The plus is the Browns have $53 million in salary cap space heading into free agency. The CBA requires NFL teams to spend 89 percent of their cumulative salary caps from 2013-16, which means the Browns must spend $71 million in cash over the next two seasons.
So the Browns can be judicious in free agency and not spend a ton while still chipping away at the money they have to spend.
Among the areas of concern:
- Wide receiver: The Browns need at least one, and probably two receivers. One can come through the draft — if Ray Farmer gives a little on his reluctance to draft a receiver with a high pick. The other would have to come via free agency. Cecil Shorts III is on record that he would like to play in his hometown. Brian Hartline could choose soon between the Bears (whom he’s visiting Wednesday) and the Browns (whom he visited Tuesday), or returning to the Dolphins.
- Tight end: Jordan Cameron is on a humanitarian trip for American Football Without Borders, the group run by tight end Gary Barnidge. But the strong feeling around the league is that Cameron is ready for a change after years of upheaval in Cleveland. Look for Cameron to favor a West Coast team. He has a young son to whom he is devoted, and he would love to be closer to him. The Browns could turn to a guy like the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Maxx Williams in the draft, though it might be a stretch to think he’ll be available in the second round when the Browns pick at No. 43. Denver’s Julius Thomas is the most talented option other than Cameron on the free agent market, but he will probably demand more money than the Browns want to spend. The market drops after those the top two.
- Quarterback: The Browns give every indication that they will not add another veteran quarterback following the signing of Josh McCown. They certainly paid McCown like he’s going to start, guaranteeing him $6.25 million. With Brian Hoyer no longer in the plans, it would seem that adding Jake Locker would strengthen the position. The negative is that he has been much injured. But the tea leaves say the Browns will not do anything more at the position until the draft. Whether that’s via a major trade up for Marcus Mariota or whether it’s for a second-round or third-round development guy provides the intrigue.
- Running back: The Browns will live with the two rookies they played last year, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. But their inconsistency was troubling. Crowell clearly is more explosive, but neither of the two seized the spot. Ben Tate didn’t work out last season, but a veteran might add something to the mix. The position is not considered a major question mark, but it could easily become one.
As for their own free agents, the Browns might also need to add a corner to replace Buster Skrine and a linebacker to replace Jabaal Sheard, if both sign elsewhere.
One highlight showed Brian Hoyer going through, one, two, three reads from the pocket, eventually firing to Miles Austin on a deep slant route through a tight window. After that sunny October day, Hoyer was 5-2 as a Browns' starter with three game-winning drives.
I like the McCown signing more than many do. A bad offensive line, a thumb injury and the departure of the offensive coordinator in September all contributed to his 1-10 record in Tampa.
But make no mistake, the Hoyer breakup could sting if the 29-year-old veteran leads the Texans or the Jets or the Bills to a meaningful season in 2015.
It's become fairly clear the Browns viewed Hoyer as a fallback option in free-agency quarterback plans, seemingly hedging bets until the end.
General manager Ray Farmer spoke to Hoyer on Friday night. By then, the McCown decision had essentially been made.
A week earlier, Hoyer's talks with the Browns went nowhere in part because Hoyer's camp was waiting for the quarterback to talk with Farmer. I can all but guarantee Hoyer didn't expect that conversation to take place after it was all over.
Sounds like the Browns wanted to keep Hoyer as a realistic option in case McCown's deal fell through.
The Browns probably looked at all the factors -- Hoyer's eight interceptions in his last four starts, the team's limp to the finish line last season, the clunky handoff from Hoyer to Johnny Manziel -- and opted for the proverbial fresh start.
But I don't think this guy's done. Maybe he still has some Tennessee game left in him.
Of his 13 interceptions last season, not all should have his name on them. Josh Gordon can claim a few. Hoyer's play was ugly down the stretch but the Browns did little to help him.
And now it's over. The goodbye was awkward, as they usually are.
But if the Browns fail to match last season's seven-win total -- the team's largest since 2007 -- Browns fans will conveniently remember Hoyer's name.
Profootballtalk.com first reported the visit.
Released by the Miami Dolphins to clear cap space, Hartline caught 39 passes for 474 yards last season and scored a pair of touchdowns. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Hartline's role gradually shrunk last season to the No. 4 option in the team’s passing game.
The Bears likely view Hartline as a potential option in the slot.
