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As the NFL transaction season hits the halfway mark, it's time to re-set the Browns' roster

Mar 31, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

Won't be long now: We’re 20 days into NFL free agency and 38 days away from the draft -- roughly in the middle of the offseason transaction season.

In free agency, the Browns have signed seven players: linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner, receiver Andrew Hawkins, running back Ben Tate, offensive lineman Paul McQuiston, tight end Jim Dray and cornerback Isaiah Trufant.

The total maximum value of those seven contracts is $80.5 million. They will count only $18.4 million on the team’s 2014 salary cap. Along with a new deal for kicker Billy Cundiff and adjusted cap charges for the release of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, the Browns are still roughly $31 million under the salary cap.

A maximum of $10.039 million is being set aside for center Alex Mack, who was given the transition tag but has not yet signed it.

While the Browns may sign a few more players prior to training camp – a veteran quarterback is likely -- most of the heavy spending is over.

As for the draft, the NFL released the official order of selection for all seven rounds after compensatory picks were awarded. The Browns’ 10 picks are as follows: 4, 26, 35, 71, 83, 106, 127, 145, 180 and 218.

Roster re-set: What work is left for the Browns to fill out their roster for the 2014 season?

Based on conversations with General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine, here is where the Browns’ position groups stand:

Quarterback: Brian Hoyer and Alex Tanney are the only two under contract. A veteran (Rex Grossman?) and a rookie are sure to be added. It’s doubtful at this point that a veteran acquisition could compete with Hoyer for the starting job. So that competition must come from the rookie draft pick. Which means the rookie quarterback better be taken high in the draft, most likely with one of the first three picks (4, 26 or 35).

Running back: Pettine said that Tate “absolutely” can be counted on as a feature back even though his durability in four seasons with the Houston Texans was a question. The other backs are Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis, Edwin Baker, Fozzy Whittaker and Jamain Cook. So look for a back to arrive via the draft.

Receiver: Josh Gordon’s emergence established him as a true No. 1. Hawkins was brought in as a slot receiver. That leaves a need for a No. 2 in the starting lineup. Others on the roster include Greg Little, Travis Benjamin, Josh Cooper, Tori Gurley, Charles Johnson and Connor Vernon. Receiver is considered the deepest position in the draft. Surely, a No. 2 pass catcher is a strong candidate to come from early in the draft.

Tight end: Jordan Cameron had a breakout season in 2013. Despite having four other tight ends on the roster – Gary Barnidge, MarQueis Gray, Keavon Milton and Andre Smith – the Browns signed Dray off the roster of the Arizona Cardinals. Farmer said Dray is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.

Offensive line: The list of playoff-caliber teams needing a starting center is limited pretty much to Denver and Green Bay, and neither has shown an inclination to make Mack an offer that would be hard for the Browns to match. So let’s assume Mack will return, at least for the 2014 season. The addition of the versatile McQuistan fills one starting spot. That leaves one starting vacancy. It could be at either guard spot or right tackle. Candidates under contract include Mitchell Schwartz, Jason Pinkston, Chris Faulk, Reid Fragel, Garrett Gilkey and Martin Wallace. Yes, a lineman (or two) should come from the draft.

Defensive line: You could argue that no need is evident here, yet the Browns pursued ex-Bill Alex Carrington, who signed with the Rams. Pettine said he liked Carrington’s interior pass rush. With end Desmond Bryant recently getting a clean bill of health following a procedure in 2013 to correct an irregular heartbeat, this position does not appear to be a real priority. But with Pettine, you just never know.

Linebacker: Dansby replaced Jackson at one of the starting inside linebacker spots. Pettine said this about Craig Robertson, who held the other starting inside spot last season: “I feel good about Craig Robertson. It’s not something that’s a glaring need to me. I think this is a good linebacker draft, and that’s why we feel so good that if that opportunity presents itself, that we’ll be able to do that. That’s not a position that in my mind just jumps out to me that that’s something we absolutely have to address.” The outside linebackers under contract are Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo and Quentin Groves. Pettine has spoken highly of Mingo, whom he scouted actively as coordinator of the Buffalo Bills in 2013.

Cornerback: Joe Haden is on the verge of receiving a multi-year contract extension. He’ll be 25 on April 14 and is entering his fifth NFL season. The other starting cornerback spot is a question. Pettine admitted he would prefer Buster Skrine concentrate on one spot – either at the outside position opposite Haden or at the slot (nickel back) corner. He added that he believed Trufant could man the inside slot. Other cornerbacks on the roster include 2013 third-round pick Leon McFadden, Julian Posey, Brandon Hughes and others. Safe to say that cornerback will be a priority in the draft.

Safety: Whitner has greater range than departing Pro Bowler T.J. Ward. Tashaun Gipson had a much-improved second season, his first as the starting free safety. The previous regime was high on 2013 undrafted free agent Josh Aubrey, who finished his first year on injured reserve. Other safeties under contract are Johnson Bademosi, Jordan Poyer and 2013 sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter.

 

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 hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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