This is the first part in a brand new series I am running on TheInsideZone. Playing GM will see me cover a new team weekly and simulate an offseason as that selected team. I will identify holes that need filling, and then plug these gaps in Free Agency and through the NFL Draft. Next week I will be covering the San Francisco 49ers. Please tweet @TomLikeNFL using #TomPlayGM with suggestions for next weeks team. This week I have the task of trying to re-build the talent poor Cleveland Browns roster utilizing their high draft picks and large salary cap space. Enjoy.
2016 Season Review
The less said about 2016 the better. The Browns finished with an NFL worst 1-15 record, and only managed to avoid the shame of a 0 win season by beating the Chargers in Week 16. It took a blocked then missed FG attempt in the final 4 minutes to preserve Cleveland’s victory. The 2016 season was the first year in a complete overhaul of this Cleveland Browns franchise. It was their first year under Head Coach Hue Jackson, General Manager Sashi Brown and Chief Strategy Officer/ Team President Paul DePodesta.
2016 was the first year in a complete franchise overhaul/ rebuild. Front Office and the Coaching staff now know what they have to work with, and secured the number 1 overall pick in the draft (and high draft selections in the rounds that follow) to address issues with the roster. Hue Jackson and co. will have learnt from last years Draft and will have a year and a half of college scouting under their belts.
The Browns ranked 3rd worst in total offense (311.0 yards per game) and 2nd worst in points scored (16.5 per game). On Defense, Cleveland were the leagues 2nd worst unit allowing 392.44 yard per game and had the joint 2nd lowest sack total (26.0). The Browns also surrendered a league high 66 sacks. Cleveland’s Quarterbacks were being thrown around like rag dolls and were sacked on average just over 4 times per game.
The Cleveland Browns have a historic amount of cap space available in 2017. The Browns have $110.36 million to play with in free agency.
Before trying to strength the team through free agency, the Browns must first look to lock up WR Terrelle Pryor and OLB Jamie Collins to long term deals. These are both two young stars who Hue Jackson can build his Offense/ Defense around. Pyror has shown that he can be a true no.1 receiver, however, I believe the Browns could get him for below top-10 money. I believe the Browns should offer Pryor a contact similar to what the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Allen Hurns to last season, putting Pryor on a deal of around $10.3m a year ($100m left).
Cleveland’s main objective this offseason is to lock up star OLB Jamie Collins to a long term deal. Collins severely underperformed for the Browns since his mid-season trade, however, that will not have cost him much change. Jamie Collins and the Browns could agree on, slightly lower than Clay Matthews-type money (3rd highest 3-4 OLB contract). I believe the Browns will end up playing the talented Linebacker $12.5m a year ($87.5m left). The Browns may also want to re-sign RB Isiah Crowell, however, with the de-valuation of the position recently and the likelihood of Cleveland operating via committee, I imagine Crowell could demand $1.8m (just above Dion Lewis, Chris Johnson at $1.5m but significantly below Alfred Morris at $3.5m) – this would leave Cleveland with $85.7m. *** Collins signed a long term deal with the Browns 23rd, January 2017 ($12.5m a year).
The Browns could, however, free up $11.2m if they cut CB Joe Haden post-June 1. Haden is a talented corner but the Browns and Jackson might want to go their own way and cut ties with the injury-plagued undersized Corner. I believe Haden could be a cap casualty and will give the Browns $96.9m to spend in free agency.
Heading into 2017
The Browns would therefore enter 2017 with a few areas of strength that would not need to be addressed.
On Offense the Browns will have Terrelle Pryor at WR, along with Corey Coleman who could be a great slot-receiver. Cleveland will also have Gary Barnidge at TE and RBs Isiah Crowell and Duke Johnson (potential for a rookie to compete). The Browns will have RGIII under contract for one final season (which means they could redshirt a rookie QB).
Despite surrendering a league high 66 sacks, the Browns have a stud at LT. Joe Thomas has never missed a snap and has made the Pro-Bowl every season in his 10 years in the League. The Browns also have two starting-caliber Guards with Joel Bitonio (25 years old) and John Greco (31 years old). Cameron Erving, however, has been awful at Center this year. Erving was selected 19th overall in 2015, but switched from Guard to Center in 2016. The Erving experiment could continue in 2017 as I imagine the Browns will try and find him a spot on this roster as depth. RT, Austin Paszor, could get re-signed but I could see the Browns bringing in a talented and proven veteran, via Free Agency. The Browns desperately need a Center after not resigning Pro-Bowler, Alex Mack last offseason and should look to address this through free agency.
