The next nine weeks will be among the most crucial in the history of the expansion-era Browns.
The NFL Scouting Combine will run Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis. Teams can begin negotiating with the agents of impending unrestricted free agents from other clubs on March 7. The trading period and free agency will officially open at 4 p.m.March 9. Pro days, visits to team headquarters and private workouts will precede the April 27-29 draft.
The Browns are armed with a projected $108 million in salary-cap space, most in the NFL. They’re also in position to yield the most power in the draft with five picks in the top 65: first round (Nos. 1 and 12 overall); second (Nos. 33 and 52); and third (No. 65).
Coming off the worst season in the franchise’s existence with a record of 1-15, there’s a palpable sense of urgency for coach Hue Jackson and the front office led by head of football operations Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta.
No one knows exactly how this offseason all unfold — and there will be more tea leaves to read after teams put out feelers at the combine — but this is an early forecast.
Quest for quarterback
Expect the Browns to explore a trade for New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
If the price is too high for their taste, the Patriots aren’t willing to deal him or the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears or another quarterback-needy team pulls off a blockbuster instead, the Browns would probably pursue Buffalo Bills starter Tyrod Taylor, provided he hits the open market with a huge payday due March 12.
People who know Garoppolo and/or have studied him think he has what it takes to be a successful starter. They cite his processing speed, quick release and accuracy as the main reasons for those beliefs. The 2014 second-round pick from Eastern Illinois also fully embraced learning from Tom Brady the past three seasons.
Jackson said last month at the Senior Bowl his quarterback “needs to be able to process football and (have) arm talent” and added “those are things that are non-negotiable for me.” That description matches the scouting report on Garoppolo, and Jackson heads this search.
But Garoppolo, 25, has only played six quarters as an NFL starter. He went 2-0 in September with Brady suspended for Deflategate. He completed 71 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions before a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder sidelined him during the second quarter of his second start. There are reasons to fear trading for someone with such a small sample size, especially a QB whom Patriots coach Bill Belichick would be willing to surrender.
On the other hand, Garoppolo could be a special case, and there’s a logical explanation for why the Patriots would trade him even if they believe he’ll be good. Timing is everything. If they’re going to get anything for him before he can depart in free agency next year, this is the time.
Brady, 39, recently told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King he wants to play until his mid-40s, and the Patriots drafted quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the third round last year. Belichick is 64 and might be compelled to ride off into the sunset when Brady does. So why not use Garoppolo to strengthen the roster in hopes of racking up as many titles as possible before Brady hangs it up?
Sure, the Browns would rather give up less than more in any trade. Perhaps two second-round picks would be enough to win the Garoppolo sweepstakes, but if not, the 12th overall selection might be their trump card.
If Garoppolo isn’t destined for Cleveland, the presence of new Browns quarterbacks coach David Lee cannot be discounted. He spent the past two seasons with Taylor, 27, in Buffalo and is a big fan of the dual-threat quarterback who would allow Jackson to be creative with zone-read plays.
It would make sense for the Browns to draft a quarterback early — Clemson’sDeshaun Watson, North Carolina’sMitch Trubisky and Notre Dame’sDeShone Kizer are the top-rated ones in this year’s class — even if they were to sign Taylor. With Taylor’s record of 15-14, he should be viewed more like a bridge starter than a probable long-term answer.
In the event the Browns were to land Garoppolo, a developmental quarterback in the middle to late rounds would be a logical target. Prospects in that tier include California’sDavis Webb and Tennessee’sJosh Dobbs, both of whom played for Jackson in the Senior Bowl.
Like Garoppolo, Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron, 26, is scheduled to soon enter the final season of his rookie contract. McCarron could receive interest from Jackson, who coached him in his first two NFL seasons. However, the Bengals may not be willing to trade within the AFC North.
The quarterback to watch on the Browns’ roster is Robert Griffin III. Although it’s possible he could be Jackson’s plan C or D for next season, it would be more surprising if Griffin were retained than if he were cut. He’s due a roster bonus of $750,000 on March 11.
Owner Jimmy Haslam listed re-signing key players as one of the Browns’ top priorities, and they have secured cornerback Jamar Taylor (during the season), linebacker Jamie Collins and long snapper Charley Hughlett with contract extensions.
The focus now is on wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 9.
Brown has said the team wants to retain Pryor without using a franchise tag. Pryor has said he wants to continue playing for Jackson. Both sides have been working to strike a deal.
For the Browns, it’ll be vital to get this done. In his first full season after switching from quarterback to receiver, Pryor led the Browns with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns. It’s reasonable to believe he could be even better with more experience at his new position and some stability at quarterback, where the Browns used six players, including Pryor, this past season.
If the Browns can’t reach an agreement with Pryor’s agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus, they could keep him off the open market and secure him with a one-year contract by franchising him at a projected cost of $15.8 million. The deadline to use the franchise tag is March 1.
Tackle/guard Austin Pasztor and punter Britton Colquitt are the team’s other soon-to-be unrestricted free agents of note.
The Browns control running back Isaiah Crowell because he’s on the verge of becoming a restricted free agent, and they deem him an important piece of the team moving forward.
As for impending free agents from other teams, Haslam has said the Browns must be “appropriately aggressive” in their pursuit of them.
It certainly would be appropriate to sign at least one starting-caliber offensive lineman. There are holes at center and right tackle, plus starting guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco are rehabilitating from Lisfranc injuries. The Browns are going to invest in a quarterback, and he must be protected better than their QBs were last season.
The receiving corps is another area of concern, even with the assumption that Pryor will return.
Safety is one of the most pressing needs on the entire roster. But every level of the defense — the line, linebackers and secondary — requires help as it transitions to coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme.
Speaking of Williams, he told 92.3 The Fan at the Senior Bowl he would be “shocked” if the Browns weren’t aggressive in free agency a year after they were the opposite. Williams will undoubtedly lobby for some players who have been in his system.
Free agency, to some degree, will dictate how the Browns approach the draft.
But the presumed options for the Browns at No. 1 overall can pretty much be narrowed down to Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen or a trade down.
A quarterback could be the exception, though Jackson’s determination to avoid another disastrous season points to a veteran coming aboard before the draft. That would decrease the likelihood of one being chosen first in what has widely been labeled a weak QB draft headlined by passers who aren’t expected to be ready to start immediately.
Although almost all draft analysts consider Garrett the heavy favorite to become the top pick, the front office likes Allen, too. Jackson has said Williams will also have a huge role in determining which elite defender the organization should prefer.
If the grades are equal, Garrett would likely be viewed as more valuable because he’s a pure edge rusher, the most important position in the NFL other than QB. Allen’s versatility is appealing, but he might be best served as a three-technique on the inside of Williams’ four-man base front.
Then there’s the possibility that the Browns won’t pick anyone at No. 1.
Neither Jackson nor Brown has ruled out trading down from the top spot. Trading down to stockpile more picks is a hallmark of analytics, and the first two selections were dealt last year. Of course, it was the Browns’ analytics-driven front office that moved down from No. 2 with quarterback Carson Wentz there for the taking.
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