Hartline reportedly visited the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday, but could wind up re-signing with Miami as team owner Steve Ross reportedly called the receiver shortly after his release. A source said the Dolphins remain interested. So Hartline could be using his free-agent visits to determine his value on the open market.
Hartline started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2014, yet produced the fewest receiving yards (474) of his career after putting together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013.
In six seasons with the Dolphins, Hartline has 298 receptions for 4,243 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Interestingly, Hartline and Marshall have maintained a close relationship since the latter joined the Bears. They were teammates for two seasons in Miami (2010-11).
So although it’s apparent the Bears are interested in Hartline, the team could also be using the free-agent visit to glean more information about Marshall.
Remember, Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox held off on committing to Marshall for the 2015 season when asked last month at the NFL combine about the receiver, who is due $7.5 million next season in base salary and counts $9.575 million against the cap.
Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who enters the final year of his deal in 2015, are tied for ninth in the NFL with the most 100-yard receiving games (eight) in the NFL since 2013.
It’s likely that the Bears view Hartline as a potential secondary target as former seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson, after a training-camp injury, struggled during a 2014 season that was supposed to be his breakout year.
Wilson played in seven games last season with six starts, but generated just 17 receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Some highlights from the Josh McCown conference call with Cleveland media on Monday.
On being the 23rd different starting quarterback since 1999, with many of them in the past well-meaning and good guys:
- “It’s obviously a tall order. My reaction is that that is in the past. I’ve got to hone in on this team in this year and play good football and do what it takes for this team to win football games. You can’t get caught up in that. Like you said, a lot of ‘well-meaning guys,’ every guy comes in with the same mindset and intentions and mine will be no different.”
McCown is right. Everyone the Browns have tried comes in with the same intentions, goals and mindset. Nobody signs and says he expects to be the guy who hands off to the next quarterback. Finding the guy who sticks has been the challenge.
More on the starting quarterback names on that jersey:
- “If you just looked at it like that and just said 22 guys or whatever have been here before then it’s just, ‘Hey, let’s pack up and go home because it’s pointless,’ but that is not my mindset. That is not my attitude. I want to attack this thing and do everything I can to change that and more than anything, help this team win football games.”
On the visit McCown had with the Browns and how important it was to his signing:
- “It really solidified to me that things are going in the right direction.”
This is not atypical, and in one sense illustrates the reality that the NFL's 16-game season overexagerates the importance of what people say. There is more dead time between games, and more time to examine words. In the offseason, players move from team to team and always (and understandably) talk confidently of their new team and positively of their visit. The statements are sincere. But they matter a lot less than wins in October, November and December.
On the difficulties the Browns faced this offseason:
- “I think it’s important to understand and to remember that there’s a lot of people going through last year’s situation from ownership, to the general manager to the head coach who were all in their first year of something. For me, I took that into consideration and look the totality of it and said, ‘It seems like they made a really good step in this first year, all things considered.’ That part is encouraging to me.”
McCown’s statement echoed Jimmy Haslam’s in February that a 7-9 record in the big picture was a positive, and even with all that has happened since that is not an unfair position.
On the 1-10 record as a starter in Tampa Bay:
- “Yeah, not a whole lot to say about it, other than it just wasn’t good enough. I’ve said it before. I don’t shy away from it. In that situation, I wasn’t good enough in that situation to pull us out of that.”
Accountability is always a good thing. This statement ties into another when McCown was asked if his decision to join the Browns was based on the chance to start:
- “For me, it was more of what’s the right fit, and if I go there, can we win football games and be productive? And NFL coaching experience was big for me. Just having guys that have been in the league for a while.”
Clearly the Browns staff is not overflowing with experience. Mike Pettine is a second year head coach and the Browns have a first-year offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and receivers coach. This statement, though, might be best taken as referring more to the fact that QB coach Marcus Arroyo took over in Tampa last season after Jeff Tedford had to leave due to a health issue. Arroyo, 35, was thrust into the job, and the results were not great.
- “I’ll leave those conversations between myself and the Browns.”
Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) Will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the show.
Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions reporter) will take us behind the Lions' decision to avoid franchise-tagging defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and also give us an idea of where the prized lineman might end up.
Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) will join to make sense of New England's decision to place the franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, instead of potentially doing so with free-agent defensive backs Darrelle Revis or Devin McCourty.
