Having lost more games in a two-year span than any team in NFL history, the Cleveland Browns are in a unique place as teams prepare their free agency strategies.
Their reboot’s near-20-year run of futility at quarterback has made Cleveland a toxic place for signal-callers. The prospects the Browns have selected and veterans they signed have not produced a sufficient answer. It played a large part in why they went 1-31 over the past two seasons and lost 41 of their past 43 games.
But now that the 49ers finished their Jimmy Garoppolo contract, no team is in the Browns’ stratosphere as far as cap space. The Browns are projected to be armed with an incomprehensible $110 million in space. As of Saturday, no other team is slated to hold more than $80M.
The Browns are in position to be an interesting team in March, but the franchise’s early actions don’t reveal a logical plan.
What, exactly, would be the purpose of this beyond Jackson trying to rack up a few wins to save his job?
Exiting a third straight season with a top-two pick, the Browns are poised to finally draft a quarterback. Their current status as a rebuilding team — one whose scorched-earth rebuild effort was altered when its architect was fired midway through it — lends itself well to the No. 1 pick learning on the job.
Of course, the Browns could afford to sign any free agent quarterback they want. Kirk Cousins. Case Keenum (if available). A.J. McCarron (provided the paperwork is up to code). Sam Bradford. The Browns can throw out offers no other team can match. But, again, what’s the point here?
Cousins has repeatedly said he wants a winning situation. The current Browns are as far away from that description as it gets. The team might have to significantly overpay one of the consolation-prize free agent passers to coax him to take a chance on Cleveland and say the right things (i.e., not “I don’t care if it’s Cleveland, I couldn’t turn down that money”) at the press conference.
The Browns could reshape the market as Team Leverage, submitting proposals to these quarterbacks whose agents would then try to gouge better teams. That would certainly make for an interesting wrinkle in March, but the situation would end the same: Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield will be playing quarterback for the Browns by the end of next season.
Going after a starting quarterback now, and following the 2017 Bears’ ill-conceived plan, is a waste of resources — even if the Browns are uniquely in position to foot the cost.
Instead, the Browns need to be ready to control free agency at other positions and help the rookie quarterback rather than guarantee a short-term player eight figures for the upcoming season. That’s the prudent long-term route, but if the Browns seriously offered a second-rounder for Smith — who would have been good enough to hold off any of those aforementioned rookies throughout the season — they are approaching this key window incorrectly.
Cleveland needs to be ready to add several starters in free agency, just not at quarterback.
Jarvis Landry wants No. 1 wideout money? This team can afford it, since its two starting receivers are attached to rookie deals for two more years.
Trumaine Johnson wants to approach the cornerback franchise-tag money he got the past two years? One team can do that. If the Rams don’t franchise Lamarcus Joyner, Cleveland could throw Eric Berry money at him.
Nate Solder or Justin Pugh could easily see $10M-AAV offers to play right tackle, helping to protect the rookie QB-to-be.
If the Cowboys don’t re-sign or tag DeMarcus Lawrence, which seems unlikely, Myles Garrett could see a suddenly wealthy man line up opposite him.
The Browns can augment the free agents they do convince to sign with their five first- or second-round draft picks. John Dorsey has shown the ability to find talent, as Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt illustrate. The Browns have a big opportunity to set their foundation this spring.
If the Browns really are keen on adding a caretaker veteran in case their rookie prize isn’t ready, they should target backup-level QBs or starters whose markets don’t materialize.
Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater qualify as possibilities for the latter category, while Chase Daniel, Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh McCown would make sense as reasonable tutor targets. Daniel and Moore aren’t likely to get opportunities to start, if it is a grooming setup Jackson desires. Fitzpatrick and McCown know their places in the league at this point.
Now that McCarron is an unrestricted free agent, it’s logical to see a team spending Mike Glennon money (or close to it) as a Cousins consolation prize. The Browns having agreed to acquire McCarron last year, though, makes this a legitimate possibility. Again, no team can outmuscle a Browns offer. That would be troubling for the franchise in this case.
Moore, Daniel or even Drew Stanton aren’t going to deter the to-be-determined rookie from learning on the job. The players the Browns passed on improved by getting game reps early. In addition to Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott had a Day 1 opportunity and began to blossom. So did Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
As a player who could, considering his history with Jackson, block the rookie passer all season, McCarron would only delay the Browns from finding out about their future.
After multiple brutal misses, the Browns need to be devoting their resources to determining the best rookie quarterback available.
They don’t need to bother competing with other teams for (assuming Cousins sticks to his guns and turns down a Browns mega-proposal) a player who won’t matter when this team is ready to win.