Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cleveland Browns Free Agent Moves for 2014

    The Cleveland Browns off-season is always interesting, and this year they are truly at a crossroads.  I honestly don't know if they intend to compete with the other NFL teams in 2014, or pack it in like they did in 2013.  What we don't know is whether the Browns deliberately underfunded the 2013 team in order to spend more in 2014, or whether they were simply conserving cash.   

   But make no mistake, in 2013, the Browns deliberately underfunded the team. The Browns were $24 million under the salary cap, tops in the NFL.   They carried out a number of actions to reduce expenses in 2013 and beyond, including:

     a.  Cutting several veterans at the end of training camp and replaced them with minimum wage undrafted rookies. After an initial flurry, they refused to add payroll, refusing to sign anyone above the NFL minimum except for Willis McGahee.

    b.  Trading two 2013 draft picks  in exchange for 2014 draft picks.

   c.  Trading Trent Richardson for a 2014 draft pick.  That's why they felt they could sign McGahee.

   As a result, the Browns have three extra 2014 draft picks.  The Browns and the Oakland Raiders (who were penalized in 2013 for salary cap offenses in the past) are the teams with the most room to sign free agents. 
    Browns fans hope that this year they will elect to operate with as much salary cap money as the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens.   But even if they do, the true stars are going to prefer to sign with other teams.  Hence they would better off trying to sign their own free agents, specifically Pro Bowlers Alex Mack and T. J. Ward.  

 Will the Browns re-sign Alex Mack?  If he is willing to come back to Cleveland, that would be a good move.  Other Pro Bowlers are not coming to Cleveland.  

T. J. Ward will probably come back as the "Franchise Player."  He will be paid as a top-5 player at his position, but he plays like one too. 

     They will also be able to sign a few additional key starting players, but probably not at the level of last year when they got Paul Kruger to sign a huge five year deal, simply because agents are going to steer their major clients to teams with a less chaotic front office situation.  The Browns will go for guys that are towards the end of their career, willing to take a one or two year contract without a large amount of guaranteed money.   They ought to be able to land role players (for example, a fullback, short yardage running back, blocking tight end, slot receiver, situational linebacker, nickel defensive back, etc).   If they add twenty million dollars of net salary that would correspond to about ten second tier free agents along with ten draftees.   It's not as sexy as adding Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson, but there is no reason why a winning football team could not result. 

    The Browns could sign even more if they cut some  bloated contracts.  NFL contracts tend to increase year over year, which increases the pressure to renegotiate or cut.  This is a terrible disservice to fans, as it increases the chances that players will leave the team, but it's reality.  For that reason several veterans will probably be forced to re-negotiate or be cut.  For example, Jason Campbell will be  third string in 2014, and none of his $3.25 million contract is guaranteed.  It is very likely that Campbell will either accept a major pay cut (not likely) or be gone in 2014. If so, the Browns may add not just one but two quarterbacks in 2014.   

There are few BACKUP quarterbacks in the NFL better than Jason Campbell (Browns fans tend to hate him anyway).  The Browns will probably cut him.

The Browns may also cut guard John Greco, who did not have a good year last year.  Ahtyba Rubin was a very good player in 2013, but has a huge salary cap number.  Similarly D'Qwell Jackson played at a very high level last year, but even he could be a salary cap casualty.  If they cut Rubin and Jackson, it would create $12 million dollars in salary cap room.  That's enough to sign a half dozen starting calibre players.
Ahtyba Rubin was a productive lineman, but salary cap rules will cause the Browns to consider cutting him.  I hope he stays, but I'm not sure what will happen.

Because of the bonus rules, cutting Brandon Weeden would save salary cap in 2015 but not 2014.  I dunno, for a third string quarterback in 2014, Weeden is not such a bad idea, especially if Campbell is gone, but I predict the Browns will cut him anyway just because this is part of quarterback fever.  The Browns are hot to draft a quarterback this year, and teams that do that feel compelled to banish the previous guy even if they don't have to. Hence I think the Browns will probably cut both Campbell and Weeden, and will try to draft one quarterback, and to sign another as a free agent.   Both will be allowed to challenge Hoyer for the starting job, but my guess is that Hoyer may prevail, at least to start the season.
Brandon Weeden was not as horrible as many Browns fans imagine. Salary cap rules favor keeping him in 2014 (but cutting him in 2015).  Because of the bonus rules, the Browns would take a salary cap hit in 2014 if they cut him. The Village Elliot thinks they will cut him anyway.

     So, if the Browns decide to play at parity with the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens in 2014, they have plenty of salary cap room to add a few starters. The salary cap rules could cause them to make a few extra moves.  Mack, Campbell, Greco, Rubin and perhaps Jackson may be among the familiar faces that are gone, but the Browns will have the ability to add several staters, and several backups and specialty players as well.  

     Or they may actually pack it in again, perhaps depending on financial conditions at Haslam's Pilot Flying J business, and if so Browns fans may have to wait until 2015 or later to compete at parity with the other teams in the division.  We shall see what the front office does.  


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