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Lots of cap space, lots of needs confront Browns as free agency season begins

Mar 10, 2014 -- 6:15am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

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The Morning Kickoff …

Time to put up: Throughout the Browns’ tumultuous offseason, owner Jimmy Haslam consistently has cited the team’s cap room as reason for fans to have faith in the franchise improving.

And that was before the NFL salary cap was bumped up an additional $10 million to $133 million.

So now it’s time to back up the talk.

The Browns enter free agency with approximately $50 million in space under the cap to spend. Only the Raiders ($64.3 million) and Jaguars ($59.3 million) had more. Although negotiations with free agents were allowed over the weekend, signings can’t commence until 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Some of that cap space will be devoted to re-signing core players entering their final contract season, such as cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Jordan Cameron, defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor, and quarterback Brian Hoyer.

But the expectations raised by Haslam’s frequent references to the cap room since January are that he will spend money on new players, too.

The Browns already have used over $11 million on the transition tag for center Alex Mack and a one-year deal for kicker Billy Cundiff. They shaved about $12 million from the cap by releasing receiver Davone Bess and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

Another sales pitch from Haslam has been the team’s 10 selections in the 2014 draft – second-most in the NFL. Typically, teams set up their draft strategy by filling needs in free agency first, freeing up the draft for “best player available.”

New GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine have been coy to a fault about their intentions. Below is a position-by-position outlook on what they may be considering.

Quarterback

With Hoyer’s knee rehab proceeding ahead of schedule and a new QB expected in the draft, the need here is not as urgent as national “insiders” contend. Room should be created by the imminent departure of Jason Campbell (before a $250,000 roster bonus is due on Thursday) and Brandon Weeden (possibly after the draft). If the Browns accede to the wishes of new coordinator Kyle Shanahan, it should be for low-priced, third-stringer Rex Grossman (Redskins) and not for soon-to-be-released Matt Schaub (Texans). Schaub’s psyche was battered in a miserable last season in Houston. He wasn’t exactly the strong leader-type to begin with.

Running back

There are two tiers here to consider. High-priced: Ben Tate (Texans) or Knowshon Moreno (Broncos). Medium-priced: James Starks (Packers). It has been Shanahan’s history to use a feature back rather than employ the committee approach. That would seem to eliminate Starks, who is a decent backup but not a No. 1 back. Tate was a productive No. 2 back in the same run system Shanahan will install here. Tate is poised to join the ranks of elite backs, but the risk is that few backs have played to their big contracts in free agency. The Browns have scatback Dion Lewis coming back from a fractured leg and are expected to draft a back in the middle rounds.

Wide receiver

At the very least, the release of Bess opens a spot for a productive slot receiver. Possibilities for that role include Emmanuel Sanders (Steelers) and Julian Edelman (Patriots). The Browns also need a No. 2 outside receiver to complement confirmed game-breaker Josh Gordon and compete with Greg Little. While Sammy Watkins of Clemson will be a consideration for the Browns’ first pick at No. 4, the draft is loaded at the position and could probably supply a new No. 2 beyond the first round.

Offensive line

Mack has not signed his transition tender and will seek other offers. The Browns have prioritized keeping the Pro Bowl center. They would like to lock him up to a multi-year deal to reduce the cap number of the one-year $10.039 million transition tag. Right guard Shawn Lauvao does not have the athleticism sought in Shanahan’s zone-blocking system. Trouble is, few free agent guards are nimble enough to merit a big investment. This position may have to be reserved for the draft.

Tight end

No need.

Defensive line

No need.

Linebacker

It would be insane to add an outside linebacker after the investment made last year on Paul Kruger, Quentin Groves and Barkevious Mingo. Inside linebacker, however, is a major need after the release of Jackson. Arthur Moats (Bills) is a player familiar to Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. Moats was a converted defensive end from James Madison who made 12 starts for the Bills, but wasn’t overly productive. Other possibilities among veteran starters include Brandon Spikes (Patriots), Darryl Sharpton (Texans) and Perry Riley (Redskins).

Cornerback

Talks aimed at a new deal for Haden have been in the works since December. More pressing is the search for a No. 2 cornerback opposite Haden. If one is found, Buster Skrine could concentrate exclusively on covering slot receivers. 2013 third-round pick Leon McFadden did not impress as a rookie and is not considered a serious starting contender at this point. Veteran possibilities are endless; more cornerbacks are available than at any position. Antonio Cromartie, recently released by the Jets, is a natural consideration because of his history with Pettine. But Cromartie is pushing 30, coming off a poor season caused by a hip injury, and would be an expensive stop-gap on a young team. ESPN insider Bill Polian listes Tarell Brown (49ers) as his No. 1 available corner.

Safety

If the Browns spend big on any player, it figures to be free safety Jairus Byrd (Bills), who reportedly liked playing for Pettine in 2013 despite a contract holdout and foot injury. A lower-priced possibility would be Stevie Brown (Giants), who missed the 2013 season with an ACL tear but had eight interceptions in his first year as a starter in 2012. Meanwhile, Browns free agent T.J. Ward appears ready to hit the market. Reports on Sunday said as many as six teams have expressed interest in Ward. The Browns don’t appear to be one of them.

 

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. Use the hastage #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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