Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Clock ticking: The Browns chose not to use a franchise or transition tag to keep one of their potential free agents, and now have four days to negotiate with them before other teams enter the picture.
Deadlines often force deals. But what if the new Browns management regime strikes out and loses all four starters heading to free agency?
Both coach Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown, executive vice president of football operations, have said they’re not panicked about losing any of them.
Let’s take a closer look at the prospects if these four players do not re-sign with the Browns.
Wide receiver Travis Benjamin
Why keep him: He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL and, as new assistant coach Pep Hamilton recently pointed out, one of two play-makers on the offensive roster (tight end Gary Barnidge being the other). Only 26, he is coming off a career year (69 receptions, 966 yards, five touchdowns) and – oh, by the way – leads all active players in career punt return average (12.6 yards) since he entered the league as a fourth-round pick in 2012.
Draft outlook: The last two drafts were rich in elite wide receiver talent. This one is not. The best is Laquon Treadwell of Mississippi. Corey Coleman of Baylor may be the only other receiver taken in the first round. The next wave includes Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller of Ohio State, Josh Doctson of Texas Christian, Will Fuller of Notre Dame and Tyler Boyd of Pittsburgh.
Free agency outlook: With the Bears franchise tagging Alshon Jeffery, Benjamin is considered the No. 2 available wideout. No. 1 is Marvin Jones of the Bengals. Another ex-Bengal who should interest Jackson is Mohamed Sanu. Other free agent wideouts include Reuben Randle (Giants), Jermaine Kearse (Seahawks), Malcom Floyd (Chargers), Brandon Tate (Bengals).
Free safety Tashaun Gipson
Why keep him: Worked his way from undrafted free agent in 2012 to Pro Bowl selection in 2014. Had a bad year in 2015. Since 2013, he is fourth in the NFL with 13 interceptions. He’s only 25. When on his game, he is the rare ball-hawking safety who can, and will, be a physical tackler.
What’s left on the roster: The heir to Gipson is Jordan Poyer, 24, who made four starts in his third year with the Browns in 2015.
Draft outlook: Jalen Ramsey of Florida State could lay claim to the “best player in the draft” and may be considered for the No. 1 overall pick by Tennessee. The rest of the free safeties are projected after the first round: Darian Thompson of Boise State, Sean Davis of Maryland, DeAndre-Houston Carson of William & Mary, and Keanu Neal of Florida.
Free agency outlook: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is familiar with Tennessee’s Michael Griffin, 31, who will be entering his 10th NFL season in 2016. Others include: Eric Weddle (Chargers), Reggie Nelson (Bengals), Walter Thurmond (Eagles), Rashard Johnson (Cardinals), Rodney McLeod (Rams), Louis Delmas (Dolphins) and Robert Golden (Steelers).
Center Alex Mack
Why keep him: One of the few Browns who justified his first-round draft status, he earned three Pro Bowl berths in six years. He was excelling in the lateral-movement, zone-blocking scheme of former coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2014 until a broken leg sidelined him. Without him, the offense collapsed. He is expected to notify the Browns of his desire to opt out of the final three years of his contract by Friday’s deadline.
What’s left on the roster: In anticipation of Mack opting out, the Ray Farmer regime drafted Cam Erving with the 19th overall pick of the 2015 draft. Erving was considered the best center of last year’s draft, but only played guard as a rookie, and struggled. If the new coaches are unconfident about assigning Erving the protection call responsibilities of center, they could move guard John Greco to center full time and slide Erving to guard.
Draft outlook: There may be only four centers taken in the first four rounds. In order, they would be Ryan Kelly of Alabama, Nick Martin of Notre Dame, Jack Allen of Michigan State, and Max Tuerk of Southern California.
Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz
Why keep him: He never missed a snap starting four years at right tackle for coaches Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine. In perhaps his finest game on Oct. 18, he limited future Super Bowl MVP Von Miller to no sacks and only one quarterback hurry in an overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 18.
What’s left on the roster: The only developmental tackle prospect on the roster is Darrian Miller. Erving, conceivably, could play right tackle – in a pinch.
Draft outlook: At least 25 tackles may be drafted over the seven-plus rounds. After the undisputed top tackle, Laramey Tunsil of Mississippi, the best of the rest are Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame, Taylor Decker of Ohio State, Jack Conklin of Michigan State, Shon Coleman of Auburn, Jason Spriggs of Indiana, German Ifedi of Texas A&M, LeRaven Clark of Texas Tech, Jerald Hawkins of Louisiana State, John Theus of Georgia and Kyle Murphy of Stanford. They should be taken in the first three rounds.