Playing ‘Deal or No Deal’ With Cleveland Browns Free Agents

Holding the No. 2 overall pick creates heaps of hype and promise, but the new Cleveland Browns regime must ace their first free agency period before they ever get to being on the clock.

In order to build a competitive NFL roster, teams have to find a balance between drafting and cultivating talent, finding hidden gems, and then retaining those players. The Browns find themselves in a difficult situation this season as many of those homegrown talents will hit the open market. They’re free to leave to pursue more lucrative, or what some might call more competitive ventures elsewhere.

Before their unrestricted free agents (UFAs), and eventually restricted players who aren’t tendered and extended offer sheets can sign with new or former teams on March 9, I’ll predict who gets a deal in this Browns version of Deal or No Deal.

 

 

Cleveland Browns Free Agents: Deal or No Deal

Jim Dray, TE (UFA)—No deal, released on Feb. 18

Time for the Browns to find a higher quality second tight end. Look for them to address the position in free agency. Some possibilities include Rhett Ellison, Coby Fleener and Clay Harbor.

 

Craig Robertson, ILB (UFA)—Deal

Robertson has been serviceable and has certainly outplayed his undrafted status that originally brought him to the Cleveland Browns in 2011. He started 14 games for Ray Horton in 2013 while totaling 57 solo tackles and one interception. That familiarity and relative production makes me believe he’s a good bet to be brought back with Horton returning.

But let’s not pretend he’s a top-tier player at the inside linebacker position. I expect him to sign a short-term deal with little guaranteed money.

 

Tashaun Gipson, FS (UFA)—Deal

After contributing minimally as a rookie in 2012, Tashaun Gipson thrived in his second season under Horton, the new—and former—Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator.

Gipson has missed time due to injuries, but when he’s healthy he’s arguably an All Pro safety who can provide his coaches with flexibility due to his roaming and recognition skills.

Finding an agreeable dollar amount with Gipson’s agent has plagued new Cleveland Browns EVP Sashi Brown, though. It was Brown who, in his previous role with the organization, was responsible for negotiating contract extensions.

Something tells me Gipson’s ability, familiarity with Horton, and the team’s dire need for defensive playmakers—assuming he bounces back from an injury-plagued and unspectacular 2015 season—will help get a deal between the two sides done. That’s assuming he’s committed to making that happen.

 

Mitchell Schwartz, OL (UFA)—Deal

Schwartz has easily been a Top 10 right tackle for much of his career and is one of the team’s most important free agents. While it’s debatable, analytical site Pro Football Focus rated him the best right tackle in the NFL for his play in 2015. Their rankings aren’t the end-all of offensive line play, but you can’t discount their work entirely. They are the ones in the weeds watching every snap of every player and assigning number grades to them.

From my perspective, Schwartz was adequate but not perfect last season. No players are, either, at that position. Some emotions run high at times when mistakes are made, but Schwartz is more likely than not getting the job done on most plays.

Being just 27 when the season starts, he’s a candidate for a multi-year contract that’s front-loaded due to the plethora of near-term cap space the Browns have at their disposal.

If he’s willing to sign, letting him walk would be a mistake.

 

Johnson Bademosi, DB (UFA)—Deal

Bademosi is a special teamer ace, but he has no business playing cornerback—and in no universe should he ever be lined up against Antonio Brown. Let’s pretend he was poorly miscast at corner in Jim O’Neil’s defense, laud him for his special teams prowess and hope the new Browns regime sees his special teams value enough to get him re-signed.

He does have potential in the defensive backfield, though, and the team could explore moving him back to safety in a depth role while trying to tap into that.

 

Scott Solomon, OLB (RFA)—Tender

Solomon was a fringe player who was favored by Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil. His lack of experience and proven ability may prevent the team from issuing a tender, but they could re-sign him after the one-year deal if he proves it on the field this season.

 

Tank Carder, ILB (UFA)—No deal

Special Teams coach Chris Tabor got his way and kept Carder again in 2015, but we all saw again he’s not fit or even serviceable when forced into playing linebacker snaps. They need to find a young player with upside who can play special teams and contribute slowly but effectively on defense.

 

Randy Starks, DE (UFA)—No Deal, released on Feb. 18

Time to get John Hughes III and Xavier Cooper on the field more often. Starks is an aging veteran who flashed with some impact plays but was inconsistent and a non-factor for the majority of his logged snaps.

 

Austin Pasztor, OL (RFA)—No tender

Pasztor won’t likely be tendered and will be free to look elsewhere. There’s a possibility, like with Solomon, that the Cleveland Browns bring him back after he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

 

Don Jones, FS (RFA)—No tender

Jones isn’t a good bet to get a tender from the Browns. He’ll likely be replaced.

 

Terrelle Pryor, WR (RFA)—Tender

It’d be smart to issue an original round tender on Pryor—third round, supplemental draft pick. His raw potential and athleticism could morph into production this season, and there’s a good chance Hue Jackson is hoping he can get something out of his new and talented but still developing wide receiver.

 

Pat Devlin, QB (RFA)—No tender

Devlin will surely not be tendered, but he could come back eventually and stick around long enough to throw some passes in training camp. But there are plenty of other “arms for hire” who could fill that role.

 

Travis Benjamin, WR (UFA)—No deal

Benjamin is a specialist, albeit one who came on strong last season in a more expanded role. I still say he is replaceable and a one-dimensional talent whose production can be improved by signing someone or with a draft pick.

Ask yourself if you’d rather retain Benjamin and then draft Michael Thomas in Round 2 of April’s draft, or part ways, sign Marvin Jones and then draft a more complete player like Will Fuller from Notre Dame to fill the gap left by Benjamin. Jones is a proven talent and Fuller is a more well-rounded receiver who possesses game-changing speed.

No brainer.

 

Alex Mack, C (UFA)—No deal

The Browns should allow Mack to test the FA waters and either find out the grass isn’t greener outside Cleveland, or to find another team that’ll overpay the aging offensive lineman. Sure, he’s a vital player in the middle of the Cleveland Browns offensive line and one of the Top 5 in the league at that position, but if he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland or wants to cash out there’s no sense in forcing the issue and paying his ransom to keep him.

Let’s not pretend Mack was back to 100 percent last season, either. The team’s run game was poor, at best, and he’s approaching his peak. It’d be unwise to shell out a large, multi-year deal on a player potentially approaching the downward arch of his career.

I think Brown and his analytics team will see things this way.

 

Stand by, tomorrow I’m posting my no-brainer Browns free agent targets.

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Mike Hoag

Mike Hoag

Managing Editor
Mike Hoag has been covering the Cleveland Browns since 2011. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, SI.com, Cleveland.com, CNN.com, and The Orange and Brown Report.