<
>

Unencumbered by player contract problems, Browns GM John Dorsey can jump-start roster upgrades with productive fre- agent signings

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

The gifts: New Browns GM John Dorsey has to be the envy of his peers.

He inherits a league-high $110 million in salary cap room and 12 draft picks, including two in the overall top four selections, and five of the top 64.

So Dorsey and his staff of seasoned personnel executives are loaded to do a lot of positive roster-building in a short amount of time.

There is one more gift bequeathed Dorsey from Sashi Brown, his fired predecessor. Dorsey has a young roster remarkably clean of salary cap problems.

There are no contract headaches needing to be smoothed over, no key player needing to be restructured or purged. And there is only one starting player whose expired contract allows him to leave in free agency – running back Isaiah Crowell.

Of course, the corollary of this is a roster of stars whose contracts increasingly become problematic. Better team, bigger headaches.

Look at the Browns’ rivals. Baltimore has 11 pending unrestricted free agents, including four starting offensive players. Cincinnati has 11, depending on an arbitrator’s ruling on backup quarterback AJ McCarron on Thursday. Pittsburgh has nine, including an annual stare-down with 2017 franchised running back LeVeon Bell.

Dorsey’s one potential major loss is franchise left tackle Joe Thomas to retirement. Thomas, 33, is expected to soon inform the Browns of his decision whether to retire or come back from a torn triceps tendon and worsening back and knee issues. Either way, Thomas’ heir has to be found – and that’s not a new problem.

Thirty day countdown: The bottom line is Dorsey has the means to drastically improve the roster, and it can start in free agency with the beginning of the 2018 league year on March 14.

Dorsey and his staff discussed tentative plans in free agency a month ago before it departed for the Senior Bowl. In interviews, Dorsey has said the Browns will be “smart and prudent” in spending. (They all say that, by the way.)

But Dorsey also has a charge to add experience to the roster, and that gives him a golden ticket to use in free agency.

Four to watch: As always, a few wise acquisitions in free agency can lessen the pressure to draft for need. There is no “best player available” dictum in free agency. In free agency, it’s all about filling needs with the right player – not necessarily the biggest name or the biggest contract.

The positions I feel the Browns would most benefit from filling with the right veteran player are quarterback, wide receiver, free safety and defensive end.

Here are four suggestions to fill those positions.

Quarterback: Case Keenum.

Keenum was the quintessential journeyman (9-15 career record with the Texans and Rams) in five NFL seasons before winning 11 of 14 starts with the Vikings last year. While it’s possible the Vikings re-sign him or veteran-needy teams pursue him, it’s more likely that his remarkable 2017 season would be seen as a complete lark.

That’s OK because the Browns simply can’t compete with playoff-caliber teams for a starting quarterback. It might be a come-down for Keenum to “settle” for the Browns in 2018, but he checks the boxes for what they should be looking for.

He’s soon to turn 30 and now has winning experiences to bring to the locker room and quarterback room. He appears to have the right temperament to share his wisdom with a high draft choice. He shouldn’t be expecting to break the bank, but he would probably command close to $50 million in a three-year deal.

Wide receiver: Albert Wilson.

This isn’t a blue-chip year for free agent receivers, and, of course, there are bigger names out there: Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins, even Terrelle Pryor.

Wilson would be a concession to the adage that the new GM is going to sign somebody from his former team. Wilson, 25, is a second-tier receiver, an undrafted free agent of the Kansas City Chiefs who is coming off career highs in receptions (42), yards (554) and touchdowns (three). Modest numbers, but he is a player on the rise who finished 2017 by catching 10 of 11 targets from Patrick Mahomes for 147 yards.

At 5-9 and 202 pounds, Wilson projects as a No. 3 receiver at best. Dorsey would have to have a strong conviction on what Wilson’s four years experience would add to the mix, because productive slot receivers could be found in the middle of the draft.

Free safety: Lamarcus Joyner.

When Gregg Williams was Rams defensive coordinator, he used the 5-8, 190-pound Joyner as a nickel cornerback. In three seasons in that role, Joyner was OK.

When Wade Phillips replaced Williams, he moved Joyner to free safety and Joyner took to the position and produced an excellent year, turning in the first three interceptions of his career.

The Browns need a center-fielder safety with great range. Joyner filled that role for the Rams. If Williams is comfortable with Joyner as his “angel” safety position, then Jabrill Peppers could move into the box as a disruptive strong safety.

You can argue that a greater need for the Browns in the secondary is for a “shutdown” cornerback. It’s more cost-efficient to find that player in the draft.

Defensive end: Adrian Clayborn.

When healthy, Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah are a nice pair of bookend pass rushers. But certainly the end rotation can use an experienced rusher and run defender. Clayborn would fill that bill.

Clayborn, 30, was a first-round pick of the Buccanners in 2011 who underperformed because of injuries in four seasons with them. He was healthier the past two seasons with the Falcons. Clayborn had 9.5 sacks in 2017, but six came in one game against the Cowboys.

It is risky signing a free agent on his third team. But Clayborn shouldn’t break the bank and his experience would be welcome in the defensive line room.