By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Let freedom ring: The Browns have 18 free agents – 13 unrestricted (four years experience or more), two restricted (three years), and three exclusive rights (two years or less). There is no indication they will re-sign any of them.
At the NFL combine in Indianapolis last week, I asked CEO Joe Banner if the team has determined what they intend to do with their free agents.
“We do know and we won’t say,” he replied.
“Let’s say we’re trying to sign them and we want to bring them back – that wouldn’t be a very smart thing to do from a negotiating perspective. And we don’t need to help other teams know who’s going to be free and not be free,” Banner said.
Let’s take a look at the prospective player losses facing the Browns.
Unrestricted free agents
Sheldon Brown, 33, cornerback: As president of the Eagles, Banner traded him to the Browns in 2010, so he already has rejected him once. Brown was a great example to young players. His imminent departure requires the Browns to acquire a starting cornerback. Nobody on the roster can ascend to that position.
Josh Cribbs, 29, special teams/receiver: Holder of more than a dozen franchise return records, he was fourth in kickoff returns and sixth in punt returns in 2012 – but didn’t score. His frustration with losing and watching teammates drop balls often boils over. Heir-apparent Travis Benjamin is 40 pounds lighter, doesn’t play on coverage teams like Cribbs and has question marks about durability and ball security.
Phil Dawson, 38, kicker: Probably the most popular player of the expansion era, he holds the franchise record with 305 field goals and is 78 points shy of Lou Groza’s scoring record. The Browns’ only full-time kicker is coming off his first Pro Bowl berth. He won’t be given the franchise tag a third year in a row and hopes to end his career with a winning team.
Scott Fujita, 33, outside linebacker: He ended his third straight Browns season on injured reserve and is trying to avoid neck fusion surgery. He will go on to bigger and better things after retirement.
Reggie Hodges, 31, punter: Achilles surgery in 2011 resulted in a severe drop-off in gross average (41.8 yards) and net (37.1) in 2012. The recent signing of 2012 camp punter Spencer Lanning was the tip-off that Hodges won’t be back.
Brandon Jackson, 27, running back: He played two games and had eight rushes in two years. Not one of the productive free agent pickups in Browns’ history.
Josh Johnson, 26, quarterback: A late-season pickup when injuries hit the position. He could end up rejoining Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco.
Kaluka Maiava, 26, linebacker: A special teams core player who was forced to start 13 games at outside linebacker in 2012. One of three players left from the 2009 Browns draft.
Mohamed Massaquoi, 26, receiver: Another departing member of the 2009 draft class, he averaged 29 catches in four seasons. Injuries the past two years caused him golden opportunities to slip away.
Juqua Parker, 34, defensive end: A very productive role player who was second in sacks (six) despite being fifth in snaps among linemen. He may have another year left as a situational rusher in a 4-3 – but not here.
Alex Smith, 30, tight end: You’d think the fondness for tight ends among the new coaches might earn him a one-year deal to return. Probably not.
Ray Ventrone, 30, defensive back: An Eric Mangini favorite who survived one coaching change but isn’t expected to make it through another.
Ben Watson, 32, tight end: He averaged 51 receptions in three years but the numbers working against him are 32 (age) and three (number of concussions the past two seasons).
Restricted free agents
The Browns can reserve the right to match any offers by tendering them a qualifying offer.
Chris Ogbonnaya, 26, running back: A favorite of former coach Pat Shurmur, he may appeal to new coach Rob Chudzinski as a facsimile of Jason Wright, who had his most productive season under Chud in 2007.
Eddie Williams, 25, fullback: We’ve never seen him play in a game.
Exclusive rights free agents
These players can be retained by minimum salary contract tenders.
Auston English, 25, defensive end: He has the body type to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, but new coaches usually bring their own developmental players to camp.
Emmanuel Stephens, 26, defensive end: See above.
Christian Yount, 24, long snapper: He was fairly flawless as Ryan Pontbriand’s replacement.
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