Todd Archer (Dallas Cowboys reporter) will give us an update on the Cowboys' apparent decision to let DeMarco Murray, 2014's rushing leader, test the open market.
Sticking with offense, Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers reporter) checks in to outline why the Packers may be content doing the same with receiver Randall Cobb, who reportedly was looking to stay in Green Bay for $12 million a year.
As always, viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
In 2013 and 2012, he was targeted 130 and 125 times (all according to ESPN Stats and Information).
That alone explains the drop in Hartline’s numbers last season, as he caught 39 passes, compared to 76 and 74 the previous two seasons. It’s a pretty basic fact: If a team doesn’t throw a player’s way he won’t have as many catches.
Which is why it’s good to know that the Browns are bringing Hartline in for a visit on Tuesday. He is 28, stands 6-foot-2, went to Ohio State and two years ago led Miami with 76 catches and 1,016 yards — his second 1,000-yard season in Miami. In 2013, he signed a five-year, $30.7 million contract with the Dolphins, but he was released in February.
The difference from ’13 to ’14? A new coordinator in Bill Lazor, who simply did not utilize Hartline as much as he had been used, focusing instead on Mike Wallace and rookie Jarvis Landry — both targeted 111 times, and neither topping 1,000 yards.
An objective look at the numbers indicates that Hartline still has something left and he can contribute. He might not be a No. 1 receiver, but he can be a very effective No. 2. His numbers are good, he doesn’t have an unusual drop percentage (4.7 percent the last three years, compared to the league average of 4.2), and he provides something the Browns lack.
He just needs the ball thrown his way.
The fact the Browns brought him in for a visit is a good thing.
That means the Browns have until March 10 to sign their free agents or they will hit the market with complete freedom.
It also is appearing more and more likely that the team may not retain any of its unrestricted free agents. The tea leaves say the Browns may try to keep one or two, but the players will at least test the market first.
One name to watch who was not tagged by his team is linebacker Jerry Hughes of Buffalo. He blossomed in Mike Pettine’s system, with 10 sacks each of the last two seasons, and he could be a target for the Browns.
Running down the Browns' most prominent unrestricted free agents:
- Tight end Jordan Cameron was the only player who might have been franchised, in part because the tight end franchise cost of $8.347 million is lower than that of even a safety ($9.618 million). The Browns declined to tag Cameron, and he will head elsewhere. Cameron grew weary of the revolving door at the quarterback and at coach and in the front office in his four years in Cleveland. He is ready for a change.
- Cornerback Buster Skrine is a player the team would like back, but he wasn’t worth a franchise cost of $13.07 million that would have put him in Joe Haden territory. Skrine improved every season with the Browns, but he has gone on record saying he will test the market before considering staying in Cleveland.
- Quarterback Brian Hoyer and the team cut ties when Josh McCown was signed. The Browns preferred McCown, so Hoyer will go to a new team.
- Linebacker Jabaal Sheard is an underrated player who is well-respected in the locker room. His numbers are not glittering, but a team that wants a professional and productive role player would do well to sign him.
- Defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin played through an ankle issue a year ago, but the team gives every indication they feel Rubin’s best years in Cleveland are in the past.
- Wide receiver Miles Austin was a dependable pro in his one year in Cleveland. Even with that, the Browns interest in him seems tepid at best.
Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson is the most important restricted free agent. The Browns have until March 10 to tender him an offer that would give the team the right to match an offer sheet he could sign with another team, or receive compensation if he leaves. The Browns are likely to place a high tender on Gipson, probably one that would bring a first-round draft pick as compensation.
The other prominent restricted free agents are special-teamer/safety Johnson Bademosi and defensive lineman Ishmaa'ily Kitchen.
After asking around, I’m hearing Cleveland plans to add at least one more quarterback to the 2015 meetings rooms, a role filled through the draft or free agency.
The Browns are intrigued by Sam Bradford, but many believe he won’t be attainable without -- once again -- valuable draft picks. Giving up first- or second-rounders is difficult for a build-through-the-draft team such as Cleveland.
Free agency plays for Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker seem unlikely at this point.
Save Bradford, a home-run quarterback signing doesn’t really exist for Cleveland. But they can dig through the bargain bins and hope for the best.
