to playing Tramon Williams during parts of the 2016 season. Berry is hands down the best safety that may be available and should be a top priority for Cleveland.
Melvin Ingram, edge defender, Los Angeles Chargers
"Over the first few years of his career, Ingram was not a game-changer that the Chargers had hoped he would be after selecting him in the first round of the 2012 draft. It’s taken him a while but the last two years he has significantly improved his game as a full-time player. Ingram was tied for the third-most total pressures among edge defenders in 2016 with 72, the same amount he tallied in his first three seasons combined. The biggest area of improvement this past year was his run defense, where he had a career-high 19 run stops after previously grading as marginally above-average during his first four seasons. That combination led to him earning the sixth-highest overall grade among edge defenders in 2016. He’s primarily played at outside linebacker for the Chargers and would fit best in a similar system. Ingram will be age 28 when the 2017 season kicks off. His relatively young age and performance trending upward the past two years give him the edge for the top spot in this year’s free agent class."
The Browns have not had a dominant edge defender since Clay Matthews was plying his trade at old Municipal Stadium. While many expect them to solve the problem by selecting Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, if they bring Ingram on board it would free up the Browns to draft a quarterback and finally solve another longstanding issue.
J.C. Tretter, center, Green Bay Packers
"Tretter is somewhat of a wildcard, given that he’s barely played a full season’s worth of snaps in his four-year career. However, when he has been on the field, he’s performed pretty well. After starting just a handful of games at the end of the 2015 season, Tretter was able to unseat Corey Linsley in the offseason to take over as the starting center for the Packers. Through eight weeks, it looked like Green Bay had made the correct choice, as Tretter was the fifth-ranked center at the time, but a knee injury abruptly ended his season. Whoever is willing to give Tretter a chance likely will end up with a solid starter. He may also provide some positional flexibility, since the Packers’ original plan was to used him at guard."
Fans spent most of the season complaining about the Browns offensive line when, in fact, it was better than advertised. The one undeniable hole is at center, however, as Cameron Erving spent the season showing that his NFL future is clearly at tackle. Tretter could solidify the center position and allow the Browns to move Erving to right tackle, where he can battle Shon Coleman for the starter’s role.
Kawann Short, defensive tackle Carolina Panthers
"At the top of another about-to-be-free-agent list, what has already been said about Short is extensive. His production the past four seasons has been impressive and his ability to defend the run and disrupt the pocket rushing the passer is at a near-elite level — 21 sacks and 24 hits over the past two seasons while racking up 77 defensive stops are all top 10 marks among all interior defenders. Short still hasn’t put together a complete season, as he had some ups and downs in 2015 and started 2016 really slowly. Once he puts it all together, Short has potential to break into the elite level and into the top 20 of PFF’s top 101 players."
Pair Short with Danny Shelton in the middle of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ 4-3 defense (when he goes to that personnel grouping) and suddenly the Browns have the makings of a true game-changing defense.
OK, let’s take a step back from fantasy world and into reality. The Browns are not a team that is going to be handing out huge contracts to multiple free agents. It has been shown repeatedly over the years that teams that “win” in free agency rarely win when it actually matters. Smart teams don’t go wild in free agency and Brown is trying to turn Cleveland into a smart team.
But it does illustrate that there may be some real talent available at positions where the Browns desperately need help, so a free agent signing (or two) is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.