Grading every major Cleveland Browns move during first wave of free agency

Taking a look back at a busy week in Cleveland.

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers / Kevin Sabitus/GettyImages
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It's been one week since NFL free agency unofficially started, and what a week it's been. Even though the new league year didn't start until Wednesday afternoon, signings were already being announced as early as Monday morning and, if you can believe it, there are already some tampering accusations floating around. And while the Browns weren't the biggest spenders of the first week, they made more than a couple notable moves that'll have an impact somewhere down the line this season. There figures to be at least a couple more moves in the Browns' future, but until those happen, here's how their first (and second, kind of) wave of free agency looks on paper.


Grading every Cleveland Browns move during first wave of free agency

1. Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints: C+

Deal: one-year, $4 million

Given Deshaun Watson's injury history, the Browns needed a higher-end backup quarterback that has the potential to do a little more than just tread water for a few weeks if needed. And fair or not, it probably makes sense that the Browns didn't want to deal with a Flacco-Watson debate if Cleveland got off to a bad start next season. Winston hasn't exactly played a lot lately – he's only made 10 starts since the 2019 season – but as far as backups go, isn't the worst option. The optics of not bringing Flacco back after last year make this deal look worse than it is, but from a roster building perspective, having Winston as the backup is fine.

2. Za'Darius Smith, DE, Cleveland Browns: B-

Deal: two-years, $23 million

The Browns needed a pass rusher to pair with Myles Garrett, and bringing Smith back on a short deal made just as much sense as going into the free agent market to bring someone else in. He wasn't hugely effective last year – he only had 5.5 sacks, the lowest number since his rookie year (excluding 2021 when he only played in one game) – but did appear in 16 games for 5th time in six seasons. He's getting up there age-wise, but it's not like Cleveland is relying on him to be the game-wrecker of their defense. There's something to be said about valuing continuity, and bringing Smith back for another year or two fits that mold.

3. Nyheim Hines, RB, Buffalo Bills/Indianapolis Colts: B+

Deal: one-year, $3.5 million

Considering what other teams spent on running backs this offseason, a one-year deal for under $4 million feels like a steal. It's certainly not a splashy signing, and probably just a fill-in for the weeks that the Browns spend waiting for Nick Chubb to return, but Hines brings a lot of versatility to the roster. He's a catch-passing back that can also contribute on special teams, which is more than enough to make the final 53. It doesn't totally solve the Browns' questions about who's going to get reps in the run game, but if Cleveland's going to try and replace Chubbs' production in the aggregate, Hines helps there.

4. Tyler Huntley, QB, Baltimore Ravens: C-

Deal: one-year, vet minimum

A weird signing. So the Browns are going into camp with Watson, Winston, Huntley, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson? It's not like they'll all be on the roster once Week 1 rolls around, but it's still kind of puzzling to see them load up on this many backup QBs. Having to deal with so many injuries at that position last season clearly left a mark. The bet here is that Huntley doesn't ever make a start for the Browns.

5. Jordan Hicks, LB, Minnesota Vikings: B

Deal: two-year, $8 million

The good news is that the Browns are getting a linebacker who's on a run of five straight seasons with 100+ tackles per year. He only appeared in 13 games last year, but has usually been fairly dependable – he played in at least 16 games in each of the previous four seasons before 2023. He also brings plenty of veteran leadership after being a captain with the Vikings. But man, the Browns defense is old.