CLEVELAND — With the 2016 NFL free agency period set to officially begin on Wednesday, March 9th, teams will be able to finally either adding that final piece to the championship puzzle or make the leap from division doormat to contender.
In the case of the Cleveland Browns, armed with $42.2 million dollars worth of cap space, there are a number of areas that they could choose to upgrade or replace in the positions of wide receiver (Travis Benjamin), offensive line (Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz), quarterback (Johnny Manziel) and at defensive back (Tashaun Gipson).
With needs at these areas, look for the Browns to pursue some top and second-tier free agents in the opening days of free agency. Below are my top free agent targets for Cleveland, and who I think they will likely land.
* = 2015 salary cap hit provided by Spotrac
Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Perhaps the No.1 target for the wide-receiver starved Browns, Jones would be an immediate upgrade to an otherwise pedistrian corps. At 6’2 and 195 pounds, the former 2012 fifth-round pick out of Cal had a breakout year opposite All-Pro A.J. Green in catching 65 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns. A big fan of new head coach Hue Jackson and familiar with his West Coast offense, Jones and his skill set would pay big dividends in Cleveland.
More than likely, Cleveland would have to overpay for his services. (cap hit = $700,700)
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: If Marvin Jones is 1A or the Browns free agent wish list, then his soon-to-be former teammate in former 2012 third-round pick out of Rutgers in Mohamed Sanu is 1B. As a fan of his from his time with the Scarlet Knights, Sanu may not have the graceful athleticism of Green or the raw speed and physicality of Jones, but the shifty 6’2, 210–pounder is versatile enough to be used in the backfield, in the slot, on the outside and even at quarterback. While he only caught 33 passes for 394 yards are not eye-dropping, his versatility—and familiarity with Hue Jackson—will likely be a big selling point.
Don’t be shocked if the Browns go hard after Sanu, if Jones signs elsewhere. (cap hit = $1,682,813)
Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos: Heir apparent to The Ol’ Sheriff, or biggest free-agent prize? That is the dilemma that faces the former 6’7, 240–pound Arizona State standout and Super Bowl winner. In seven games filling in for Peyton Manning, Osweiler threw for 1,967 yards, ten touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 86.4 Likely to garner a lot of attention due to his height, size, age (25) and untapped potential, Osweiler will likely be the center of what will be a heavy bidding war for QB-needy teams such as Cleveland. (cap hit = $1,118,944)
Danny Trevathan, ILB, Denver Broncos: While the possibility of free agent linebacker James Laurinatis could also be in play, there is something appealing to a younger and freshly-minted Super Bowl-winning linebacker that will be sure to draw teams to overpay.
At the age of 25, Trevathan was a key member of the Broncos’ defense that smothered and corralled Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50.
A Youngstown, Ohio native, the 6’1, 240–pound former Kentucky Wildcat had two fumble recoveries in Denver’s 24–10 win over Carolina and for the season, had 109 total tackles, two interceptions in 15 starts. (cap hit = $1,568,018)
Reggie Nelson, FS, Cincinnati Bengals: What better way to replace one ball-hawking free safety in Gipson with another in the league leader in interceptions (8) in Reggie Nelson. Nelson, a former 2007 first-round pick out of Florida drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Nelson has developed into one of the game’s best free safeties with a knack for finding the football, as he has 30 picks in his ten-year career. Likely to leave Cincinnati in free agency, he—among with possibly the forementioned Sanu, Jones and possibly Adam Jones—could be part of a massive Queen City exodus up I-71 to Cleveland. (cap hit = $4,775,000)
Stefen Wisniewski, C, Jacksonville Jaguars: One of the top centers in free agency, Cleveland could look to let Pro Bowler Alex Mack walk and sign the younger—and just as talented—Wisnieski. Graded as a better run-blocker and one of the best centers in the league, the 26–year-old former second round pick out of Penn State would ensure that there would be no dropoff on the o-line.
Plus, if Cleveland were to draft a quarterback, they’d have one of the best in the business up front in the 6’3, 307–pound Wisniewski. (cap hit = $2,500,000)
Andre Smith, RT, Cincinnati Bengals: ANOTHER ex-Bengal that may find himself in Cleveland thanks to his former offensive coordinator, former 2009 first-round pick, Andre Smith would complete a proverbial Cleveland raid on ex-Cincinnati players. Regarded as one of the NFL’s best strong side protectors, the 29–year-old massive 6’4, 335–pound Smith would be a perfect fit for Hue Jackson’s West Coast offense and provide a much-needed upgrade over the outgoing Mitchell Schwartz. (cap hit = $6,362,500)
Conclusion: It is no secret that many players that I have mentioned are from new head coach Hue Jackson’s former team in the division champion Cincinnati Bengals. While this is all mere speculation and a glorified wish list right now, don’t rule out the influence that Jackson had on Cincinnati’s prolific offense and the relationship he had with offensive players such as Jones, Sanu and Smith. While Nelson is from the other side of the ball, Jackson’s reputation as a “player’s coach” has earned him universal respect throughout the league to the point where some former players may actually follow up up to Cleveland.
Combine that with Bengals owner Mike Brown’s storied frugalness in spending in free agency and the chance to cash in on a big payday, and don’t be too shocked to see the 2016–17 Browns have a Cincinnati flavor to them—minus the Skyline chili of course!
Bottom line is that all of the players mentioned are young—and are set to enter their prime—have low cap hits from the following year, which means that Cleveland can target them without necessarily breaking the bank. Hopefully the prospect of being the part of something special is enough to entice them.
We shall see soon enough.