Poised for free agency, Browns agree to terms with Fraley

Updated: March 2, 2007, 12:21 AM ET
Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- Shortly before trying to entice other free agents, the Cleveland Browns took care of one of their own.

They reached preliminary agreement on a four-year contract with center Hank Fraley, who rescued the Browns last season after they lost LeCharles Bentley to a career-threatening knee injury.

Financial terms were not immediately available late Thursday from agent Ralph Cindrich.

Fraley provided stability last season, starting all 16 games after being acquired from Philadelphia for a 2008 draft pick. Before Fraley's arrival, the Browns went through five centers trying to fill Bentley's spot.

With Bentley expected to miss another season, the Browns needed to lock up a seasoned center quickly and didn't want to risk losing Fraley to another team.

Browns general manager Phil Savage was to begin sending contract proposals at 12:01 a.m. Friday to the agents for several top-flight free agents, including cornerback Nate Clements and guard Eric Steinbach.

Last year, the Browns spent more than $100 million on eight players and got little return for their investment.

That's not going to stop them from doing it again.

Coming off a brutal 4-12 season, the Browns are hoping to upgrade both lines and land a shutdown cornerback.

"If you get the one player, or one of the two available (at a position), then you feel you're doing OK," Savage said last week. "I don't know if any position is five or six deep. If you miss out on the first two or three guys at any spot, you're missing the boat on a significant upgrade."

The Browns' first target will be Clements, a Cleveland native and former Ohio State standout who made one Pro Bowl in five seasons with Buffalo. He is arguably the top available free agent in what is a thinner-than-usual market.

Clements has said he wants to be the top-paid player at his position. Denver's Champ Bailey set the standard for cornerbacks when he signed a seven-year, $63 million contract with the Broncos in 2004. That deal included an $18 million bonus.

The Browns may have to dish out even more.

With teams having additional money to spend under a record $109 million salary cap thanks to a new TV deal and the league's labor extension with players, Cleveland will have to outbid several other teams including Washington and Tennessee for Clements.

"You try to keep from being gun shy," Savage said. "You want to go ahead and get out there. We've got the cap room ($30 million) to do it. We're picking high in the draft. So we're going to keep working at it and try to get more right than wrong."

One plus in talks with Clements is that the Browns don't have to sell the championship-starved city to one of its sons or his agent, Todd France.

A year ago, the Browns made an early splash in free agency by signing Bentley, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and punter Dave Zastudil -- all grew up in the Cleveland area -- and getting Clements would continue that homecoming vibe.

"The local ties help," Savage said. "I think you have to really want to be here."

Despite Cleveland's many problems the past few seasons, Jurevicius, who signed a four-year deal with the Browns to fulfill a lifelong dream, is confident the club will be able to lure free agents.

"Honestly, money talks sometimes," he said. "If the money is there, who is going to turn that down? There's a rich history of football here and I think guys see the talent that we have."

Browns coach Romeo Crennel, signing autographs at a car show, said much of the groundwork for free agency was done during last week's combine in Indianapolis. But even the most detailed plans can go askew once the bidding starts.

"You really don't know what it's going to be like," he said. "You might feel really good about a guy and then you get shot out of the water overnight."

As the start of free agency approached, several teams unloaded big-name players, giving the market a fresh and changing look. Crennel said the Browns would consider anyone available, including Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter.

"Everybody should be interested in Joey, particularly 3-4 teams," he said. "Along with that, you also have to look at what it's going to cost for some of those guys. Joey is into it late now so we have to see how he would fit."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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