A plausible rotation for Cleveland’s quarterback room is Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw and a rookie quarterback such as Colorado State's Garrett Grayson or Baylor's Bryce Petty.
The Browns have been burned by spread quarterbacks before, but I’m told they had productive meetings with the former Baylor star at the Senior Bowl.
McCown, who last week signed a three-year deal worth $14 million, seems ready to support any quarterback in the Browns' facility.
"Whatever I can do to help somebody, I can do that," McCown said.
There are other opinions out there, though, some negative, some more positive.
Peter King of SI.com wrote in Monday Morning Quarterback that the Browns feel McCown is a better bridge than Hoyer. “If Hoyer had been re-signed, he’d have expected to play every game, and the Browns weren’t convinced that he’s an NFL starter. With McCown, he can fill almost any role.”
ESPN CLeveland’s Tony Grossi asks: “What in name of Jake Delhomme is going on here?” Then add: “A history lesson: The Browns have a sordid history of adding washed-up quarterbacks since they returned as an expansion franchise in 1999.”
Tom Reed, a noted international soccer enthusiast as well as a Browns writer for the Northeast Ohio Media Group, wrote: “If the plan is heading to training camp with McCown and Johnny Manziel, who's in rehab, then fans must be grateful American football doesn't relegate its bottom teams the way they do elsewhere in the world.”
Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer says the McCown signing “has to be setting up another move.” Or at least, he adds, it should be.
The NEOMG’s Bud Shaw asks: “Is McCown more attractive because he's willing to mentor young quarterbacks while Hoyer and whomever else -- Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez -- would want to start? God help all Browns fans if that's the case.”
Zac Jackson of FoxSportsOhio offers that McCown’s signing did not bring much rejoicing. “The Browns are moving on from Brian Hoyer -- a hometown guy who won a little -- for an older version of a game manager like Hoyer who has more bruises and a better completion percentage.”
Marc Sessler of NFL.com says McCown gives Manziel “an example to follow under center.” He adds: “It's a strong sign the team still believes Johnny can make something out of a career that currently floats upon troubled waters.”
McCown is taking a starter's mentality to Cleveland too.
"That's my expectation right now," McCown told ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" on Monday about his goal to start for the Browns. "We'll see, as things unfold, what their plan is, but that's my expectation. I'm going to compete as such to do that."
McCown signed a bigger deal after going 1-10 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starter last year than he did the previous offseason, when he signed a two-year, $10 million deal coming off a 13-touchdown, one-interception performance with the Chicago Bears.
Released by the Bucs on Feb. 11, McCown used the following 16 days to create a market. The Bills, Jets and Bears were all reportedly involved. In what's considered a weak free-agency market for quarterbacks, McCown capitalized.
The Browns have started 22 quarterbacks since 1999. McCown seems to understand the inherent skepticism of the potential No. 23 on that list, especially since he is coming off an 11-touchdown, 14-interception season. McCown supporters can point to a thumb injury, shaky offensive line play and the September leave of absence of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford as reasons for his struggles.
Speaking with local media Monday afternoon, McCown said he understands the "tall order" of succeeding in Cleveland but isn't discouraged by past results.
1. Ponder the chronology: Ray Farmer drafts Johnny Manziel. Brian Hoyer barely wins the job out of training camp, then holds onto it by playing well early. Eventually he leads the Browns to a 7-4 record. Farmer, though, sends in-game texts to assistant coaches as early as the New Orleans game. It was the second game of the season and a win for the Browns. He continues to text during games throughout the season, some of it about the quarterback play, and only acknowledges his mistake after the season when the texting becomes public. Farmer clearly was part of the front office effort that undermined Hoyer, and had him playing while wearing a straightjacket. The more Hoyer learned the front office was not supportive, the more he pressed. So the guy who undermined Hoyer by texting during games winds up, with the full support of the owner, ushering Hoyer out of town and signing a 35-year-old to replace him.
3. The Browns have maintained as they built their team that what was most important to them was they wanted to drive competition at every position. It’s been a mantra, right up there with “play like a Brown.” In signing McCown, the Browns let Hoyer go because he wanted to start and they felt he was not their guy for the long-term. In signing McCown, they added a guy who will start, but is willing to be a mentor. How exactly is this driving competition?
