A Browns blueprint: Cost-effective free agency deals

The Browns can print their own "play like a Brown" money, toting $53.77 million in InstaBrown salary-cap bucks.

They have to spend at least some of that pile. As explained last week, to get above the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s 89-percent rule, the Browns must spend roughly $71 million during the next two offseasons. Rookie contracts and in-house signings will cover some of those expenses.

All this cap space doesn’t mean the Browns must make an Ndamukong Suh-sized play. That seems unlikely. Don’t expect the Browns to be huge players in the market of top-10 players. That doesn’t seem to fit Ray Farmer’s draft-first philosophy. Look around the league at some of the top franchises – Packers, Patriots, Ravens. They won’t be overly active when the market booms on March 10.

But the Browns’ plan from last year could be a good blueprint for Farmer’s second year. In fact, Cleveland’s strategy worked (repeat: Cleveland's strategy worked!). Don’t be surprised if they roll out a similar plan – sign a few quality players that command rich, but not outrageous, contracts, then fill in the gaps with other veterans.

At the start of free agency, the Browns poured about $25 million in guaranteed money to linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner. These are good signings, for the money. Whitner’s $13 million in guarantees was behind Denver’s T.J. Ward and New Orleans’ Jairus Byrd in the 2014 safety market.

Dansby’s $12 million guaranteed put him 22nd overall among linebackers (3-4 OLBs occupy some of those spots).

Both players were productive on the field and in the locker room as influential veterans.

Andrew Hawkins looks like a steal for Cleveland at four years for $13.6 million and $6.8 million in guarantees. The Browns aided the receiver position with a one-year deal for Miles Austin. Perhaps they could have done more at this position, but Austin was the Browns’ best third-down receiver for most of the year.

Despite Farmer’s blunders, including two first-round picks who struggled mightily as rookies and a text message investigation that hurts the Browns’ image, it should be noted that Farmer essentially went 4-for-4 in top free agent signings last year. That should sway his plan for this year.

“Active? Not active? It’s really about being judicious and making smart decisions,” Farmer told ClevelandBrowns.com last month. “That’s the one thing we’ve tried to articulate to [owner Jimmy Haslam] and the rest of our staff. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to go. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to play. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to allocate cap dollars in that regard.”

This is typical Farmer – incredibly vague, by design.

But I believe he’s already tipped his hand by the way the team handled last year. The plan worked and is worth repeating.

If the Browns do decide on a big-money play, however, my guess is they target a talented pass-rusher such as Jerry Hughes.