The sales pitch is suddenly enticing.
The Browns knew it would be difficult to lure free agents to Cleveland because their record of 1-31 the past two seasons under coach Hue Jackson reeks of incompetence.
Sure, money talks, yet they watched players take less to work elsewhere even before last season, when they became just the second team in NFL history to go 0-16.
So new general manager John Dorsey went shopping for some air fresheners to mask the stench.
By agreeing to trade for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, slot receiver Jarvis Landry and cornerback Damarious Randall in a flurry of activity Friday evening (March 9), Dorsey not only dramatically improved the talent of the roster, but he also gave the organization a jolt of momentum that free agents will notice.
None of this means the Browns will secure all of their top targets in free agency, though they certainly stand a better chance than they did before Dorsey’s wheeling and dealing.
After all, players know players.
They realize a team can win with Taylor as its placeholder for the quarterback the Browns will likely draft first or fourth overall on April 26. They understand the receiving tandem of Landry, who’s been to three Pro Bowls in four years, and Josh Gordon, a 2013 All-Pro selection, has the potential to be one of the best in the league. They see Randall filling a major need on a defense that needs a revamped secondary but has a promising front seven.
The Browns won’t eliminate the fumes of failure until they become a consistent winner, and Dorsey has only scratched the surface of this rebuilding project. But at least the Browns have helped themselves on the recruiting front for the time being.
So what’s next?
Beginning at noon Monday (March 12), teams will be permitted to negotiate with the agents of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents. However, contracts cannot be executed until free agency officially kicks off at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 14. Trades, including the four the Browns agreed upon (Dorsey will also send defensive tackle Danny Shelton and a 2018 fifth-round choice to the New England Patriots for a 2019 third-round pick), cannot be completed until then.
Per the contract website Spotrac.com, the Browns will use about $32 million in salary-cap space as a result of their recent trades and enter free agency with $77.8 million in room.
They secured their veteran bridge starter in Taylor, who went 23-21 with the Buffalo Bills, including 0-1 in the playoffs last season, so they’re no longer in the market for AJ McCarron of the Cincinnati Bengals or any other big-name veteran quarterbacks.
With DeShone Kizer headed to the Green Bay Packers as part of the Randall trade and Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan unlikely to be in the Browns’ plans, they could still sign a veteran backup to join Taylor and the incoming rookie, whether it’s Southern California’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who spent three seasons as the Kansas City Chiefs’ backup while Dorsey was their GM, or the Miami Dolphins’ Matt Moore are among the veteran backup quarterbacks who’ll be available. It wouldn’t be shocking, either, if the Browns were to draft two quarterbacks, one in the first round and another later, a la Washington in 2012.
Even with the arrival of Landry, who led the NFL with 112 catches last season, the Browns still need help at receiver, especially because there is no guarantee 2016 first-round selection Corey Coleman will be able to earn his keep after two disappointing seasons plagued by broken hands.
Re-signing Terrelle Pryor is a possibility. His relationship with Jackson is well-documented, and Pryor has expressed interest, via social media, in returning to Cleveland, where the former quarterback posted 1,007 receiving yards in 2016 before ankle and foot issues derailed his 2017 season in Washington.
Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson, who’s coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the Los Angeles Rams’ Sammy Watkins, who played with Taylor in Buffalo, headline the group of free-agent receivers. Paul Richardson of the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals’ John Brown and Jaron Brown are among those in the second tier. The Chiefs’ Albert Wilson (Dorsey), the New York Giants’ Tavarres King (receivers coach Adam Henry) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Justin Hunter (offensive coordinator Todd Haley) have ties to the Browns.
Cornerback and free safety remain huge needs, even with Randall on board.
The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, who played for Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Patriots’Malcolm Butler, the Chicago Bears’ Kyle Fuller, who has been transition tagged, and Washington’s Bashaud Breeland are among the options at corner. Green Bay’s Davon House knows Dorsey, assistant GM Eliot Wolf and vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith from his days with the Packers, and he played under defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker for two seasons with the Jaguars. Aaron Colvin also played for Walker with the Jaguars. Cincinnati’s Adam Jones, who won’t have his option picked up by the Bengals but could still return to them, calls Jackson a father figure.
The San Francisco 49ers’Eric Reid and the San Diego Chargers’ Tre Boston are among the safeties set to hit the open market. Morgan Burnett spent eight seasons with the Packers, so he’s no stranger to Cleveland’s new bigwigs. The Chiefs’Ron Parker, who’ll reportedly be released, was in Kansas City during Dorsey’s entire tenure there.
The expected departure of Browns starter Isaiah Crowell in free agency means the team is in the running back market. The Patriots’Rex Burkhead and the Bengals’Jeremy Hill, both of whom played for Jackson as members of the Bengals, and the Patriots’Dion Lewis, who was with the Browns in 2013, are headed for free agency.
The Browns also could use a defensive end, where former Williams pupil William Hayes is a familiar face, and a blocking tight end.
If 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas retires — he should announce his decision in the next couple of days — finding a new starter will become one of the team’s top priorities. Led by the Patriots’ Nate Solder, the crop of starting-caliber, free-agent left tackles is thin, so perhaps Dorsey would make another trade, something he’s obviously not afraid to do.
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