On Defense I am anticipating Cleveland to stick with a 3-4 Defense. The Browns look to have three of their four starting Linebackers in place. The Browns are expected to hand Jamie Collins big money, plugging him in at OLB. On the opposite side the Browns should look at rotating Cam Johnson and Demario Davis (the pair combined for 5.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 77 tackles in 2016). In the middle, Christian Kirksey could play Mike in 2017 after impressing in 2016. Kirksey finished the season 13th in tackles and was ranked as ProFootballFocus’ (PFF) 4th best Linebacker in run defense. Kirksey is a former 3rd round pick and will be 25 years old when the 2017 season starts. Clearly he is a force in the run game, and his best years are cetainly ahead of him. This therefore leaves an open spot next to Kirksey in the middle at the Will position. I expect the Browns to fill this in free agency.
Along their Defensive Line, Cleveland have found a true gem in Nose Tackle Danny Shelton who elevated his level of play in 2016. Shelton was a 1st round pick in 2015 and is living up to his billing as a big-bodied Tackle who can plug gaps in the run game, and swallow blocking assignment to allow pass rushers open lanes to the QB. Shelton develop into one of the key pieces on this Browns Front Seven. I expect Cleveland to rotate 2016 2nd round pick, Emmanuel Ogbah and 2016 3rd round pick Carl Nassib at one of the Defensive End spots. This leaves open a spot at Defensive End, which Cleveland could choose to pursue through either the Draft or Free Agency.
Cleveland’s secondary was porous in 2016 and will need a complete overhaul if this team hopes to start competing over the next few years. The AFC North is loaded with talented receivers: Antonio Brown, AJ Green, and the Ravens will hope someone can fill Steve Smith’s shoes. QBs in the division can also put up points: Roethlisberger, Dalton and Flacco are all starting-caliber QBs. The only players I can see Cleveland keeping in the secondary to play meaningful snaps are Safety Ed Reynolds and CB Jamar Taylor (most likely as a nickel). Either through the Draft or Free Agency, Cleveland needs to somehow get some play makers in the secondary to help lighten the load on the Offense by producing turnovers.
Free Agent Targets
With $95.4m to play with, I fully expect the Cleveland Browns to load up their roster with talented starters. It will also be interesting to see how this analytics-intensive front office evaluate players.
I believe the Browns should prioritize signing a franchise RT who will help protect their QB(s) in 2017 and who will upgrade Cleveland’s run game. The Browns should also target a new starting Center and a veteran WR.
– Ricky Wagner, RT (Baltimore Ravens)
Since being drafted in the 5th Round, Ricky Wagner has impressed in his 4 years in Baltimore. Wagner has been the Ravens’ starting RT since his sophomore season (2014) and has put together some impressive tape. Wagner is solid in pass protection (9th in 2016 according to PFF) and alongside Joe Thomas would be pushing for the best Tackle duo in the NFL. With Wagner at RT, Thomas at LT and Bitonio and Greco as Guards, the Browns could turn an area of weakness into an area of strength through just one signing.
Putting together three solid seasons as a starter and being drafted in the 5th round, means that Wagner will be seeking a big money contract. While the Ravens will try to do all they can to keep him in the building, money talks in the NFL. At 27 years old, Cleveland should look to sign Wagner to a long term deal where his best years will be spent protecting the Browns future QB. Generally speaking, RT contracts are usually 1/2 the value of LT contracts. The 2nd to 9th highest RT contracts are all in a similar ball park: $6,750,000 to $6,000,000 per year. Yet, Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles earns an average of $11,250,000 per year (elite LT money). I believe Wagner will push for, and most likely, get somewhere between these two ranges. Cleveland would most likely have to shell out an average of $9,000,000 per year to bring in a stud RT like Wagner. $87.9m left.
– Joe Hawley, C (Buccaneers)
The Browns need help at Center and they need it fast. Hawley had a few turbulent years in Atlanta, before starting for the Bucs the past two seasons. Hawley is an above average starting Center and the best available option in this years free agency. While not a stud, Hawley could most likely command somewhere between Jason Kelce (10th highest paid) to Eric Wood (9th highest paid) due to the lack of quality at the Center position this year. At 28 years old, the Browns could sign Hawley to a 3/ 4 year deal and explore long-term options in the draft over the next few years. I imagine the Browns would have to offer an average of $2,500,000 per year to sign Hawley. $85.4m left.
– Pierre Garcon, WR (Redskins)
I am predicting Cleveland’s core group of receivers in 2017 to consist of Terrelle Pryor (27 years old) and Corey Coleman (22 years old) with a group of younger plays competing for snaps. Josh Gordon is too much of a wildcard to factor in here. I believe the Browns should go out and sign a veteran receiver to provide mentor-ship to this young receiving group and who can also contribute as a possession receiver. Garcon is coming off an excellent year in Washington as he caught 79 passes for 1,041 yards and 3TDs. Garcon will be 31 years old when he enters his 11th NFL season in 2017, yet this savvy veteran could still add a different facet to the Browns Offense in 2017 and could develop into a reliable check down target alongside Cleveland’s young and explosive play makers.
