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The Browns' $40 million-plus salary cap room makes them a player in AFC North free agency

Feb 12, 2013 -- 6:00am

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By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

Double dipping: That’s what Carmen Policy called it. Definition: Raiding a valuable player from a division rival in free agency.

The Browns – now being operated exclusively by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, as owner Jimmy Haslam returns to running his first love, Pilot Flying J – are contemplating a two- or three-pronged double dip when free agency commences on March 12. Their $40 million-plus salary cap room makes them a playa in free agency.

Certainly, the Browns’ division rivals could provide them with needy players in free agency.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis would be perfect fits on the list of Browns’ needs. Cincinnati might offer two “little splash” buys – outside linebacker Manny Lawson and kicker Mike Nugent. But it is Baltimore – Super Bowl champion Baltimore – that presents the Browns with the most intriguing possibilities.

As the Browns transition to a hybrid (coach Rob Chudzinksi’s term) or multi-front (coordinator Ray Horton’s term) 3-4 defense, Baltimore linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe loom as obvious targets. And then there is Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco.

These three Ravens free agents are inextricably linked. And Banner and Lombardi know it.

The Flacco factor: Like most Super Bowl champions, the Ravens have some tough salary cap decisions to make. They want to keep as much of their championship team intact, but the reality of the business is they can’t.

Flacco is at the center of their dilemma. The quarterback turned down a contract offer of about $16 million per year last season. Then he put together a flawless postseason and won the Ravens a Super Bowl. So the price went up.

Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, has said that Flacco deserves to be the league’s highest-paid player. That distinction is currently held by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees ($20 million a year).

The Ravens can restrict Flacco’s ability to move by tagging him their franchise player. They can give him the non-exclusive franchise tag or the exclusive franchise tag. Neither is as preferable as a negotiated, multi-year deal. They have until March 4 to arrive at a deal – or the Ravens will have to play tag.

The non-exclusive tag comes at a cost of $14.6 million to the Ravens, but enables them to match any offer or receive two No. 1 draft picks if they don’t match. A QB-starved team such as the Browns could construct an offer that would be unpalatable to the Ravens, given their tight salary cap situation.

The exclusive tag means Flacco can’t negotiate with other teams, but it comes at a cost of $20 million to the Ravens. The collateral damage of the exclusive tag is that it would likely prevent the Ravens from keeping Kruger or Ellerbe or, more likely, both.

And this might be the real reason for the Browns to send out feelers to selected media that they would pursue Flacco in free agency.

The great debate: What would benefit the Browns more?

Giving up two No. 1s to the Ravens and signing Flacco to a $100 million-plus contract?

Or stealing Kruger, a 3-4 pass rush linebacker, and Ellerbe, Ray Lewis’ replacement in the middle of the Ravens’ defense, while keeping first-round picks in 2013 (No. 6 overall) and 2014?

The Ravens have to consider the same possibilities. If they fail to re-sign Flacco by March 4, they will have to decide which tag they give him – exclusive or non-exclusive.

In an appearance in Cleveland in May, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome lamented his inability to draft and develop a franchise quarterback. Now that the Ravens finally have realized a return on their five-year investment in Flacco, it’s extremely doubtful they would allow him to leave.

However, the possibility of two Browns’ No. 1s and the ability to retain Kruger and Ellerbe might – might – cause Newsome to call the Browns’ bluff.

Would the Browns be wise to give up the farm for Flacco?

Flacco is 15 months younger than Brandon Weeden, boasts probably the strongest arm among NFL quarterbacks, has been indestructible despite not possessing the agility of Robert Griffin 3, has never missed a game in five seasons, and has consistently ascended on his NFL growth chart to the point of being the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

Flacco’s big arm and large stature fit like a glove in the Norv Turner-Rob Chudzinski offense. Further, Flacco would join an offensive line perhaps stronger than the one he’d leave behind in Baltimore, and have at his disposal a young running back in Trent Richardson and a decent set of receivers in Josh Gordon and Greg Little that could be further bolstered by the addition of Pittsburgh’s Wallace.

Banner and Lombardi probably see no negatives in forcing the issue on Flacco.

If Newsome doesn’t blink, the consolation to the Browns is a legitimate shot at Kruger and Ellerbe.

If Newsome does blink, Flacco could be the seventh Browns opening day starting QB in seven years and their 19th quarterback since 1999. One of those was Trent Dilfer, whom Newsome discarded following his last Super Bowl triumph in 2001.

Dilfer, who was 33 when he joined the Browns in 2005, was never in his dreams the QB that Flacco has become.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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