4. McCown was good with the Bears two years ago, going 3-2 in games he started. But that was the only year in his career he was above .500 as a starter. His second-best mark: 3-3 in 2005 and 1-1 in 2011. Take away the Bears season, and McCown is 14-30 as a starter, with 44 starts in 12 seasons.
5. McCown went 1-10 in Tampa Bay. There he had two big and talented receivers and a poor offensive line, and he faced the NFC South, the NFL’s worst division. Carolina made the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record.
6. Kyle Shanahan preferred the Browns draft Jimmy Garapolo last year. In signing McCown, the Browns made a point that new coordinator John DeFilippo worked with him in Oakland. So the team gave a first-time coordinator who -- has never called plays -- his quarterback while denying the veteran coordinator his.
7. It’s worth noting that DeFilippo worked with McCown as quarterback coach in 2007. That was seven years ago when DeFIlippo was a first-year quarterback coach.
8. Relying on past performance seems to really matter with this organization. Farmer said he believes Manziel can succeed because of the way he played in college. Two years ago. The Browns signed McCown, presumably because he played well in Chicago. Two years ago.
9. In fairness, the draft remains an option. A developmental guy like Garrett Grayson could fit. If Marcus Mariota falls to No. 12, the Browns would be nuts not to take him (which of course, based on history, means they’ll take a running back). But if it comes to trading up to acquire Mariota, the Browns would have to surrender both their first-round picks and presumably another to get him. Which means they’d be giving up everything they acquired to build a team that could sustain winning. Which would be continued madness.
10. This of course shrugs off that Mariota will need time to adjust to the NFL game and might not be ready as a rookie. Mariota said at the combine he hadn’t called plays in a huddle since high school, so Kevin O’Connell had him practicing reading plays at night. He also didn’t huddle in college, or take NFL drops. So … he’ll go through the same on-field adjustment Manziel went through.
And, because winter is almost over, a bonus No. 11.
11. The Browns seem to be the only team that believes Manziel and McCown can be a starter. Buffalo was negotiating, but not to the effort the Browns did. What the Browns saw that 31 other teams did not is open to question. Though the draft could reduce the fuzziness, at this point it seems like Farmer simply did not want Hoyer. When McCown became available he became the most attractive quarterback to Farmer who wasn’t Hoyer. Signing a 35-year-old who went 1-10 a year ago, a guy much of the league felt was more ready to be a Matt Hasselbeck type backup than a starter, shows little long-term thinking. It seems more like the Browns are making it up as they go.
Ahead of the start of free agency, Insider is providing buyer's guides for all 32 teams: biggest need positions from Football Outsiders, top targets from KC Joyner and Matt Williamson and predictions on how everything will play out from our NFL Nation team reporters.
Included below are links to every team's article. This is the entry for the Cleveland Browns.
Quarterback: The eternal problem for Cleveland 2.0 is the inability to find a franchise quarterback. The Browns have ranked 22nd or worse in offensive DVOA in 15 of the 16 seasons since returning in 1999. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' metric of defense-adjusted value over average, explained here.) Only the 2007 Browns with Derek Anderson's one-year wonder performance had success with a 10th-ranked finish. Johnny Manziel's offseason started with a trip to rehab and free-agent signee Josh McCown is unlikely to be a difference-maker.
#Brownsmail If the Browns wanted to trade up to get Cooper or White at 8 or 9, what would they have to give up?— Brandon Brown (@BrownDawg17) February 27, 2015
@patmcmanamon: The starting point would be one of their first-round picks. If they traded the 12th overall, they would have to throw in at least this year's third-round choice. If they traded the 19th overall, they would have to include this year's second-round choice, and perhaps more. I don't see this as realistic. I disagree with my good friend and colleague Tony Grossi -- I believe there will be a good receiver available at the 12th spot.
McManamon: Well, I believe this is more Ray Farmer than Mike Pettine. Why would everyone lose it if it happens? It doesn't necessarily make sense to say a receiver doesn't impact a game because he only touches the ball 10 times on a good day. A talented receiver can have a huge impact on a game. Those 10 touches could be for 150 yards, and a touchdown or two.
McManamon: Well, owner Jimmy Haslam said they would not be major players in free agency. Which is different from a year ago. It's also odd given the team's overflowing cap space. Which means if they do something like Haslam said, it would be odd, so it would be very much like the Browns' approach for the past 15 years. Which wouldn't be different at all..