By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
A guide to free agency: Fans want to believe that a $46 million shopping spree in free agency – followed closely by a productive draft in April – will transform the Browns into contenders.
As we detailed on Monday, however, high expectations in free agency usually turn into profound disappointment on the field. The Browns have produced one Pro Bowl season out of 98 player signings since the NFL instituted free agency in 1993.
But that doesn’t mean the Browns can’t improve their team by using free agency smartly.
Here are my guidelines to free agency this year:
1. Don’t sign any team’s player over 28.
There is a place for the older player, but that place is predominantly at specific positions – quarterback, offensive line, kicker, punter. It’s a young man’s game. Age is the natural enemy at positions that demand a lot of running – wideout, running back, cornerback, linebacker. This eliminates players such as linebacker James Harrison (35 in May), receiver Wes Welker (32 in May), and cornerback Brent Grimes (30 in July). I’m not saying these players aren’t good players. But they’re not the right players at the right time for the Browns. Also, former GM Tom Heckert’s youth movement the past two years proved his point -- older players are more prone to missing more game because of injury.
2. Don’t sign any cornerbacks under 5-11.
I wanted to make the cut-off height at an even six feet until I checked and saw Darrelle Revis was officially listed as 5-11. Rare is the shorter cornerback, anymore, who can cover the elite receivers 6-3 and up. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t draft a sub-5-11 cornerback (in the middle rounds). I just wouldn’t overpay for one as a starter. The cornerback position, in my opinion, has become over-valued in the NFL. Yes, it’s a throwing league. Yes, you need corners who can cover. But the best pass defense is a good pass rush. Throw the big money at the players who line up closest to the ball, not farthest away. In my opinion, the elite cornerbacks of the future are 6-1 and taller.
3. Re-sign your best free agents.
I would definitely re-sign kicker Phil Dawson and receiver-returner Josh Cribbs, but it doesn’t seem in the cards with this new Browns’ regime. Two Pro Bowl players. Two players who would fit in any Browns era. Unwanted? I don’t get it.
My free agent plan: You can’t buy all the best players, so you separate them into tiers based on cost.
Let’s say Tier 1 is the $8 million a year-and-up range. Tier 2 is $4 million to $8 million. And Tier 3 is less than $4 million.
Tier 1 probably would include the two rush linebackers associated with the Browns – Cliff Avril (Lions) and Paul Kruger (Ravens) – inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens) and tight end Jared Cook (Titans).
I would be aggressive in signing two of these players. Cook would be one, for sure, because I feel he would be a superstar in Rob Chudzinski-Norv Turner offense and would complement the emergence of young wideouts Josh Gordon and Greg Little. The other one would be either Avril or Ellerbe.
Avril is the pass rusher and Ellerbe is the aggressive, physical inside linebacker to take the pressure off D’Qwell Jackson. I understand the importance of the outside linebacker in coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme and the lack of one currently on the roster. But I think Ellerbe’s impact on the defense could be strong. Avril’s transition to outside linebacker on natural grass – he played defensive end on artificial turf – could reduce his effectiveness.
The Tier 2 priority target should be cornerback Keenan Lewis (Steelers). It is incumbent on the Browns to secure a starting cornerback in free agency. Lewis is an ascending young player who led the NFL in passes defensed last year. The Steelers are resigned to losing him. Horton was Lewis’ position coach when drafted.
Two other players in this tier to consider are pass rush linebacker Quentin Groves (Cardinals) and cornerback Greg Toler (Cardinals). Horton, obviously, coached them in Arizona. Groves is a late-developing pass rusher in the 3-4 who had his best year under Horton. Toler had an ACL injury in 2011 and is a risk to project as a starter, but could be a sound No. 3 and part-time starter.
In Tier 3, I would consider one of two receivers – Dominik Hixon (Giants) or Ted Ginn Jr. (49ers). Either could replace Cribbs as the No. 1 returner. Hixon is more accomplished as a wideout and could – if he could stay healthy, which has been a problem – compete for the No. 2 outside spot (if Little is earmarked for the slot). Ginn evolved into primarily a return specialist in San Francisco. I would like to see his role as a receiver revived.
Here we go: The NFL transaction season officially begins today. Teams can execute trades and begin signing free agents at 4 p.m.
At long last, we can gauge the wisdom of the new Browns’ football operations department. The “collaborative effort” of this regime’s personnel decisions will come from CEO Joe Banner, GM Mike Lombardi, assistant GM Ray Farmer, and coaches Chudzinski, Turner and Horton.
When he was introduced in October, Banner said it wouldn’t take long for Browns fans to see how smart his organization is. Well … we’re waiting.
|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 firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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