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Browns braintrust 'not panicked' on free-agency results

"You sometimes may have to take a step backward to take two steps forward," new Browns coach Hue Jackson said about building a winning roster. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

One of the biggest topics for the Cleveland Browns' new management team at last week's NFL meetings was how it has handled free agency.

On the first day, four starters left (OT Mitchell Schwartz, FS Tashaun Gipson, C Alex Mack, WR Travis Benjamin). Last week, a fifth departed (ILB Craig Robertson).

The Browns have added quarterback Robert Griffin III to go with linebacker Demario Davis and safety Rahim Moore. When Davis signed, Karlos Dansby was released.

By almost every measure, the players the team lost are better than the ones signed. ProFootballFocus.com gave the Browns a D-plus for their free-agency approach, saying the team lost six key contributors "without adding any players of note." (The grade came before Griffin was added.)

Coach Hue Jackson was asked point-blank: What do you say to people who maintain that a three-win team doesn't get better by letting starters leave?

He started his answer by saying that he, vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, director of strategy Paul DePodesta and head of player personnel Andrew Berry all wanted to keep those players. He also said those players made the decision to leave and sometimes the Browns will "lose those battles."

"And that's OK if we're building this the right way, if our plan is in place right now to understand where we need to be," Jackson said. "And I think sometimes everybody has to understand you sometimes may have to take a step backward to take two steps forward. I think everybody's looking at, 'Oh, wow, you guys took 10 steps back,' and I respect that.

"But I also know that we're going to take 10 steps forward. We wish them well. They were great Browns, and they'll do great where they are. But we will recover and move forward."

However, Griffin and Schwartz illustrate a disconnect the Browns seem to have created on their own. They say they want to keep their own, but just let their own leave.

The Browns did not want to pay Schwartz $7 million per year after free agency started, and he's one of the better players at his position in the league. They were willing to give Griffin a two-year contract worth $7.5 million per year. He didn't play a down in 2015.

In quarterback money, that's cheap.

In terms of building a team that wants to keep its own, the Browns gave money to another team's player that it would not give to one it drafted who has not missed a snap in four years.

The Browns insist they are not rebuilding.

"We're not panicked," Brown said. "We're not necessarily taking it all the way down to the studs or a scorched-earth policy for anybody who's over 30, but we are going to build it kind of methodically."

The football decisions belong to Jackson, Brown and Berry. DePodesta, whose title is strategy, said his role was "more from a philosophical standpoint and plan standpoint."

He added that the Browns are simply not to the point where it's meaningful to retain the bulk of their players.

"Honestly I think the hardest part about two weeks ago [when free agency started] is just staying disciplined," DePodesta said. "These are good players. We all knew they were good players.

"We want to get to that point where we have enough of a critical mass of our core guys that it makes sense to retain them all, and I think that's the difference that you had asked about, which is it sounds a little hollow that you want to draft and retain your own and here you didn't in this particular case.

"I don't think we've gotten to this critical mass of young players yet to really build that core. I think that's what we want to do.

"We're excited about the picks we had last year, the ones we're going to have this year, even the ones now we're going to have next year, but staying disciplined to that plan is not easy.

"That day, I think we all felt like, this is going to be our hardest day, and if we can get past this, then it's looking up from here, which is good."

Staying disciplined, he said, meant remaining unemotional, looking at things in terms of the plan discussed and formed.

"You get into those moments of free agency and it can become emotional," DePodesta said. "'If we just go a little bit further, we can get this guy or that guy, and that's a slippery slope.'

"I think once you start going down that road, you can look up a week or two later and say, 'Oh my gosh we're in a totally different place than we wanted to be back when we talked about this in February or January.'"