By Tony Grossi
Free agency preview: The Browns can begin signing unrestricted free agents on March 12 at 4 p.m. Eastern time.
In preparation of free agency, we continue our preview of the Browns’ needs and the best available players with a look at offensive guard and fullback
Position: Offensive guard.
Under contract: Dominic Alford, John Greco, Shawn Lauvao, Ryan Miller, Jason Pinkston, Jarrod Shaw.
Contracts expiring: None.
Free agents to consider: Andy Levitre, 26 (Bills); Lance Louis, 27 (Bears); Brandon Moore, 32 (Giants); Chad Rhinehart, 27 (Bills); Geoff Schwartz 26 (Vikings); Donald Thomas, 27 (Patriots); Louis Vasquez, 25 (Chargers).
Browns needs: Pinkston and Lauvao were drafted by former GM Tom Heckert to be the cornerstone guards of the future. Pinkston was shut down in October after a blood clot was discovered in his leg. His playing future has not been clarified by the club. Greco, a veteran swingman whose value is steeped in playing several positions, filled in at left guard and did well. In his second year as starting right guard, Lauvao showed little improvement. There is no question the Browns need more mobility at the position. Their perimeter running game and ability to execute screen passes are greatly impaired by the lack of agility at the guard positions.
Analysis: Levitre, 6-2 and 305 pounds, who is both agile and durable, is at the top of this class. Any of the under-30 guards would be an improvement, though not every one of them have the mobility the team should be seeking.
Summary: The Browns have roughly $20 million of their salary cap already devoted to their starting offensive line, which represents about 16 percent of the total cap of $123 million. The figure will rise as the existing contracts of Thomas and Schwartz progress and Mack receives a new one. The question is whether the Browns dole out big money for one of the above starting guards or try to upgrade in the middle of the draft.
Under contract: Owen Marecic, Brad Smelley.
Contracts expiring: Alex Smith, Eddie Williams.
Free agents to consider: Jackie Battle, 29 (Chargers); Jerome Felton, 26 (Vikings); Jacob Hester, 27 (Broncos); Greg Jones, 31 (Jaguars); Brian Leonard, (Bengals); Corey McIntyre (Bills); Owen Schmitt, 28 (Raiders).
Browns needs: Coach Rob Chudzinski’s and Norv Turner’s offenses always have used a blocking fullback to power the running game and set up the vertical passing game. Marecic, a fourth-round pick in 2011, has not gotten the job done. The Browns compensated by moving Smith to the backfield in October, but Smith is too tall to perform the job full time and is not expected to be re-signed.
Analysis: Fullbacks sometimes are not born but made. Felton is a perfect example. A fifth-round draft pick of Detroit in 2008, he was waived by the Lions, Panthers and Colts before finding a home with the Vikings and earning the NFC Pro Bowl berth by blocking for Adrian Peterson. Of this group, Battle and Hester have experience playing for Turner in San Diego.
Summary: This may not be a top priority, but it sure has to be addressed for the new offense to function properly. It’s feasible this position could be added long into the offseason in the quietude after the marquee free agents create the headlines.
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