Garcon is currently the 19th highest paid WR in the League making an average of $8.5m per year. I believe the Browns will match his current contract but on a slightly shorter tenure. A three year deal on $8,400,000 a year could be appealing to both parties. $77m left to upgrade this Defense.
New Browns Defensive Co-Ordinator, Gregg Williams has a history of coaching hard hitting Defenses (we will not go into his role in the ‘bounty-gate’ scandal in New Orleans). This secondary is due an overhaul and the best way to get immediate results is by picking up proven veterans through free agency. Looking back at Williams’ last seven seasons in the NFL, it becomes apparent that he does not favour either long, physical press corners or smaller, sticky-cover corners. I believe Williams will champion the signing of a few DBs who he is familiar with; either due to him coaching them, or having played against them regularly (divisional opponent).
– Trumaine Johnson, CB (LA Rams)
The Browns should make Trumaine Johnson their number 1 target on Defense. Williams has coached Johnson for the past 3 seasons in LA/ St Louis. Johnson was franchise-tagged by the Rams last season after both sides failed to come to an agreement on a long term deal. I believe the new regime in LA will let Johnson test free agency, where Cleveland will be willing to hand out a large contract for a player who has proven he can be extremely productive (7 Interceptions in 2015). Johnson is a physical cover corner who can play either press or off the line (6-1, 205lbs).
Johnson was franchise-tagged for $14m this past season and he will most likely be looking for top-5 CB money. He will be looking for Josh Norman ($15m), Darrelle Revis ($14m), Patrick Peterson ($14m) and Richard Sherman ($14m) type money. I believe the Browns will make him the 2nd highest-paid corner with a large amount guaranteed. Cleveland could most likely strike a deal at the $14,500,000 range on a long term deal (5 years). $62.5m left.
– D. J. Swearinger, FS (Arizona Cardinals)
Swearinger has been outstanding this season for the Cardinals, and will likely look to cash in elsewhere. The Browns could instantly upgrade their secondary through the addition of Swearinger. The Safety has a reputation as a hard-hitter and could be used by the Browns in both run support near the line of scrimmage and in coverage against smaller slot receivers. Swearinger could be a general in the back end of this Defense. This could require the larger Ed Reynolds (Cleveland’s current FS) to move across to Strong Safety.
While Swearinger won’t garner teammate Tyrann Mathieu-type money; the Browns will most probably have to make him the 6th highest paid Safety. I expect Swearinger to command Devin McCourty/ Mark Barron-type money and could cost Cleveland an average of $9,300,000 per year. $53.2m left.
– Malcolm Smith, ILB 3-4 (Oakland Raiders)
The MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII, Smith cashed his chips in and took his talents from Seattle to Oakland. The former 7th round pick has under performed in Oakland, but his athleticism at Linebacker allows him to line up either Outside (in a 4-3) or Inside (in a 3-4). Smith could excel in this newly built Browns Defense if he was allowed to utilize his athleticism thanks to having a thumper like Christian Kirksey next to him inside. Smith could be brought on A-Gap Blitzes with Shelton eating up blocks in the middle and Jamie Collins coming through the B-Gap next to him, or could be an effective “spy”, monitoring RBs in the backfield and trying to read the eyes of opposing QBs.
Smith could get offered a contract in the 20-25 range for Linebackers. Malcom Smith would most likely be avaiable on a 4-year contract that averages $7,000,000 per year – similar to Derrick Johnson, Sean Lee and Lamarr Houston. This would leave Cleveland with $46.2m to add depth across their roster and also sign their 2017 rookie class (likely to be ‘large’ rookie contracts due to the Browns picking early and holding two 1st rounders). The Draft could end costing the Browns just below c.$17.5m to sign all their rookies. This would leave them with around $28.7m to pad out their roster and help bring in some depth.
No.1 overall, No.12 overall, No.33 (1st in 2nd round), No.52 (mid-2nd round); No.65 (1st in 3rd round); No.129 (1st in 5th round); No.159 (last in 5th round) and No.160 (1st in 6th round).
No.1 Myles Garrett, Edge Rusher (DE or OLB) – Texas A&M
Myles Garrett is a physically gifted edge rusher who is the consensus top pick among scouts. Garrett is a big physical specimen with rare agility and speed which enables him to explode out of his stance and quickly turn Tackles over en route to the Quaterback. Garrett has played with both his hand in the dirt and standing up during his time as an Aggie. I can imagine the Browns rotating Garrett as a pass-rushing phenom and mis-match nightmare, with him lining up at DE in a 3-4, with Jamie Collins blitzing the C Gap on Garrett’s side. I can also see the Browns using Garrett standing up on occasion as an OLB. Garrett would most likely need to ‘bulk’ some more in order to play 3-4 Defensive End as he is currently listed at 270lbs, but his large frame (6 foot 6 inches) should facilitate him not losing any speed due to the added weight.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Browns have an “astronomical grade” on Garrett. I believe the Browns will go with the best player available approach and wait to see if any QBs they like are still left on the board at 12. If not the Browns could roll with RGIII and Cody Kessler for another season.
