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Prioritizing the Browns' possible free agents

The Cleveland Browns were wise to sign tight end Gary Barnidge to a contract extension late in the 2015 season. Now the Browns can take further steps to ensure a smoother transition of regimes.

In the recent past, the team ignored many of its own free agents and allowed players such as Jabaal Sheard, T.J. Ward and Buster Skrine to leave via free agency.

That created more needs than a bad team already had and was totally illogical. The lack of coherent thinking on these decisions was driven home when Ward made two big plays to help the Broncos win the Super Bowl and when Sheard played in the AFC Championship Game.

Two guys on the best teams in the league weren't considered valuable enough to keep in Cleveland.

Yes, the Browns finished 3-13 with these players, so they can just as easily do that without them. But a team with that record needs to build on the players it has who contribute, not create more needs on top of the ones that are there.

Here's how I'd prioritize the Browns' potential free agents:

1) C Alex Mack. The decision on whether to become a free agent belongs to Mack. He can opt out of his contract if he so chooses. However, he is due to make $8 million in salary and bonuses in each of the next three seasons. That money is not guaranteed to be there on the open market. Mack is a steadying influence on the line, and he bounced back from a bad injury in 2014 to go to the Pro Bowl last season. The Browns' new regime of executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown and coach Hue Jackson needs to convince Mack that staying put is the best move.

2) OT Mitchell Schwartz. It seems in Cleveland that Schwartz is treated like a punching bag rather than being respected for being a pretty good right tackle. Schwartz is not Joe Thomas, but the great majority of tackles are not. Schwartz is a dependable, durable right tackle. He's the kind of player the analytics would favor keeping. Right tackles don't fall down from heaven. The Browns need to keep him.

3) WR Travis Benjamin. Benjamin accomplished last season what many thought he couldn't: Prove he is not too wispy to be an every-down receiver. Benjamin started 15 games and had more 68 catches for 966 yards. He's valuable as a returner. And his professionalism is greatly underrated. At 172 pounds, Benjamin still has to prove he can take the pounding for several years, but a creative offensive coach like Jackson should be able to use a versatile and fast player like Benjamin. A team lacking playmakers doesn't need to lose its best one.

4) FS Tashaun Gipson. Gipson did not have as good of a season in 2015 as he did in 2014, so he probably won't get the big contract he hoped he'd get when he signed a one-year tender offer last spring. But Gipson does something defensive coaches love: He creates turnovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was a big fan of Gipson's when he was in Cleveland a couple of years back. Horton would no doubt like to see him stay.