Javon Hargrave, a defensive tackle with the Eagles, would be a premier signing for the Browns in free agency.
These are the players the Browns might consider in free agency
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
NFL free agency frenzy kicks off Monday with the so-called legal tampering period.
For the Browns, the good news is their adjusted salary cap for 2023 is about $27 million above the league cap of $224.8 million. That’s because they carried over unused cap space of about $28 million from last season.
The bad news is the Browns are still about $13 million OVER the cap.
They must comply with the cap by the start of the 2023 league year on Wednesday. They will do that primarily by converting Deshaun Watson’s $55 million base salary to a signing bonus and minimum NFL salary. That hocus-pocus maneuver alone will instantly put the Browns about $22 million UNDER the cap.
The anticipated release of safety John Johnson will be designated a post-June 1 release, which means the move won’t give the Browns $9.75 million in cap relief until then.
GM Andrew Berry might have other minor player transactions in store to create more room under the cap for spending. If not, his budget would be limited to about $22 million.
That, of course, is the room available on the 2023 cap and takes into account only the 2023 salary cap figures for any new acquisitions.
If Berry hands out a $60 million contract to a free agent next week, only the first-year cap number affects this year’s cap, and it will be relatively small. That’s why players seldom see the entire life of their free agent deals. They are constructed to be cheaper to the team over the first two seasons, and much more expensive after that..
So, which positions will Berry address in free agency?
The obvious areas of need are at defensive tackle (two, perhaps), defensive end, linebacker, free safety, wide receiver, and backup quarterback.
The way free agency has evolved is you target the highest-priced purchases in the first 72 hours of the signing period, and then peck away at bargains over the following weeks. You want to address as many needs as possible prior to the draft (April 27-29). You use the draft to fill a few more needs – “best player available” is a myth -- and then finish off the transaction season with another wave of discount shopping in free agency.
The full list of unrestricted free agents won’t be known until Monday. Teams are still sorting out their rosters, trying to re-sign some of their own eligible free agents while releasing players into the pool of unsigned players.
In this column, we are going to offer some possibilities for Berry to consider. Look at the following as a dinner menu.
* Wide receiver Darius Slayton, New York Giants: He posted a 4.39 40 at the 2019 Combine and then looked like a great fourth-round draft pick, putting up 48 catches and eight touchdowns as a rookie. He had only seven TDs over the next three seasons and was buried on the depth chart. His speed would help, but, as is the case with most receivers from Auburn, drops are an issue. Which is why he’ll be available at a moderate price.
* Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, Dallas Cowboys: Soon to be 31, the 10-year veteran is most effective as a rotational player inside. He’s been on the one-year, prove-it deal train for two years now and can provide some leadership as an inside penetrator. At 6-3, 320, he can be stout against the run in limited snaps. Two years ago with the Raiders, he destroyed Browns center JC Tretter on consecutive plays to make run stops and force a punt with the game on the line, leading to a Raiders’ game-winning field goal.
* Quarterback Josh Dobbs, Tennessee Titans: After an impressive preseason with the Browns, he got some much-needed game experience with the Tennessee Titans as an emergency starter in the Titans’ final two games. He did well enough to earn a return with the Browns to compete for the role as Deshaun Watson’s backup. Dobbs could probably be signed for under $2 million on a one-year deal.
* Defensive end Arden Key, Jacksonville Jaguars: A third-round pick of the Raiders in 2018, Key bombed as a rookie but occasionally flashes the pass-rush potential he showed at LSU, a favorite college training ground for the Browns. On one-year deals the past two seasons, he notched 6.5 and 4.5 sacks with the 49ers and Jaguars, respectively. Either figure would have ranked second on the Browns’ sack total in 2022.
* Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles: With Da’Ron Payne franchised by the Washington Commanders, Hargrave would be the top tackle available if the Eagles don’t re-sign him by Wednesday. A great third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was an even greater free-agent signing of the Eagles in 2020. He capped his third season in Philadelphia with a career-high 11 sacks. Projected price tag, per Spotrac.com: three years, $60.5 million.
* Defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, Denver Broncos: The St. Ignatius High School and Ohio State product might be lighter (280 pounds) than what defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers in the interior of his defensive line. Jones averaged 5.5 sacks a year in his four seasons in Denver. The Broncos passed on franchising him. He’s liable to approach $18 million a year with his next team.
* Free safety Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals: He played under the franchise tag in 2022 and produced a career-high four interceptions. He missed only two games in five years with the Bengals and has been an anchor of Cincinnati’s under-rated defense. Spotrac.com projects Bates with a market value of $56.2 million over four years – far more expensive than John Johnson, whom the Browns discarded after two seasons.
* Wide receiver Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs: He might be the best fit among an underwhelming receiver market, projecting at $40 million over four years. He had 4.33 speed at the 2019 Combine, but never had 700 receiving yards in four seasons playing with Patrick Mahomes. He’ll only be 25 on March 12.
* Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Eagles: A venerable mainstay of two Eagles Super Bowl teams, he had some of the best seasons of his 11 years when Schwartz was his defensive coordinator. At 32, the four-time All-Pro clearly is on the downside. But his seven sacks in 2022 were the third-most of his career, and if he wants to keep competing rather than just collect a paycheck, he could provide valuable leadership on a short-term contract.
* Defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Las Vegas Raiders: A surprise No. 4 overall pick in 2019, Ferrell is considered a Raiders draft pick bust, registering only 10 sacks in four seasons. But he’s only 25 and may thrive in a new environment.
* Wide receiver Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts: Another local (Akron St. V-St. M) and Ohio State product. After three injury-riddled seasons, he hit his stride in 2022 and teased what may lie ahead in his career. His 4.31 40 time helped make him a second-round draft pick in 2019. A one-year, prove-it deal would make him a value pickup.
* Linebacker David Long, Tennessee Titans: Under-sized (5-11, 227), he missed 12 games his last two seasons with the Titans because of soft-tissue injuries. He had his best season last year with Schwartz as a senior defensive assistant in Tennessee. He might agree to a one-year deal to bolster his free agency market in 2024.