No.12 DeShone Kizer, QB – Notre Dame
Cleveland could end up taking the big-armed, mobile Quarterback out of Notre Dame with the 12th overall pick. While I believe the Browns will have North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky over Kizer, if Kizer is available at 12 then the Browns should snap him up.
Kizer is an excellent pocket passer and his arm strength allows him to make all the throws and beat good coverage. He is consistently accurate and has the pocket presence and mobility to be able to extend plays with his legs and find receivers down field for big plays. Kizer has demonstrated that he can squeeze balls into tight windows, protect the football and has elite decision-making ability. He has a big arm and has an outstanding deep ball, something many NFL scouts are heavily biased towards.
Critics would argue that he has never lit the college football world on fire and his Fighting Irish only went 4-8 in 2016 (not good enough for a Bowl game). In his two years as a ‘starter’ Kizer has not amassed eye popping stats, but the raw tools and potential are there for Hue Jackson to work with. Kizer could redshirt his rookie season behind RGIII and develop while, learning the play book. Either way, this is great value at the number 12 spot as Cleveland have a chance to end up with a potential franchise QB.
No.33 Jabrill Peppers, S – Michigan
Jabrill Peppers is an extremely unique prospect. Peppers has played Safety, Cornerback, Linebacker, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Quarterback and returned kick offs and punts in College. If Peppers can last until day two (which I believe he will as most teams will be put off by his extreme versatility) then DC Gregg Williams might just get himself a special toy to play with in 2017. We have seen how Head Coach Hue Jackson loves to play Terrelle Pryor at multipe positions on Offense; Peppers could be the same for this Defense and could even be used on Offense with Pryor for trick plays. Peppers would most likely play either Strong Safety or Free Safety, but he could also fit in as a ‘nickel backer’ on 3rd & longs.
No.50 Cordrea Tankersley, CB – Clemson
With the amount of talented Defensive Backs in this Draft class, if the Browns manage to get Tankersley at 50 (which is extremely likely) then it would be a steal. Cordrea Tankersley was part of a dynamic duo for Clemson with Mackenzie Alexander last season (went 54th to Minnesota in 2016), and continued to be productive in 2016. In the past two years he has generated 9 INTs and 19 pass deflections. Tankersley is a tall, physical press corner who could compete for the open spot at no.2 or if he struggles to transition, could add depth/ play Safety for a season.
No.65 Samaje Perine, RB – Oklahoma
The Browns currently have a solid backfield with the physical Isiah Crowell and explosive Duke Johnson. The possibility of Samaje Perrine being available at the start of the 3rd round might be too good to pass up for Cleveland. If the Browns are going for the best player available approach then Perine will greatly benefit this football team.
He was extremely productive in his three years at Oklahoma and set the schools rushing record (4,122 career rushing yards). Remember that Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and Billy Sims were all RBs at Oklahoma. He also owns the FBS single game rushing record, which he set in his freshman year in 2014: 427 yards and 6TDs off 34 rushes against Kansas. At 5-10, 235lbs; Perine could be an excellent north-south runner who could set the tone on Offense if Isiah Crowell becomes a future cap casualty or under performs.
2017 Projected Starters
I have clearly focused heavily on upgrading the Cleveland Browns Defense this past offseason, while also adding pieces that could make the Browns competitve on Offense. The Offensive Line I am projecting, has the potential to challenge for Top-10 in the League. This would allow the Browns to establish a strong run game, while keeping Cleveland’s signal callers upright. The receiving corps adds a savvy route-runner and veteran with Pierre Garcon, while DeShone Kizer could either redshirt 2017 or start week 1, depending what happens in training camp and the pre-season.
On Defense I believe I have selected some talented young playmakers, whose best years are still ahead of them. This group is physical and athletic, however, some may argue that the unit is too young and lacks veteran experience. If you take a look at what the Falcons are currently doing with a group of youngsters you see what having athletes all over your Defense who buy into your scheme can do for a team. Garrett is a future All-Pro while Tankersley and Peppers are ball-hawks. I also have the Browns retaining CB Jamar Taylor as a nickel corner, but he could play the 2nd CB spot if Cordrea Tankersley struggles to make the transition to the Pros.
Let me know your thoughts and opinions and tweet @TomLikeNFL what you would do different. The next team up will be… San Francisco 49ers. Tweet @ me your suggestions using the #TomPlayGM.