CLEVELAND -- This offseason will be a serious test to Ray Farmer’s plans.
The Browns general manager is straight from the build-through-the-draft school because it works. Green Bay and New England are known to develop their own players while using free agency only as a supplement.
But the Browns’ wide receiver position raises enough questions to wonder if Farmer will leave his comfort zone and spend on at least one outside, stretch-the-field pass catcher when free agency ramps up in March. Yes, Seattle isn’t loaded at receiver and wins big. You can win without top-shelf outside guys. But the Browns don’t have Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, either.
There are several reasons the Browns must evaluate this position: Josh Gordon is likely done in Cleveland after his looming year-long suspension, the free agency wide receiver class is loaded, the Browns have nearly $50 million in cap space, and Farmer’s plan suggests he’ll use first-round picks on other positions, such as pass-rusher or nose tackle.
But with quarterback uncertainty, the Browns would be smart to give next year’s starter more reliable options. Andrew Hawkins is the only receiver on the Browns’ roster with more than 800 career receiving yards. He has 1,819 yards. Hawkins is a good player, validating the four-year, $13.6-million contract he signed last offseason. He’s also a natural slot receiver, as is ascending undrafted free agent Taylor Gabriel (36 catches, 621 yards).
Of course, Farmer can always point out the Browns were playing their best football, going 6-4, while Gordon was suspended last year -- essentially without a go-to option on the outside.
“I’m a believer that this whole notion that you’ve got to have this one guy that’s the silver bullet is a myth,” Farmer said after the season. “I think it’s like trying to catch werewolves and vampires. They just don’t exist. I’m a big believer in it’s a team sport, and when we combine the requisite skill sets necessary to let guys have success, we have that success. We saw that earlier this year that we were missing certain key components that people thought were high-value targets and assets for us, but we played team football. As a result of that, we were able to have success.”
The Browns don’t have to throw $40 million guaranteed at the position, but they must do something to address it, hopefully finding a No. 1 outside guy with length. Here are a few options on that front:
*Make a few phone calls on DeMaryius Thomas and Torrey Smith: The market includes Thomas, Smith, Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, Michael Crabtree and more. Many of these players will stay where they are via the franchise tag or signing long-term deals (especially Bryant and Cobb). But if somehow the Broncos let Thomas walk, the Browns would be smart to feel this one out. He’s Josh Gordon without the headaches.
Smith is talented but doesn’t have the raw numbers (49 catches, 767 yards, 11 touchdowns) to warrant the same money as Thomas or Bryant. Make him a reasonable offer. Worst case, you make the rival Ravens pay more than they wanted to keep Smith.
Re-sign Miles Austin: Austin produced nearly 200 yards on third downs before being placed on Injured Reserve after Week 13. Austin is 30 years old, has a Pro Bowl pedigree and can’t command top dollar at this stage in his career. He seems like a logical option to bring back on a one- or two-year deal.
Draft a receiver in the late-first, early-second round: There are at least five good receivers in the draft but no guarantee that any of them will duplicate Odell Beckham Jr. or Mike Evans production. At least one of those five (Kevin White, Amari Cooper, DeVante Parker, Jaelen Strong, Sammie Coates) could fall to the second round. The speed-size combos of Coates or Strong would be great fits for what the Browns want to do. Other enticing options include Ohio State downfield threat Devin Smith or potential mid-round flier Dorial Green-Beckham, believed to have first-round talent but branded with the ‘character issues’ label.