<
>

Browns actions in free agency tip off pending announcement on Joe Thomas' future

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

Takeaways from the first day of NFL free agency (although nothing is official until Wednesday) …

1. Waiting on Joe: Joe Thomas said he would give the Browns an answer on his future by the start of free agency. So free agency unofficially started on Tuesday – dozens of players across the league reportedly agreed to terms with new teams – but there was no announcement from Thomas or the Browns. Is Thomas holding up the Browns’ plans? Hardly. The team reportedly agreed to deals with two veteran offensive tackles – Chris Hubbard of the Steelers (five years, $37.5 million, $18 million guaranteed) and Donald Stephenson of the Broncos (one year, $2.5 million). At an awards banquet at the Music Box Supper Club Tuesday night, Thomas declined to speak to quote-starved, waiting media and ducked out after the event through back channels.

2. The holdup: So what’s holding up Thomas’ seemingly inevitable retirement announcement? It’s all good. Recall that in November the Browns – then headed by Sashi Brown -- gave Thomas what amounted to “free money” as a gesture of their appreciation to his loyalty and the fact he was underpaid. He received a $1.5 million bonus at that time and a new $3 million added to the last year of his contract in 2018 in the form of a roster bonus payable on the fifth day of the new year, or March 19. If Thomas retires, the Browns conceivably could recoup a pro-rated portion of the bonus money. But if Thomas strings out his decision past March 19, he conceivably could earn the $3 million roster bonus and then perhaps retire after failing a physical at a later date. Although the Browns and Thomas have maintained there has been no decision made about Thomas’ future, there has been business conversation about how to handle his retirement financially. I’ve been told that the most likely scenario is the Browns will let Thomas keep the full $1.5 million signing bonus and Thomas will retire before the $3 million roster bonus is due. The team and Thomas are expected to jointly announce Thomas’ decision by the end of the week. GM John Dorsey is skipping pro day workouts of Baker Mayfield (Wednesday) and Josh Rosen (Thursday), largely due to free agency.

3. The heir-apparents: Although the Browns reportedly were still in the hunt for Patriots free agent Nate Solder – the only accomplished veteran left tackle available – their reported agreements with Hubbard and Stephenson gave them options to replace Thomas in the short term. Hubbard, 26, is an undrafted free agent success story of the Steelers who impressed many filling in at right tackle for Marcus Gilbert for 10 games last year. He’s undersized by today’s standards for left tackle at 6-4 and 286 pounds, but was given a starter’s contract, so he could move to right tackle. That would free up Shon Coleman to compete with Stephenson at left tackle. In the 2017 training camp, Thomas said that he could see Coleman as his eventual replacement. Stephenson, 6-6 and 312, is a former Kansas City third-round pick. Dorsey did not draft him – Dorsey arrived in Kansas City a year later – but he saw Stephenson make 26 starts at left and right tackle over the ensuing four seasons. In theory, Coleman and Stephenson could be joined by a high draft choice to compete in the 2018 training camp at left tackle. The rookie, however, would be a distant longshot.

4. Quarterback tracker conclusion: Six veteran free agent quarterbacks changed teams on Tuesday. When the dust settled on the reported contracts, Dorsey’s trade on Friday for Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor appeared to be a smart transaction for the Browns. Dorsey acquired Taylor for a third-round pick (overpayment) and inherited a $16 million contract (not overpayment) for 2018. The deals reportedly agreed to on Tuesday – Kirk Cousins to Minnesota ($86 million/three years), Sam Bradford to Arizona ($20 million/one year), Case Keenum to Denver ($36 million/two years), Josh McCown to the Jets ($10 million/one year), Teddy Bridgewater to the Jets (undisclosed/one year). Taylor’s $16 million currently ranks tied for 21st with Andy Dalton in annual compensation average, per figures on overthecap.com. Incidentally, when the music stopped on Tuesday, AJ McCarron was still without a team. But possible trade-ups for quarterbacks could leave the Browns a choice of the two cornerbacks along with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb.

5. Cornerback shutdown: The Browns reportedly intend to start newly arrived Damarious Randall, via trade with Green Bay, at free safety. That decision intensified their desire to sign a No. 1 cornerback in free agency. But they were shut out on Tuesday, losing co-frontrunners Trumaine Johnson to the Jets ($60 million/four years) and Bashaud Breeland to the Panthers ($24 million/three years). The next-best cornerback, Malcolm Butler, agreed with the Titans ($61 million/five years). So all of that was a dose of reality to the Browns, who had been riding high since their four trades last weekend. Without a legit No. 1 cornerback left from the free agent scraps, the Browns may still be facing a decision with their No. 4 pick between Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.